On July 19 I gave a lecture at the Kanatakon Recreational Center in Akwesasne regarding the events which caused the War of 1812, or, as I call it the War of the Rivers.
That conflict had a profound effect on Akwesasne since it affirmed the international border now dissecting our community, provoked conflict among the Mohawk people and provided New York State with an opportunity to remove additional territory from the original reservation while establishing the "trustee" system as a colonial administration despite vigorous internal opposition.
I traced the origins of the war from the end of the American Revolution to the first decade of the 19th century. Of particular importance to Native people was the conflicts between the US and a group of Native nations centered in what is now Ohio.
This group used the Haudenosaunee as a model in forming a "western confederacy" which included many nations such as the Miami, Anishnabe, Lenapi, Wyandot (Huron), Odawa, Shawnee and Mingo. The latter were Iroquois, primarily Mohawk, Cayuga and Seneca, who lived in the Ohio region and were at odds with the Haudenosaunee because of their opposition to the sale of Native territory in the homeland region.
The Shawnee nation in particular were most adamant in their denial of the self proclaimed right of the US to exercise sovereignty over unceded Native lands.
The Ohio area was their original home before they began a series of relocations which took them to central Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Alabama and as far south as Georgia. Long an important ally of the Haudenosaunee the Shawnees were greatly feared by the Americans given their reputation as fighters-warriors on par with the Iroquois.
The Shawnees had paternal clans (snake, turtle, elk, buffalo, owl, rabbit, lynx, raccoon, deer, bear, loon, buzzard, turkey and wolf) and were also divided into political moieties each with its own specific duties and powers. They were the Kispoko-warriors/hunters; Mekoches-civil leaders; Pekowis-military leaders; Chillcothe-healers/spiritual leaders; and Hathawakelas or "younger brother". The Mekoches claimed they were the original Shawnees and therefore assumed the right to speak on behalf of the nation even if the other groups were living in widely separated towns.
The lack of a strong central government made it difficult for the land hungry Americans to either enter into a binding treaty with the Shawnees or bring about their military defeat. When American settlers began to intrude upon Shawnee territory the tribes were left with no recourse but to oppose these intrusions.
Calls were sent by the Shawnees and their allies for all Native nations to form a great confederacy to oppose the US which had dismantled its army after the Revolution except for a few small garrisons along the eastern seaboard and the frontier. Despite this US President George Washington ordered a number of military expeditions into the Ohio region expecting an easy victory over the Native allies.
What he got was the complete humiliation of the Americans by the western confederacy whose forces were led by one of the greatest military commanders in North American history. He was the Shawnee leader Blue Jacket.
At a series of small engagements then at two major battles (Harmar on the Maumee RIver and St. Clair's defeat on the Wabash) Blue Jacket led the greatest defeat ever endured by the American army in its history. At the battle of the Wabash the US under St. Clair lost over 700 men including most of his senior officers. When Washington learned of this enormous setback he began negotiations with the Haudenosaunee in hopes of preventing the league from joining the western confederacy.
Consumed by internal divisions the Haudenosaunee were not prepared to fight the Americans even though its total number of fighters outnumbered the US army. Added to this was the influence of Joseph Brant who had his own plans at forming a Native alliance centered on the Grand River with him as the great chief.
At one of the most important conferences ever held among Native nations Blue Jacket and the western allies called the Haudenosaunee to meet at the Maumee River in September of 1792, when their power was at its peak.
Cornplanter and Red Jacket represented the Haudensoaunee but were criticized and condemned for their appeasement policies towards the Americans. At one point the Shawnee leader Red Pole was so severe in his remarks that the Haudenosaunee group left the assembly in fear of their physical safety.
Two years later both of those Iroquois men would agree to terms with the US at Canandaigua thereby securing peace with the Americans but undermining the western alliance and leading directly to the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 whereby most of Ohio was given up.
Among the Shawnees there was considerable internal chaos. The Mekoches were unable to organize any effective political resistance to the US and had no choice but to concede to the Pekowis and Kipokos. The two defender/fighter groups came close to securing the Ohio lands and would have done so had the Haudenosaunee gave them their support in 1792.
Although the 1795 Treaty of Greenville was supposed to end the war it did not. The Americans would continue to steal Indian land and provoke hostilities. When the Native people responded the US would accuse the British of giving them arms and supplies, an assertion which would become one of the leading causes in the War of 1812.
Another political and military genius would arise in the decade before that war. He was Tecumseh, the "Crouching Panther" (some say his name meant Blazing Comet or Shooting Star). He stated that than no one Native nation had the right to sell any land and the penalty for doing so was death. He would give nothing to the Americans.
For many years he traveled throughout the Midwest and the South, organizing the nations into a great confederacy to oppose the US. And he almost succeeded but for his death at the Battle of the Thames in 1813.
The Haudenosaunee, however were in no position to do anything to support Tecumseh. Factionalized and confused the Iroquois had become displaced in mind, spirit and land. Consumed by alcohol and prone to internal violence it would take the visions of Handsome Lake to save what little dignity the Iroquois had left as the ancestors were reduced to living on small reservations despite the most solemn promises of the Americans at Canandaigua.
Blue Jacket could have warned the Haudenosaunee that the assurances of the US meant nothing, that the young nation would need a sound thrashing before it came to enforceable terms.
By knowing this history we can extract lessons which are applicable today. We know that the failure of civil leadership has severe effects on the people as they look to any entity which will give them security and direction.
We also know that internal divisions will be exploited by the external powers who will select and empower those most easily manipulated. We know there cannot be selective surrender of a people's sovereignty, that, by agreeing to the intrusions of another nation, whether policing, taxation or regulation of any kind, the death of the right to self determination is inevitable. We also know that real power comes from the ability to form alliances across regional, political and national lines.
It is therefore not surprising that Blue Jacket, Red Pole and Tecumseh have become either lost or lied about in most American and Canadian histories. They know the power of these heroes must be obscured and hidden. Such is their potential power to affect us all two centuries after their passing.
Doug George-Kanentiio, is an Akwesasne Mohawk. He is the co-founder of the
Native American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of
Trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of
"Iroquois On Fire". He resides in Oneida Castle with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.
He may be contacted by calling 315-363-1655, via e-mail:
Kanentiio@aol.com or via surface mail: Box 450, Oneida, NY 13421
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