As his model, Seton cataloged what he felt were virtues of American Indian culture. Keep in mind that he was writing for a White audience often hostile to native history and interests. To his credit, surviving correspondence shows that Seton took an active interest in promoting the political rights of contemporary Indians. But his published writings were mostly about “historic” Indians.
The Indian Seton most admired was one of the more remarkable figures in North American history. Tecumseh, a Shawnee, who through his industry and wisdom, became an important leader in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Playing an important role in complex inter-tribal politics, the decisions he made in peace and war had important implications for Canada, Great Britain, and the United States. A man of the people uninterested in personal wealth, he advocated for the downtrodden (even Whites) and, with his brother, preached the virtues of life lived in harmony with nature. These virtues held the greatest appeal to Seton who believed that North American history would have had a different (and better) outcome had the teachings of Tecumseh prevailed. He wrote in “The Spartans of the West” a section on allegations of cruelty by Indians, giving him an opportunity to introduce the great Shawnee chief:
There are many exceptions to this charge that the Indian is cruel to his enemies, enough, almost, to justify a complete rebuttal, and among these was none more honorably distinguished than Tecumseh, the war chief of the Shawnees; perhaps the greatest of all historic Indians. Like a new incarnation of Hiawatha, he planned a defensive federation of the whole red race, and led them in war, that he might secure for them a lasting peace. All great Indians had taught the doctrine “Love your friends.” But Tecumseh as the first in authority to extend the heaven-taught precept, so they should be kind, at least, to their enemies; for he put an end in his nation to all torturing of prisoners. Above all whose history is fully known, Tecumseh was the ideal noble Redman realized…
Among those aspects of Indian culture found admirable by Seton: a rich spiritual and religious life, an honoring of bodily fitness, reverence for parents, respect for the property of others, a strong sense of morality, a need for honesty in all matters, a commitment to peace and hospitality, and the manifestation of courage, the highest value of all. “He [the Indian] believed that he should so live his life that the fear of death should never enter his heart; that when the last call came he should…meet the end in triumph.” These virtues (and others), taken together are sometimes summarized as “Perennial philosophy,” moral principles generally shared by religious traditions worldwide. Seton recognized the similarities to Christian morality and ethical traditions of ancient Greeks. But since he was writing for an American audience, he felt that the values of courage and honor exemplified by native Americans made for a more relevant model than anything out of European tradition.
I began to wonder how modern scholarship interpreted the life and deeds of Tecumseh. For all that he might have been a “noble Redman,” who was he and what did he represent? He was not interviewed by the press and tragically no authenticated portraits exist. There are, however, many first-hand accounts and one writer, Canadian novelist John Richards, knew Tecumseh when he reached the height of his political influence.
Included in the Academy’s library is a book that belonged to Seton’s daughter, Dee Seton Barber, Tecumseh, A Life. Written by historian John Sugden and published in 1997, the book includes sources known to Seton as well as a vast amount of newer research. Although not a romanticized view, Sugden’s depiction of Tecumseh would seem entirely familiar to Seton.
Sugden tells the history of that sad time in great detail, as well as Tecumseh’s importance to native peoples, but here I am more interested in what he has written about Tecumseh’s character. Sugden’s book is filled with the first-hand accounts from Whites and Indians who knew the Shawnee chief as friend or adversary. They all agree that he conveyed a striking presence from his appearance and ability as an orator, to his sagacity and leadership ability. Among the tribal peoples of that time, chiefs had little authority beyond their personal moral strength, that is, they gathered about them followers for whom they modeled the virtues that exemplified the highest achievements of what Seton would call Lifecraft. According to Sugden, “Everywhere, tribal organization was weak, and the village chiefs had limited ways of enforcing discipline and compliance. They relied upon persuasion, example, and consensus.”
By recognizing the threat White civilization posed to all Indian peoples, Tecumseh worked on a near-continental scale to organize resistance on a cross-cultural scale. Outraged by the unilateral abrogation of treaties by the Whites, Tecumseh reacted with defiance but not with vengeance. He protected non-combatants and disavowed the use of torture as a legitimate act of war – even in the face of genocide by the invading Whites. This strong moral stance did not go unnoticed by Whites or Indians. Apparently this was a lifelong trait, for even as a boy “he gave early evidence of generosity and humanity, as well as the ability to respond to the goodwill he found in individuals.” He believed that Indian land was communally owned and could not be sold by individual chiefs or even by individual tribes. He worked to build a confederacy of tribes to support the belief.
Perhaps Tecumseh’s greatest strength was his unmitigated service to community, first of all to the Shawnees, but over time, to the greater community of all tribal peoples in the Mississippi and Ohio watersheds. His life of service came with a price in terms of personal wealth, inability to achieve a normal family life, and ultimately, losing his own life. Yet for all this, there is no evidence that he held any regret for choosing this course. This example of devoting one’s life to something beyond self interest continues to inspire. Sugden writes, “For Indians today he remains the ultimate symbol not only of courage and endeavor, but also of unity and fraternity.”
Seton was influenced both by his own experience of living close to native peoples in the U.S. and Canada as well as by extensive reading. He probably first read James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757, at an early age. One of the main characters, Chingachgook, is, like Tecumseh, an exemplary warrior, hunter, and moral leader. (Cooper likely would have been familiar with the famous Tecumseh.) Seton was doubtless moved, like other liberals of his generation, by the seminal book on the treatment of natives, A Century of Dishonor, Helen Jackson’s 1885 bleak chronicle of the wars against indigenous peoples. He gave a list of “Standard Indian Books” for further reading in Spartans of the West. These volumes were included in his personal library. Many of the books may be seen in the Academy’s Seton Gallery and Archives. I am always glad to show them when you come by to visit the Gallery and Castle.