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Tecumseh's Dream of an Indian Confederacy : PANTHER IN THE SKY by James Alexander Thom (Ballantine: $19.95; 640 pp., maps)

June 25, 1989|Dee Brown | Brown, author of several books on Western Americana, is at work on a study of the lighter side of frontier life. and

Readers who have some knowledge of Tecumseh, the great Shawnee leader, may wonder how a novel based upon his life could improve upon any good factual biography. After all, Tecumseh's career from boyhood was filled with dramatic action. He grew up while the United States was coming into being. The names of Washington, Jefferson, Mad Anthony Wayne, George Rogers Clark, William Henry Harrison were known to him from afar or on battlefields where he fought them. His fame was a welder of tribal alliances surpassed that of any other Indian leader.

Yet with "Panther in the Sky," James Alexander Thom shows how in honest and capable hands fictionalized biography can add verisimilitude of the life and times of this extraordinary American. Without the use of primitive expressions, the dialogue has a ring of reality about it. Without the restraints of a biographer, Thom is able to get into the thoughts and emotions of his characters. When he can do so, he uses selections from the eloquent words of Tecumseh that were recorded in official councils.

From his earliest years, Tecumseh and his family lived on the very edge of America's westward expansion. He experienced the ruthlessness of invading settlers who coveted the rich and pleasant lands of the Shawnees and their neighboring tribes. The Indians' towns were burned, their crops destroyed, their lives taken. Tecumseh's father, his older brother, and many of his closest friends died while attempting to stem the pressures that pushed the tribes out of what is now Ohio and westward across Indiana.

Eventually he realized that only through a confederation of tribes could the juggernaut be halted--by force or threat of force. In his 40s, he decided to devote the remainder of his life to uniting all the Indian tribes. Thom describes him at that time as an appealing specimen, good-humored, amiable and charming. He had learned to speak and read English. The extent of his diplomatic journeys is astonishing, considering that most of the travel was done on foot and horseback.

Among the excellent maps accompanying this novel is one that clearly depicts Tecumseh's visits westward as far as the Sioux, southward as far as the Creeks, and eastward to the Mohawks. Although he failed to gain alliances with some tribal leaders, who viewed him as a dangerous upstart, he won over many of their young men. At one time he had a force of warriors from 15 or more tribes.

For a time, Tecumseh was overshadowed by a brother who was known to the whites as the Prophet. Thom does a masterful job of re-creating this eccentric character, beginning with childhood when he was the ugly runt of a triplet birth. While growing up he was called Loud Noise, was avoided by most, lived alone in a slovenly manner, became a drunkard, and annoyed girls. But one day he had a vision and was reborn into a reformer. He called himself Tenskwatawa, or Open Door, and he became the opposite of what he had been. Behaving like a modern-day revivalist preacher, he soon developed a cult following.

Tecumseh saw him as being useful in uniting tribes, and aided him in building his reputation as a prophet. They were both aware of the value of images and publicity. Learning from a white friend the date and time of forthcoming eclipse of the sun, Tecumseh passed the information to his brother.

On the day of the predicted eclipse, Indians gathered in villages for hundreds of miles around to test the Prophet's power. When the sun darkened he became a virtual deity. The Prophet's village near Greenville, Ohio, drew thousands of pilgrims, but the white settlers hated him, and for safety the alliance leaders moved Prophet's Town westward to the Tippecanoe River in Indiana.

While Tecumseh was on a journey south to recruit followers, Gen. William Henry Harrison decided to attack Prophet's Town. Warned of the approach of soldiers, the Prophet boldly predicted the death of Harrison and disobeyed Tecumseh's orders to avoid combat while he was absent. Instead of dying, Harrison sent his troops to scatter the Indians. It was no victory, but the heart went out of the alliance because the false prophet had failed them.

When Tecumseh returned, he immediately started rebuilding his confederacy. Harrison had long been his special demon, being the military leader who had done most to push the tribes westward. Another of the book's clarifying maps shows how rapidly Harrison's arranged treaties ate away huge chunks of Indian lands from Ohio to the Mississippi River.

The coming of the War of 1812 gave Tecumseh and his followers one last chance to regain their lost lands. Allying themselves with the British, they won enough battles to enjoy several heady months. Harrison, however, took command of U.S. troops in the West, and fortunes turned. Tecumseh was killed during the battle of the Thames.

Toward the end, Thom makes Harrison and Tecumseh into blood stalkers, each determined to destroy the other. Harrison is the land grabber, with no pity for the dispossessed; Tecumseh is the defender of his oppressed peoples. Harrison rode his inevitable victories over the Indians to the White House, but after delivering a long and pompous inaugural speech in a cold wind, he caught pneumonia and died a few days later. Tecumseh would have appreciated the irony.

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