Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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Long before the Europeans arrived on the shores of this continent, Potawatomi villages were scattered all over the beautiful Great Lakes area and were, in many respects, totally autonomous of each other. The word tribe was not a household word then. Most of these villages were relatively small in number and were culturally bound together by strong individual and community support principles.

For instance, decision making was facilitated by considering the opinions of all the people in the village. Among the Potawatomi villages, and other Indian villages as well, the principle of independence of the people was absolute, and they recognized no authority of anyone to impose limits on that way of life.

Some might fit the role of a leader, or a "Chief," when it came to hunting and military expeditions, but even then the other village members went on a voluntary basis.

Wise village elders fearing the loss of all their family in these hunting/military expeditions, sent out only one son in each party. This logical group decision by the village elders did minimize losses.

This is how the concept of assigning a color to family members developed. The firstborn was given the color blue and the next red and each subsequent family member had alternating color. From that point on, each son proudly wore their colors in battle, and of course, families could rest easier.

The leaders of each village might secure obedience by persuasion but this didn't always work either. If a village member broke a solemn promise of peace with other tribal groups, or later with the whites, there was little a leader could do about it. His only recourse was to offer presents to the offended party to restore the peace.

No one enjoyed a supreme power over the rest of the village. In truth, most leadership positions were attained by personal prestige and the charisma of the individual.

To become a chief, the warriors had to show traits of generosity and other leadership capabilities. They often dressed very poorly because they had given away much of their possessions in order to be liked by the rest of the village. They carried strings of beads around their necks and would give them away as presents so as to get the right to speak at various gatherings.

Most leaders earned the title of chief the hard way and that was usually by war time achievements. And most villages did rally around one person in time of war and this was how some Potawatomi were able to make a name for themselves.

Men such as Wabaunsee (Nah-Ke-ses), Shabbona, Black Pheasant (Mka-da-puk-ke), Half- Day, Spotka, Mad Sturgeon and Big Foot moved forward to grab that coveted title. All played important roles in the defense of their homelands and hunting grounds, both with other tribes and later with the whites.

In one story, Shabbona achieved many battlefield accomplishments fighting along side the great Shawnee war chief, Tecumseh. For this, he was singled out by the elderly Chief Spotka: "I have always been a warrior and in my youth I won great honors and excelled beyond those with whom I lived and for this I was finally made a chief. At that time, I said when a warrior rose among us who was as I was then, to him I would give over my title. Shabbona is such a one ---not only as I was then, but even more. From this day forward, he is your chief." Shabbona, at nineteen summers, became the youngest chief of any Potawatomi village. A rare feat since most chiefs were much older.

Wabaunsee, the younger brother of Black Partridge, was in the same vein. He won acclaim and fear from many for his battlefield exploits. On one war expedition, he captured 40 Osage prisoners single-handedly. He was respected and feared by the surrounding tribes because of his bravery.

Wabaunsee's name meant the dawn of the day, or the causer of paleness. He was to say 'When I kill the enemy he turns pale, resembling the first light of the day.'

Gradually war with the other village groups become secondary when the whites started to grow in strength and to expand. But the wars with the whites were also another opportunity for advancement in the political hierarchy. Many chiefs such as the two mentioned, along with Spotka, Mawgehset, Komo, and Main Poche formed a cadre of Tecumseh's lieutenants in his ill-fated Red Confederacy. They said to Tecumseh after one defeat at the hands of the whites, "Our hearts are full - filled with sorrow for what has happened, yet filled with joy at your return. Few of us are left, but those who stayed and those who have returned and those who will yet come back to support you, remain loyal in every way, even unto death."

A way of life was to work against the Red Confederacy and all the tribal groups. Since all the villages were independent of each other, it was easier for the whites to defeat one Indian group after another.

Tribes refused to band together (a hard learned historical lesson) to fight the new enemy and paid a big price - eviction from their homelands. Many of the Potawatomi warriors still believed in Tecumseh, even after his death. He promised to return someday to fulfill his dream of an Indian country on equal footing with the whites.

It was at this point in Potawatomi history that the role of leader changed drastically. By this time, the United States government designated a person in the tribal group to be the "chief." They had a need to deal with only one person. For the same purposes, the many villages were lumped together as one group, hence the term "tribe" soon became the popular word of the day. The old village system became lost in the process.

Cunning Americans used the new terms for signing treaties designed to separate the Indian people from the land they had hunted on for centuries. One person often signed away large chunks of land for a barrel of whiskey, money or sometimes even less. Tribes soon found themselves moving westward because of these actions.

The elders of these villages said the new chiefs had made money their God and they had. The new leaders helped the Americans destroy the old way of life.

First published in the Potawatomi Traveling Times April 1996 in Crandon, Wisconsin.
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