Tecumseh's Bulletproof Skin

by Spoon Decorah


[459] "Our old people talk much about Tecumseh. Some Winnebagoes [Hočąks] once fought under him, but none of my relations ever did. Tecumseh's skin was bullet-proof. When he went into battle, he always wore a white deer-skin hunting shirt, around which was girt a strap. The bullets shot at him would go through his shirt, and fall harmless inside. When the weight of the bullets inside the shirt became too great, he would unstrap his belt and let them fall through to the ground. He was a brave man, as a man whom bullets could not wound would of course be; he never used a gun in battle, only a hatchet. Tecumseh had but one son. One day, when the great warrior had grown old and feeble, he called his son to him and said: 'I am getting old. I want to leave you what has made me proof against bullets.' Thereupon Tecumseh commenced to retch, and try to vomit. He repeated this several times and finally threw up a smooth, black stone, about three inches long. That stone was Tecumseh's soul. Handing it to his son, he said: 'I could not be killed by a bullet, but will die only of old age. This is to be your charm against bullets, also.' [460] And so his son swallowed it, that he, likewise, might never be killed by a bullet. And he never was."1


Commentary. "Spoon Decorah" — the interview by Reuben Thwaites was conducted "at the home of Spoon, in the town of Big Flats, Adams county, some ten miles north of Friendship, March 29, 1887. Moses Paquette, of Black River Falls, acted as interpreter. Spoon, who died in a cranberry marsh northwest of Necedah, Oct. 13, 1889, was a tall, well-formed, manly-looking fellow, with a well-shaped head, pleasant, open features, and dignified demeanor ... The old man told his story in a straightforward, dignified manner, his memory being occasionally jogged by Doctor Decorah, his nephew. The Doctor is a medicine-man, held in high esteem by the Decorah, or mixed-blood element of the Wisconsin Winnebagoes, who live chiefly upon homesteads in Adams, Marquette, and Jackson counties. ... Paquette is a faithful and intelligent interpreter, and in ease carefully rendered both questions and answers. The result I have formulated into two continuous narratives, following as closely as possible the Indian manner of speech; as here printed, they meet with Paquette's approval."2

"Tecumseh" — the war chief of the Shawnee, who formed a great confederation to resist the encroachment of the whites into the Ohio country. In his absence, his brother the Prophet (Tenskwatawa), precipitously engaged the forces under General William Henry Harrison with catastrophic consequences at Tippecanoe. See "The Shawnee Prophet -- What He Told the Hočągara, v. 2."

"Tecumseh's skin was bullet-proof" — this notion is repeated in a later account collected by Paul Radin.

"his shirt" — the idea of the medicine shirt was very popular with the plains tribes. The Cheyenne Roman Nose, for instance, was said to possess such a bulletproof shirt. The shirt itself was said to be endowed with the magical power to repel bullets; but here it is made clear that it is not the shirt that possesses the power, but the body of the man himself.

"only a hatchet" — this idea is repeated by Alonso Mitchell and James Bird in their account of Tecumseh. The Prophet, Tecumseh's brother, tried to persuade the tribes to renounce all white technology and to return to their traditional pre-contact ways. However, there is more to it than that, since a bow and arrow is the counterpart of the musket, but a hatchet or warclub is a close-in weapon dangerous to use against those who have fire arms. Nevertheless, the Iroquois had some success initially using tomahawks against white troops at the Battle of Oriskany, by charging the enemy while they were engaged in the cumbersome process of reloading their muskets.

"to vomit" — in the Medicine Rite, a master will cough up a magical seashell which he may spit forcefully at the initiate, which results in the latter falling to the ground as if dead, from which state he revives only after some time has passed. This shell may be shot from an otter, or other such pouch, with the same effect. The Giants are said to eat human flesh because they contain within their stomachs a ball of ice about the size of a fist. Once they vomit it up, they are freed from the inclination to cannibalism. So it is clear that odd objects may dwell undigested or processed within the human stomach that may bestow upon their possessors extraordinary attributes which can be alienated, and even passed on, once they are ejected.

"a smooth, black stone" — in the myth "How the Thunders Met the Nights (Mązni'ąpra)," such stones are said to be lodestones (mąz-ni'ąp), that is, naturally magnetic ferrous rocks. There they clearly function as thunder stones as well. The peculiar nature of such stones, as well as their firm association with meteorites (see 1, 2), make them candidates for every sort of magical power. For the significance of smoothness, see the Commentary to "The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head."

"that stone was Tecumseh's soul" — Thwaites says in a footnote, "Spoon's language was, literally: 'That part of Tecumseh which was to live after the rest of his body was dead'."3 A small black stone served as an evil witch's external soul in the "Green Man."

"but will die only of old age" — Thwaites remarks in a footnote, "The reader will not fail to notice this practical example of the curiosities of myth-making. Tecumseh was killed by a bullet at the Battle of the Thames (Oct. 5, 1813), and did not die of old age; many Winnebagoes from Wisconsin, friends of Spoon, saw him die, and yet here is a Winnebago tale-teller who remembers only a mythical Tecumseh, who resembles a Greek god."4

"his son swallowed it" — with admirable foresight, an old grandfather gave his grandson two round, smooth, black stones to use in the appropriate occasion when confronted with the powers of the Nightspirit women. The grandson and his friend encountered these women one night, and to avoid being frozen to death, heated these stones in the fire, and once red hot, they swallow one each. This proved to be proof against the lethal freezing power of the Nightspirit women. The stone of Tecumseh appears to be modeled to some extent upon the lodestones swallowed by the two men in the waiką.


Links: ...

External Link: The History of Tecumseh and the Battle of Tippecanoe.


Stories: mentioning Tecumseh: The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hočągara; mentioning the Shawnee: The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hočągara.


Themes: internal stones: How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Big Stone; a small, black stone serves as a soul (container): The Green Man; a (magical) round, black stone: How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Green Man, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, The Dipper, Partridge's Older Brother; a being is invulnerable: Worúxega, The Canine Warrior, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, The Man who was a Reincarnated Thunderbird, Battle of the Night Blessed Men and the Medicine Rite Men.


Notes

1 Spoon Decorah, "Narrative of Spoon Decorah. In an Interview with the Editor," Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Vol. 13 (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1887) 459-460. Reprinted (typescript) in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3863 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago I, #6: 154-172.

2 Decorah, "Narrative of Spoon Decorah," 448-449 nt 2.

3 Decorah, "Narrative of Spoon Decorah," 459 nt 2.

4 Decorah, "Narrative of Spoon Decorah," 460 nt 1.