Tenskwatawa: The Open Door / Shawnee Prophet


Last Updated: 20 years Tenskwatawa, the brother of Tecumseh, was best known as a powerful medicine man known as the Shawnee Prophet. Once named Lalawthicka which means “He who makes a loud noise” due to his habit of bragging about himself, this man was given the new name of Tenskwatawa which means “The Open Door” after having a vision of heaven.

Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Profit
The decade following the Treaty of Greenville was not a happy time for the maturing Lalawethika. No longer a child, he now was forced to leave his sister’s family and make his way in the world. During this period he took a wife and sired several children, but his growing family demanded support, and Lalawethika was ill equipped to provide for them.

He made a desultory attempt at hunting, but the deer herds were diminishing and he often returned to his lodge empty handed. Drowning his sense of failure, Lalawethika turned more and more to the whiskey keg, a response that only angered his wife and did little to resolve his problems. Finally, after settling on the White River, Lalawethika became acquainted with Penagashea (“Changing Feathers”), an old Shawnee highly respected as a prophet and medicine man.

At first Penagashea disliked the alcoholic young braggart, but eventually the two men became friends, and although Lalawethika had not experienced a vision, the aging Shawnee evidently shared some of his knowledge of medicine with him.

In 1804 Penagashea died, and when Lalawethika attempted to take his place and cure the Shawnees, the aspiring new medicine man met with little success. In early 1805 the white man’s illness again spread through the Shawnee village.

Some who recieved Lalawethika’s herbs and incantations recovered, but many did not. Meanwhile, many tribesmen questioned if a man who so often had broken the sacred Shawnee laws could ever wear the mantle of healer or prophet.

The winter of 1804-05 seemed endless to the Shawnee. In addition to the usual icy nights and dreary over-cast days, another of the white man’s nameless diseases had ravaged through their midst in February and March, taking the lives of the old and weak and debilitating even the strongest of warriors.

By early April, the illness, probably influenza, had run its course and although nights remained cold, the afternnon sunshine hinted that spring was imminent. In the Shawnee village a heavyset man of thirty years sat cross-legged before the hearth of his wegiwa, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders against the chill of the appraoching evening.

During the recent epidemic he had treated his ailing kinsmen, but with little success.Pondering the causes of his failure, he knew that other Shawnees considered him a ne’er-do-well, a man who flagrantly violated sacred tribal laws. Because of his boastfulness they had nicknamed him Lalawethika, “He Who Makes a Loud Noise,” a name he did not relish.

As he reflected on his sins, the Shawnee reached into the fire and withdrew a branch, intending to light the tobacco in the long-stemmed pipe in his lap. But as he raised the pipe to his lips, Lalawthika gasped, dropped the blazing twig, and toppled over on his side. Believing her husband to be seriously ill, his wife fled from the lodge to summon help from their neighbors. Lalawethika lay sprawled by the fire, as still as death.


When Lalawthika’s wife and neighbors rushed back into the lodge they found the Shawnee still prostrate before the fire. Although his wife spoke to him, he did not answer. Other tribesmen rolled the Shawnee over onto his back, but his eyes remained closed and he did not seem to be breathing.

Believing the man to be dead, neighbors led his grieving wife from the wegiwa and made plans to wash the body in preparation for the two-day period before burial. But before the funeral arrangements were completed, the assembled Indians gasped in amazement as the supposedly dead Lalawethika first stirred, then awakened. Although dazed, he obviously was very much alive.

Slowly regaining his senses, Lalawethika told a strange tale of death, heaven, and resurrection. The Shawnee claimed that the Master of Life had sent two handsome young men to carry his soul into the spirit world, where he had been shown both the past and the future.

Although the Master of Life did not allow Lalawethika to enter heaven, he was permitted to gaze on a paradise, which he described as “a rich, fertile country, abounding in game, fish, pleasant hunting grounds and fine corn fields,” a realm where the spirits of viruous Shawnees could flourish, “pursuing the same course of life which characterized them here. They [could] plant,…or hunt, [or] play at their usual games and in all things [could remain] unchanged.”

But, not all Shawnee spirits proceeded directly to heaven. The souls of sinful tribesmen also followed the road toward paradise, but after glimpsing the promised land they were forced to turn away and enter a large lodge where an enormous fire burned continually. Here the sinners were subjected to fiery torture in accordance with their wickedness. The most evil were reduced to ashes.

Unrepentant drunkards were forced to swallow molten lead until flames shot from their mouths and nostrils. Lesser offenders had their limbs burned, but all evildoers were compelled to repeat their suffering until they atoned fully for their sins. Finally, they would be permitted to enter heaven, but could never share in all the pleasures enjoyed by more virtuous tribesmen.

As he finished his story; Lalawethika began to weep and tremble. Overcome by emotion, he vowed to renounce his evil ways and never again drink the white man’s whiskey. A changed man, he no longer was the drunken braggart known as Lalawethika.

Henceforce he would be called Tenskwatawa, “the Open Door,” a name symbolizing his new role as a holy man destined to lead his people down the narrow road toward paradise. Some of his audience remained skeptical, but many others were convinced of his sincerity and readily subcribed to the new prophet’s doctrines.

In the following months Tenskwatawa experienced additional visions and enlarged on his doctrine of Indian deliverance. Other Shawnees, demoralized by the changes swirling around them, flocked to the new messiah, seeking stability in a world full of chaos.

Since Shawnee social and political systems could not cope with the onrushing frontier, they grasped at the hope that the Master of Life had provided Tenskwatawa with a new faith to revitalize his chosen people.

