Nawkaw, Winnebago Chief

A Winnebago Chief

The countenance of this chief is prepossessing, and indicative of his true character. He was a firm, sagacious man, of upright deportment, and pacific disposition, who filled his station with dignity, and commanded respect by his fidelity to his engagements. His name is less expressive than most of those which are borne by Indians of reputation the word Nawkaw signifying wood. He was of the “Winnebago tribe, and of the Caromanie or Walking Turtle family, winch is of the highest distinction. The name Caromanie, among the Winnebago, implies rank and dignity, conveys the idea of sovereignty, and is, therefore, highly respected; for this people, like all other savages, have an inherent veneration for hereditary greatness.

This chief was the head of his tribe, who inhabited a broad and beautiful country, lying between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan, and spread out in plains of great extent, fertility, and magnificence. His residence was at the Big Green Lake, which is situated between Green Bay and Fort Winnebago, and is about thirty miles from the latter. Although a warrior by profession, the successful leader in many a fight, he was a person of excellent disposition, who preferred and courted peace; and his upright con duct, in connection with his military talents, caused him to be respected and beloved. His conduct was patriarchal, and his sway that of the parent rather than the master.

In the recent war between the United States and the Sauk and Foxes, it was feared that the Winnebago, inhabiting the country immediately north of the hostile Indians, would unite with them, and forming a powerful combination, would devastate the defenseless frontier, before our government could adopt measures for its relief. The opportunity was a tempting one to a savage tribe, naturally disposed to war, and always prepared for its most sudden exigencies; and many of the Winnebago were eager to rush into the contest. But the policy of Nawkaw was decidedly pacific, and his conduct was consistent with his judgment and his professions. To keep his followers from temptation, as well as to place them under the eye of an agent of our government, he encamped with them near the agency, under the charge of Mr. Kinzie, expressing on all occasions his disapprobation of the war, and his determination to avoid all connection with those engaged in it. The Indian tribes are often divided into parties, having their respective leaders, who alone can control their partisans in times of excitement. On this occasion, the more respectable, and by far the most numerous part of the Sauk and Fox nation, headed by Keokuk, the proper chief, remained at peace, while a faction, called the British band, was led headlong into a disastrous war by Black Hawk, a warrior having no lawful rank, and his coadjutor, the Prophet. Among the Winnebago a similar division occurred; a few restless and unprincipled individuals giving loose to their propensity for blood and plunder by joining the war parties, while the great body of the tribe remained at peace, under the influence of their venerable chief.

Having narrated, in the historical part of this work, the interesting story of the surrender of Red Bird, we shall only advert to that circumstance here for the purpose of remarking, that Nawkaw took an active and judicious part in that melancholy and singular affair. He exerted his influence to have the murderers arrested and delivered up to the officers of our government; but, having thus discharged his duty, he was equally diligent in his endeavors to obtain for them the pardon of the President. For this purpose he visited Washington in 1829, accompanied by fifteen of his chiefmen; and it was at that time that the portrait which we have copied was taken. He is represented in the attitude of addressing the President, and in the act of extending towards him his calumet at the conclusion of his speech.

The intercession of Nawkaw was successful; the clemency of the President was extended to the wretched men then lying captive in the prison at Prairie du Chien but unfortunately too late. The Indian, accustomed to unlimited freedom, languishes in confinement. The Red Bird was a high-spirited warrior, unused to restraint, and habituated to roam over boundless plains, with a step as unfettered as that of the wild horse of the Prairie. The want of exercise and the privations of imprisonment destroyed his health, broke his spirit, and hurried him to a premature grave. He died before the news of his pardon reached him.

We shall conclude this article with a few anecdotes of Nawkaw and his companions. In conducting these persons to Washington, it was deemed proper to lead them through some of the principal cities, where they might witness the highest evidences of our wealth, power, and civilization. Their conductors were Major Forsythe and Mr. Kinzie, the latter of whom speaks the languages of the north-western tribes with fluency, and to him are we indebted for these facts.

While at New York, the Winnebago deputies attended, by invitation, a balloon ascension at the Battery. At this beautiful spot, where the magnificence of a city on the one hand, and a splendid view of one of the noblest harbors in the world on the other, combine to form a landscape of unrivalled grandeur, thousands of spectators were assembled to witness the exploit of the aeronnut, and to behold the impression which would be made upon the savage mind by so novel an exhibition. The chiefs and warriors were provided with suitable places, and many an eye was turned in anxious scrutiny upon their imperturbable countenances as they gazed in silence upon the balloon ascending into the upper atmosphere. At length Nawkaw was asked what he thought of the aeronnut? He replied coolly “I think they are fools to trifle in that way with their lives what good does it do?” Being asked if he had ever before seen so many people assembled at one time, he answered, “We have more in our smallest villages.”

