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Simon Pokagon, the son of tribal patriarch Leopold Pokagon, was a talented writer, advocate for the Pokagon Potawatomi community, and tireless self-promoter.
In 1899, shorty after his death, Pokagon's novel Ogimawkwe Mitigwaki (Queen of the Woods)—- only the second ever published by an American Indian—-appeared. It was intended to be a testimonial to the traditions, stability, and continuity of the Potawatomi in a rapidly changing world. Read today, Queen of the Woods is evidence of the author's desire to mark the cultural, political, and social landscapes with a memorial to the pas and a monument to a future that included the Pokagon Potawatomi as distinct and honored people.
This new edition offers a reprint of the original 1899 novel with the author's introduction to the language and culture of his people. In addition, new accompanying materials add context through a cultural biography, literary historical analysis, and linguistic considerations of the unusual text.
John N. Low
Holding history in my hands, a portal to a shared past, time speaks to me through this book—its leaves, like worn and delicate sheets of birch bark. Its talking pages pass on traditions as I turn them, as I fold the covers in to keep safe the lived experiences of then and now. This small book, a treasure, a memorial to my ancestors, a monument to the resiliency of a people, a tribe—ironically, unexpectedly, and eloquently, written by a man despised by some of his own people, yet embraced by the wealthy of his day. This man insinuated himself and his work into the high culture of America and there recorded our survival. Images and stories of a past I never knew, a title in a language I am ashamed I do not speak. I feel the slight heft of the book in my hands and wonder how many people have read its narrative of love, tragedy, redemption, and survival. How far has it traveled before, like its author, it returned home?
It is a small book—and he was a man of small physical stature. The cover is burgundy faux Moroccan leather with gilt gold lettering, a mixture of the imitation with the real—replicating in some ways Simon Pokagon's life. A faded inscription inside indicates it was sold some decades ago by a Los Angeles rare-books dealer. The bookseller attached a note inside the front cover.
This little book is rare, and has become a collector's item, but it has the fault of many such books, it is "poorly put together." This is the fault of neither the author nor publisher since it was published after Pokagon's death, by his friend, Engle.
There is an irony in the book being a collector's item, since Pokagon died penniless. Where did the book go from there? Did it end up on a bookshelf, in an attic, or box? One day, on an online auction, I retrieve it. Now I hold it, ponder its existence, and listen for the memories it holds within.
* * *
Simon Pokagon was a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, an author, and an advocate for American Indians. Born in 1830 near what later became the small village of Bertrand in southwestern Michigan, he died from pneumonia on January 28, 1899, near Hartford, Michigan. Pokagon was a son of his tribe's patriarch, Leopold Pokagon. Dubbed by some "the Indian Longfellow" and "the Red Bard," Pokagon was often called the "Hereditary and Last Chief" of the tribe by the press, a title he did not reject. We know very little about his childhood in southwest Michigan. After receiving a formal education, he returned to his tribe in 1850, marrying and settling into community life. Pokagon claimed attendance at Notre Dame University and Oberlin College, but there is no record of his matriculation. It appears more likely that he was educated by the Sisters of St. Mary's Academy near Notre Dame and at the Twinsburg (Ohio) Institute. After the deaths of his two brothers, he was elected leader of his community. In his efforts to collect monies due the tribe pursuant to the land cessions of the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, Pokagon twice visited President Abraham Lincoln, and after the Civil War met with President Ulysses S. Grant, accepting an expression of gratitude from Grant for the Potawatomi volunteers who had served in the Civil War.
The Bureau of American Ethnology provided an early description of Pokagon in its 1910 Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. The Handbook was long considered a major academic resource, but as we shall see, it is riddled with error.
Simon was 10 years of age when his father died, and on reaching his 14th year was sent to school at Notre Dame, Ind. for 3 years; then, encouraged by his mother in his desire for education, attended Oberlin College, Ohio, for a year and next went to Twinsburg, Ohio where he remained 2 years. It is said that he was educated for the priesthood, spoke four or five languages, and bore the reputation of being the best educated full-blood Indian of his time. He wrote numerous articles for the leading magazines and delivered many addresses of merit during the last quarter of the 19th century. In 1899 he published in book form Ogimawkwe Mitigwaki (Queen of the Woods), an account of the wooing of his first wife, and at the World's Fair in Chicago, in 1893, "The Red Man's Greeting," a booklet of birch-bark. He was a poet, and the last of his verses, both in its English and Potawatomi versions, appeared in the Chicago Inter-Ocean, Jan 23, 1899, just before his death. Pokagon was credited with ably managing the affairs of his 300 tribesman scattered through Michigan and inspired by enlightened views, was the means of promoting their welfare.... He was a man of sturdy character, unostentatious in manner, of simple habit, and a consistent Catholic. [Actually, he broke from the Church when he married his second wife who was a divorcée.] A monument has been erected by the citizens of Chicago in Jackson Park to the memory of Simon and his father. [Actually, it was never erected.] By the 1890s, Pokagon was a bit of a national celebrity. That he merited an entry in the Handbook is but one indication of his visibility. An interest in Simon Pokagon as an American Indian intellectual, leader, writer, orator, temperance advocate, and environmentalist has remained relatively consistent since his death at the end of the nineteenth century.
