Stephen Harper’s interest in communicating his version of Canada’s past has been on full display this year, with his government spending lavishly on celebrations of the War of 1812.
This multi-million dollar effort in “Harper’s History” has included a widely broadcast television ad. The one-minute spot, which looks just like a movie trailer, stars U.S. and British generals barking orders at their soldiers. Off to the side, a serene-looking Indigenous man nods his approval to the British general who is preparing his troops to fire. The voiceover tells us this was “the fight for Canada.”
The more complex truth, however, is that the War of 1812 wasn’t really a fight for Canada. That’s a myth, fostered by the emerging "Family Compact" establishment, that grew in the decades after the conflict, and which today fits perfectly into the Harper government’s wider effort to rebrand Canada as a more militaristic country.
To get past the myth-making to the real facts of history, a good start would be to turn off the vulgar, violent images on TV and pick up and read James Laxer’s Tecumseh & Brock. The book -- flawlessly written, in Laxer’s characteristically accessible style -- situates the military battles in their political and historical context. Laxer tells the story through the lens of the lives of two significant leaders -- a British general and a legendary Shawnee warrior who forged a crucial alliance against U.S. forces.
The shining achievement of Laxer’s work is its treatment of Tecumseh, who has most often been relegated to secondary status or one-dimensional romanticized descriptions. Laxer’s Tecumseh is anything but a quietly nodding junior partner to Isaac Brock and the rest of the British. The Shawnee warrior is, at last, given his full due as a charismatic political leader, a brilliant strategist and a courageous and determined fighter.
Tecumseh & Brock includes rich detail about Tecumseh’s life and the situation faced by the various Indigenous nations and tribes in the early 19th century. This brings to the forefront a crucial piece of context which has been entirely missing from the Harper government’s 1812-fest: Tecumseh wasn’t "fighting for Canada"; he was fighting for an independent Native confederacy. In other words, he hoped to establish an independent Indigenous state in the middle of North America.
As Laxer describes, there were really “two wars in one.” And while both the United States and Canada have claimed the War of 1812 as an historic victory for their respective sides, there’s no disputing that the Indigenous side lost. The dream of a Native confederacy in North America died with Tecumseh.
The U.S. poet Mary Oliver ends her poem "Tecumseh" with the lines: “if we meet him, we'll know it / he will still be / so angry.”
Harper’s history of the War of 1812 doesn’t convey the faintest notion of this reality. But why would it? After all, the war against the Indigenous people of North America has never really ended. It takes different forms today, but it’s still about dispossession -- changing the relations of land and property.
Tecumseh & Brock begins with this quote from the Shawnee leader, which will almost certainly never be seen at an official Canadian government commemoration of the War of 1812:
Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Didn’t the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children? … The only way to stop this evil [loss of land] is for the red man to unite in claiming a common and equal right to the land, as it was first, and should be now, for it was never divided.
Derrick O'Keefe is editor of rabble.ca.
The following is an excerpt from Tecumseh & Brock:
Tecumseh learned an approach to land negotiations that relied on allegories for the commonality of native life. In one allegory, land was presented as a common meal consumed by all, “a dish with one spoon.” The young Tecumseh drew inspiration from the effort to form a common front among native peoples. Here was an attempt to do what had been tried a number of times before — to unite peoples who had different languages and ways of life and a long history of mutual hostility and warfare. In the late seventeenth century, Algonquin tribes had banded together to resist the aggression of the Iroquois. Early in the following century, the Iroquois peoples had cooperated to ensure their mutual security after deals were forced on them by the French and the native allies of the French. Shawnees, Delawares, and Mingoes in the Ohio country made common cause in the mid-eighteenth century to counter threats to their lands from both the British and the French. Another example occurred during Tecumseh’s childhood, when his people allied themselves with other natives and with the British to fight the Kentucky settlers.
With their father gone, it fell to his older brother Cheeseekau to oversee Tecumseh’s personal spiritual journey and groom him to become a warrior who would one day fight to defend native land. He blackened his younger brother’s face and sent him by himself into the woods to fast, meditate, and pray with the goal of finding his guardian spirit. It was customary for the spirit to appear to the young male in the form of a creature, often during a dream or trance. Having discovered his guardian spirit, the adolescent would never reveal it to anyone else. It was a source of power for him alone. The boy would normally repeat these journeys a number of times, the final journey lasting as long as three days.
For Tecumseh, the transition from boyhood to early manhood was swift. He was acquiring the skills that would one day make him the greatest warrior and native leader of his time. Once, on a hunting expedition with Stephen Ruddell, Tecumseh reportedly felled sixteen buffalo with a bow and quiver of arrows. Years later, when Tecumseh had become a legendary figure, stories were often told about his prowess as a teenager. While some of them are no doubt exaggerations, he was clearly an accomplished hunter and therefore a valued provider to his community.
Those who knew him during these years have passed down accounts of Tecumseh as an athletic, attractive, friendly, and warmhearted young man who drew many friends and admirers. “He was fond of creating his jokes,” Stephen Ruddell wrote, “but his wit was never aimed to wound the feelings of his comrades.” Young women found him appealing. While there were many opportunities for Tecumseh to develop relationships with women during games and hunting parties that involved both sexes, he tended to shun advances. …
Despite his good humour, Tecumseh had a serious goal that he pursued with unwavering dedication. He not only developed the skills he would need to be a superb hunter and warrior, he also learned lessons about his own and other native peoples that would prepare him to become a unique leader with a vision that could unite different tribes. The suffering he had experienced at the hands of the Big Knives — the death of his father, the destruction of villages in which he lived, and the loss of hunting grounds — had taught him that native peoples must stand together if they were to succeed in halting the usurpation of their lands by white settlers.
It is likely in a fight against the Kentuckians on the Mad River that eighteen-year-old Tecumseh found himself on a field of battle for the first time. To his shame, he learned that becoming a warrior was not easy. Tecumseh looked across the small, deadly space that separated him and his comrades from their foes, a moment for which he had long prepared. But when the soldiers unleashed volleys of musket fire, he panicked and turned tail. His brother and the others stayed and fought, until Cheeseekau was hit and fellow warriors carried him from the battlefield to safety.
Late-eighteenth-century warfare required combatants to stand facing each other fifty or sixty metres apart, exchanging volleys of musket fire. It took nerve — and often not a little alcohol — to engage in such counterintuitive behaviour. The British regular army trained a soldier for three years to ready him for the battlefield.
Tecumseh had faced his first test as a warrior, and he had failed. He vowed never to show such cowardice again. It was a vow he kept.
This is an excerpt from Tecumseh & Brock by James Laxer. Copyright © 2012. Reprinted with permission from House of Anansi.