While at Washington they were lodged at a public hotel, and regaled in the most plentiful and sumptuous manner; not with standing which, when about to leave the city, Nawkaw complained of the quality of the food placed upon his table. Such a remark from an Indian, whose cookery is the most unartificial imaginable, and whose notions of neatness are far from being refined, was considered singular; and on inquiry being made, it turned out that a piece of roast beef, which had been taken from the table untouched, was placed a second time before these fastidious gentlemen, who, on their native prairies, would have devoured it raw, but who now considered their dignity infringed by such a procedure. Being asked if the beef was not good enough, he replied, that “there were plenty of turkeys and chickens to be had, and he chose them in preference.”

On their way home, at the first place at which they stopped to dine, after leaving Baltimore, they sat down at a well-furnished table. A fine roasted turkey at the head of the board attracted their attention, but keeping that in reserve, they commenced upon a chicken-pie. While thus engaged, a stranger entered, and taking his seat at the head of the table, called for a plate. The Indians became alarmed t for the turkey, cast significant glances at each other, and eyed the object of their desire with renewed eagerness. They inquired of each other, in subdued accents, what was to be done their plates being well supplied, they could not ask to be helped again, yet the turkey was in imminent jeopardy. The stranger was evidently hungry, and he looked like a man who would not trifle with his knife and fork. Luckily, however, he was not jet supplied with these necessary implements; there was a moment still left to be improved, and the red gentlemen, having cleared their plates, occupied it by dividing among them an apple-pie, which quickly vanished. A clean plate, knife and fork were now placed before the stranger, who was about to help himself, when, to his astonishment and utter discomfiture, one of the Indians rose, stepped to the head of the table, and adroitly fixing his fork in the turkey, bore it off to his companions, who very gravely, and without appearing to take the least notice of the details of the exploit, commenced dividing the spoil, while the stranger, recovering from his surprise, broke out into a loud laugh, in which the Indians joined.

As the party receded from the capital, the fare became more coarse, and the red men began to sigh for the fat poultry and rich joints that were left behind them. And now another idea occurred to their minds. Having noticed that payment was made regularly for every meal, they inquired if all the meals they ate were paid for, and being answered in the affirmative, each Indian, on rising from the table, loaded himself with the fragments of the feast, until nothing remained. When they observed that this conduct was noticed, they defended it by remarking, that the provisions were all paid for.

It has been well said that there is but a step between the sub lime and the ridiculous; and this aphorism is strikingly illustrated in the conduct of savages or uneducated men. The Indian has some heroic traits of character; he is brave, patient under fatigue or privation, often generous, and sometimes tenacious of the point of honor, to an extreme which has scarcely a parallel, except in the records of chivalry. In all that relates to war or the council, they are systematic, and the leading men exhibit much dignity and consistency of character. As hunters they are keen, skilful, and diligent; as warriors, bold, sagacious, and persevering But when the Indian is taken from this limited circle of duties, and thrown into contact with the white man, in social intercourse, his want of versatility, and deficiency of intellectual resources, often degrade him at one into meanness and puerility. For a time he may disguise himself in hi habitual gravity, and his native shrewdness, and presence of mind may enable him to parry any attempts to pry into his thoughts, or throw him off his guard, but the sequel inevitably betrays the paucity of the savage mind. Thus the chiefs and warriors of whom we have spoken were, some of them, distinguished warrior, and others eminent in council; but when thrown out of their proper sphere, and brought into familiar contact with strangers, they become the subjects of anecdotes such as we have related, and which, except the first one, would be too trifling for repetition, were they not illustrative of the peculiarities to which we have adverted

When at Washington, in 1829, Nawkaw, in speaking of his own age, called himself ninety-four winters old. He died in 1833, at the advanced age of ninety-eight, and was succeeded in his rank and honors by his nephew, who was worthy to inherit them. The latter is a person of temperate habits, who abstains entirely from the use of ardent spirits. He also is Caromanie, and has assumed the name of his uncle.

Nawkaw was a man of large stature and fine presence. He was six feet tall, and well made. His person was erect, his muscles finely developed, and his appearance such as indicated activity and great strength. Like many of his race, he was remarkably fond of dress; and even in the last days of his protracted life, devoted the most sedulous care to the decoration of his person. His portrait affords evidence of his taste; the head-dress, the ear-rings, and the painted face, show that the labors of the toilet had not been performed without a full share of the time and study due to a matter of so much importance; while the three medals, presented to him at different times, as the head of his tribe, and as tokens of respect for himself, are indicative of his rank, and are worn with as much pride and as much propriety as the orders of nobility which decorate the nobles of Europe.

The memory of this distinguished chief and respectable man is cherished by his people, and his deeds are recounted in their songs. He was one of those rulers whose wisdom, courage, and parental sway, endear them to their people while living, and whose precepts retain the force of laws after their decease.

McKenny, Thomas & Hall, James & Todd, Hatherly & Todd, Joseph. History of the Indian tribes of North America: with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred portraits from the Indian Gallery in the War Department at Washington. Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co. 1872.

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