Simon Pokagon was a prolific writer. Besides Ogimawkwe Mitigwaki (Queen of the Woods) (1899, 1901), Pokagon's numerous other writings include The Red Man's Rebuke (1893), later retitled The Red Man's Greeting (1893), as well as numerous magazine articles. The volume and visibility of his writings and presence on the national stage are reflected in a broadside for Queen of the Woods—typical of the promotion surrounding Pokagon (see page 4).
Some have argued that Pokagon's writings may have been substantially edited by the second wife of his personal attorney, although that remains a matter of speculation and controversy. His letters, available at the archives at the Chicago History Museum, Newberry Library, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, and Great Lakes Branch of the National Archives, as well as a reprint of one available in the contemporary magazine The Arena, reveal a man who was clearly a capable writer.
According to publisher C. H. Engle, one of the reasons Simon Pokagon requested that Queen of the Woods be published in Hartford was the fear that some might doubt the ability of the author to pen the novel, deny the truth of its narrative, "or perhaps even deny its authorship." Having read the available correspondence of Pokagon, it appears likely the work is his—although he may have had the assistance of an editor.
Pokagon was welcomed among the Gold Coast "High Society" of Chicago and the Chautauqua literary and "Friends of Indians" groups nationwide. He was also the subject of many photographs and portraits, including a drawing by the famous Indian portrait painter of the time, E. A. Burbank. Pokagon was an early activist for the fair treatment of Indian peoples. In the 1890s, Pokagon began pressing land claims to the Chicago lakefront. A complicated individual with what often seemed to be contradictory motivations, at the same time as he devoted his efforts to lobbying on behalf of his community for land claims, treaty rights, and annuity payments, he sold "interests" in that Chicago land claim to nontribal members, angering some in the Pokagon tribal community and costing him much Potawatomi support. A recent quitclaim deed has surfaced that appears to confirm this allegation. He also made a claim for personal fees from an 1895 treaty payment that was not approved by the federal government. In fact, almost ten years earlier, in a letter to Joseph Labadie dated October 23, 1888, Pokagon included a receipt for a loan that makes clear that repayment was to be accomplished by including his non-Native benefactor in an upcoming treaty settlement payment by the government to tribal members.
Pokagon was certainly no champion of maintaining the integrity of tribal membership rolls, being concerned about citizenship status, or always sharing tribal monies with other tribal members. Nonetheless, he presented a positive façade to outsiders. One contemporary biographer wrote:
His life was not eventful in the ordinary sense of Indian chieftains, and his fame rests upon the wonderful example which he offered the possibilities of advancement of the Red race.... Born at a time when all the Indian habits of mind and thought and life were still in full force and vigor, he was able to emerge from these environments and to turn his face and influence towards a different form of life and destiny. He was enabled at an early age to see the great advantage and necessity of laying aside the implements of war and the chase to turn to the cultivation of the soil and the procurement of permanent homes: and it was in this line that he always directed the minds of his people. Otherwise he plainly saw the speedy ending of his race.
In many of his writings, Pokagon played to national expectations and wrote nostalgically of the past, lamenting the passing of a "vanishing" race of Indians.
The index finger of the past and present is pointing to the future, showing more conclusively that by the middle of the next century all Indian reservations and tribal relations will have passed away. Then our people will begin to scatter; and the result will be a general mixing up of the races. Through intermarriage, the blood of our people, like the waters that flow into the great ocean, will be forever lost in the dominant race; and generations yet unborn will read in history of the red men of the forest, and inquire, "Where are they?"
Yes, many Potawatomi were intermarrying with non-Natives. However, as he well knew, the Pokagon Potawatomi were not vanishing. In fact, the Potawatomi had organized a Business Committee, a traditional, democratically elected tribal council that governed by consensus and advocated for the rights of tribal members. Meanwhile, most tribal members worked as laborers in local factories and on farms, and retained ties to the Catholic Church. According to historian Susan Sleeper-Smith, the Pokagon Potawatomi, as a community, responded to Nativist hysterias against Catholicism during this era by turning inward and presenting a more Indian, and less Catholic, public face. Sleeper-Smith also points out that the neighboring Indians in Indiana chose another strategy and presented façades of whiteness in response to the racialization of "Indianness," and proceeded to "hide in plain view." In many ways, Simon Pokagon seems to have vacillated between these two strategies throughout his adult life.