During the summer of 1805 Moravian missionaries in eastern Indiana reported that their congregations were shrinking in the face of a renewed “Heathenism” spreading through the nearby Indians. Meanwhile, the Prophet and his followers left the White River to establish a new village near Greenville, in western Ohio.

In late November 1805, the new Shawnee holy man met with delegations of Shawnees, Ottawas, Wyandots, and Senecas at Wapakoneta, on the Auglaize River, where he expounded on his religion at some length.

Since his initial vision in April, several similar experiences had provided Tenskwatawa with additional insights, which he incorporated into a well-defined pattern of religious and social doctrines. Much of the Prophet’s dogma attached the decline of traditional moral values among the Shawnees and neighboring tribes.

Declaring he “was particularly appointed to the office by the Great Spirit,” Tenskwatawa asserted that his “sole object was to reclaim the Indians from bad habits and to cause them to live in peace with all mankind.”

First and foremost, he denounced the consumption of alcohol. Admitting that he once had been a drunkard, Tenskwatawa asserted that he now was cured and would never again partake of the white man’s firewater. He warned the tribesmen that frontier whiskey “was poison and accursed,” and described in vivid detail the special tortures awaitting the souls of unrepentant alcoholics. Moved by the Shawnee’s exhortations, many of the audience were greatly alarmed and vowed to follow the Prophet’s example.

Tenskwatawa also condemned the violence that recently had so permeated tribal society. He instructed his listeners to always treat tribal elders with respect and to provide for kinsmen who were injured, diseased, or incapable of caring for themselves. He admonished his followers to refrain from intertribal violence, urging warriors to treat each other as brothers, stop their quarreling, and never pilfer the belongings of fellow tribesmen.

They must remain truthful and not strike their wives or children. Only if a married woman behaved so badly that she brought disrespect to her husband could the man “punish her with a rod,” but afterward “both husband and wife were to look each other in the face and laugh and bear no ill will to each other for what had passed.”

Concerned about sexual promiscuity, the Prophet warned Shawnee women to remain faithful to their husband and decreed that warriors were not “to be running after women; if a man was single let him take a wife.” He also advised against polygamous marriages, stating that in the future warriors were only to have one wife. Those Shawnees currently married to more than one woman “might keep them,” but they should realize that such a union displeased the Master of Life.

In contrast, Tenskwatawa assured his followers that the Master of Life favored the performance of certain rituals and ceremonies. He informed them that they should extinquish the fires in their lodges and light new ones, the new flames to be kindled in the traditional manner, without using the white man’s flint and steel: “The fire must never go out….Summer and winter, day and night, in the storm or when it is calm, you must remember that the life in your body, and the fire in your lodge are the same and of the same date. If you suffer your fire to be extinguished, at that moment your life will be at its end.”

The Prophey also denounced many of the traditional tribal dances as corrupt, but suggested new ones that would both please the Master of Life and bring joy to the dancers. Moreover, Tenskwatawa instructed his listeners that they should pray to the Master of Life both morning and evening, asking that the earth be fruitful, the streams abound in fish, and the forest be full of game.

To assist his followers with their prayers, he provided them with prayer sticks inscribed with certain symbols that epitomized the new faith. If the Indians were faithful, then the Master of Life would smile upon them and they would prosper.

Especially suspect were traditional shamans and their “juggleries.” Those medicine men who might oppose Tenskwatawa’s new doctrines were described as misguided fools or false prophets, men who would never know happiness. To destroy any vestige of the corrupt old ways, the Prophet ordered his followers to throw away their medicine bundles.

Although these parcels contained items traditionally sacred to individual Shawnees, Tenskwatawa declared that this medicine “which has been good in its time, had lost its efficacy; that it had become vitiated through age.” Those who abandoned their bundles would eventually “find [their] children or…. friends that have long been dead restored to life.”

Although the Prophet’s new creed attacked some facets of traditional Shawnee culture, it attempted to revitalize others. Indeed, much of Tenskwatawa’s preaching was nativistic in both tone and content. If shamans and medicine bundles were forbidden, the Shawnees were encouraged to return to many other practices followed by their fathers.

Tenskwatawa urged them to renounce their desire to accumulate property and to return to the communal life of the past. Those who accumulated “wealth and ornaments” would “crumble into dust,” but tribesmen who shared with their brothers, “when they die[d] [were] happy; and, when they arrive[d] in the land of the dead, [would] find their wigwam furnished with everything they had on earth.”

The Shawnees and other Indians also were admonished to return to the food, implements, and dress of their ancestors. Although white men kept such domestic animals as cattle, sheep, or hogs, such meat was unclean and not to be consumed by Indians. Even dogs were suspect, for he advised his followers that they were evil creatures and should be destroyed.

In contrast, the Master of Life had given the tribesmen “the Deer, the Bear, and all wild animals, and the Fish that swim in the river.” These species would provide meat for the Shawnee cooking pots. Neither were the Indians “on any account, to eat Bread. It is the food of the whites.” Instead, the tribesmen were to cultivate corn, beans, and other crops raised by their fathers, and to gather maple syrup, which was special food, favored both by the Master of Life and Tenskwatawa.

In a similar manner, the Prophet instructed his followers to relinquish the white man’s technology. Although guns might be used for self-defense, warriors were to hunt with bows and arrows. Stone and wood implements should replace metal ones and the tribesmen were to discard all items of European or American clothing. “You must not dress like the White man or wear hats like them….And when the weather is not severe, you must go naked excepting the breach cloth, and when you are clothed, it must be in skins or leather of your own Dressing.” Moreover, the warriors were ordered to shave their heads, leaving only the scalp lock worn in the past.

AUTHOR: J.O.Lewis, 1823