Fact or Fiction? Teaching Tecumseh

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Fact or Fiction? Teaching Tecumseh

2016-03-28 08:39

Native American history can be an interesting conundrum for many teachers since it can be difficult to find the voice of native people over the abundant voice of white people speaking for, or about, Native Americans, often with misguided interpretations. One of the earliest accounts we have of Native American resistance is a speech made by the famous Shawnee, Tecumseh, when he spoke to the Osages in the winter of 1811-1812. 

This speech is an incredible example of the native’s mistrust of the settlers and it is a call for Native Americans to join together against the settlers. But, did you know, that the only account of this speech actually comes from the memoir of a white man, John Dunn Hunter, who was a small boy when the Native Americans took him captive. His memoir holds the only written account of Tecumseh’s famous resistance speech. He wrote it down from memory over a decade later when he wrote “Memoirs of a Captivity Among the Native Americans of North America.”

HSP has the original book by Hunter, published in 1823, ten years after Tecumseh’s death, and it is a wonderful source to use with students when discussing if a speech written from memory should be considered fact or fiction. Given the trajectory of Tecumseh’s life, and his whereabouts, the idea that the speech happened is often not brought into question, but the authenticity of his actual words can be debated given that the speech was held in Hunter’s memory for many years before being written down. It also brings into debate the idea of how we, as historians, should understand oral history and memory. Does the debate over the accuracy of the words completely discount the entire speech as fiction? Or is there a gray area?

When it becomes time to teach the importance of the words “Tippacanoe and Tyler Too,” or the “Tecumseh Curse,” remember to include this speech by Tecumseh as both an example of Native American resistance and the authenticity of history. 

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