If Pokagon sometimes met national expectations, at other times he challenged his non-Native audience. In a publication originally titled The Red Man's Rebuke and subsequently The Red Man's Greeting, Pokagon wrote in harsh terms:
On behalf of my people, the American Indians, I hereby declare to you, the pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes, that we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair now being held in this Chicago city, the wonder of the world. No; sooner would we hold the high joy day over the graves of our departed than to celebrate our own funeral, the discovery of America. And while ... your hearts in admiration rejoice over the beauty and grandeur of this young republic and you say, 'behold the wonders wrought by our children in this foreign land,' do not forget that this success has been at the sacrifice of our homes and a once happy race.
While these words place him as a spokesperson of resistance on behalf of American Indian peoples, his speech at the World's Columbian Exposition on "Chicago Day" uses a much more conciliatory tone towards those he viewed as the "White race":
I shall cherish as long as I live the cheering words that have been spoken to me here by the ladies, friends of my race; it has strengthened and encouraged me; I have greater faith in the success of the remaining few of my people than ever before. I now realize the hand of the Great Spirit is open in our behalf; already he has thrown his great search light upon the vault of heaven, and Christian men and women are reading there in characters of fire well understood; "The red man is your brother, and God is the father of all."
Despite common assertions by the press, Simon Pokagon was not the last, nor hereditary, chief of the Potawatomi. The Pokagons have had chiefs since Pokagon's passing, and leadership in Potawatomi tribes is not hereditary. He was the head of the Business Committee of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians from 1869 until his political fortunes soured and he was removed in 1882.30 Nonetheless, to readers of American Indian literature and to tribal members alike, he remains an ambivalent representative of an early Indian who obtained "celebrity" status.
Simon Pokagon—I write from quite a distance from this man. I too am Pokagon Band Potawatomi, although I do not know whether he would recognize me as a fellow tribal member because of my mixed-blood ancestry. I have heard stories about him all my life—both good and bad. He receives an ambivalent reception from literary scholars and historians too. The Pokagon community has had deep internal divisions since the death of Pokagon's father and tribal patriarch, Leopold Pokagon, in 1841, which resulted in the band splitting into three distinct communities (Hartford and Sister Lakes in Michigan, and South Bend, Indiana) in 1851.31 Although Leopold Pokagon had been a signatory to the last land-cession treaty in the Great Lakes region involving tribal lands in 1833, he and his wife had each been granted one section of land in Indiana in the October 1832 Treaty at Tippecanoe. From the sale of these parcels, Leopold Pokagon purchased acreage in what is now Cass County, Michigan. It is that land to which the tribe relocated after the 1833 Treaty of Chicago until Leopold's death. After his passing, disputes arose over ownership and payment of property taxes, causing a rift in the community and motivating many tribal members to move from the Pokagon landholdings. The Pokagon family became a focal point for controversy because of those land disputes after the elder Pokagon's death. Simon Pokagon was not immune to those feelings by other tribal members.
Along with the expectations that came from his being a child of Leopold Pokagon, there were also stories that Simon Pokagon sold the tribe's claims to the Chicago lakefront, without permission and for personal gain—as well as an undercurrent of feeling within the Pokagon community that he was a lackey, a sort of "Uncle Tom," a "good Indian" and an overrated representative of the community who was more interested in impressing the literary circles of his time than advocating on behalf of his own people. At one time I wished he were a more clearly defined hero. Growing up in the early 1960s, there weren't too many Indian heroes on my radar. My non-Native friends had John Wayne, the Lone Ranger, and Roy Rogers. The Indians whom I saw in the media were mostly anonymous and usually cast as villains, or at best, sidekicks.
Pokagon played along with the fantasies and expectations of his patrons and benefactors. He was a featured speaker at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he presented the mayor of Chicago with a facsimile of a deed to Chicago wrapped in birch bark. On this day, designated as "Chicago Day," October 9, 1893, over 700,000 fairgoers crowded into the Exposition. The festivities included a noon ringing of the Liberty Bell by Pokagon, and another at 3 p.m., and he was an honorary umpire of an afternoon lacrosse game at the Stock Pavilion Amphitheater featuring Iroquois and Potawatomi players. Pokagon dressed in a suit like most other white men before the crowd that day, distinguished from those around him by a feathered cap. A picture survives of him from that day. Although a small man, he appears dignified and at ease. In the press, he was described as quiet and self-possessed, with a "look of sadness in his face, showing ... the weight of years ... pressed into a moment of time." On that October morning, nearly 75,000 people crowded into Terminal Plaza at the Fair to listen to the Indian man. During his speech, he railed against the evils of alcohol and its devastating effect upon Indians before concluding that his people needed to put aside their tribal allegiances in favor of U.S. citizenship.
Excerpted from Ogimawkwe Mitigwaki = QUEEN OF THE WOODS by Simon Pokagon Copyright © 2011 by Michigan State University . Excerpted by permission of MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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