Wakawn, Winnebago Chief

Wakawn The Snake A Winnebago Chief
The Snake
A Winnebago Chief

Wakawn, the Snake, was a war-chief of the Winnebago. He was born on St. Mary’s River, near Green Bay, in the Michigan territory, and died in 1838, at the age of nearly sixty years. He was of the middle stature, but athletic in form, and was exceeded by none of his nation in ability to endure fatigue. Although his countenance displayed but an ordinary intellect, the expression was mild, and he had an honest eye, such as is not often seen among his people, who are among the most fierce and treacherous of their race. The Snake was a well-disposed man, who maintained a good character through life.

In 1811, and previously to that time, the Winnebago, under the influence of the British agents and traders, were unfriendly to the United States, and were actively engaged in the depredations committed upon the frontier settlements. The broad expanse of wilderness which intervened between them and the settlements in Ohio and Indiana, afforded no protection to the latter, whose log cabins were burned and sacked by savages who traveled hundreds of miles to enjoy the gratification of murdering a family, and plundering the wretched homestead of a hunter whose whole wealth consisted in the spoils of the chase. The prospect of a war between Great Britain and the United States, to which they had long been taught to look forward as an event which would give them temporary employment, and great ultimate advantage, stimulated this warlike people into a high state of excitement; and when the Shawanoe Prophet raised his standard, they were among the first of the deluded band who rallied around it. Wakawn and some of his people formed a part of the motley assemblage collected at the Prophet’s town in the autumn of 1811, and again whom was directed the campaign of General Harrison, which eventuated so honorably to the American arms, and to the personal fame of that distinguished leader. Wakawn was in the battle of Tippecanoe, where he was slightly wounded, and is said to have borne himself bravely on that occasion. He was occasionally on the war-path during the remainder of the war, at the close of which he buried the hatchet, and has since been uniformly friendly to the American people.

Since the establishment of friendly relations between his nation and the United States, the Snake has been conspicuous for his faithful observance of the existing treaties; and after the several cessions of lands made by the Winnebago to the American government, he always led the way in abandoning the ceded territories, while a majority of the tribe were disposed to rescind the contract. In the late removal of his people to the west of the Mississippi, he was the first Winnebago, of any note, who crossed the river, when a great portion of the nation, including most of the influential men, were inclined to remain upon the lands they had sold to the United States. The readiness with which the Indians sell their titles to large tracts of country, contrasted with their sub sequent reluctance to deliver the possession, may be attributed in part to the fickleness of the savage character, in which notions of property, of obligation, or of abstract right are but feebly developed, if indeed they can be said to have palpable existence. But the immediate causes of those breaches of faith may be usually traced to the intrigues of unprincipled traders, who seek pecuniary profit in fomenting dissension. The refusal of an Indian nation to comply with its engagements, affords an occasion for a new treaty, attended with all the parade and expenditure of the original convention, with new stipulations, additional presents, and increased disbursements of money for various purposes, all which afford opportunities for peculation to those rapacious men. No subject has been more greatly misunderstood, or has afforded a more prolific theme for vituperation towards the American government and people, than the oppression supposed to have been exercised in removing Indians from their ceded lands, and which has been inferred from their reluctance to abandon them; when, in fact, the only fault on the part of the government is, that in effecting a laud able object, and with humane intentions towards the Indian, they have unwisely adopted a system which is liable to gross abuses.

In 1834, the government established at Prairie du Chien, a school and farm for the instruction of the Winnebago, under the direction of the Rev. David Lowry, who engaged assiduously in the duty of instructing that tribe in the rudiments of an English education, as well as in the labors of agriculture, combining with these, such religious information as his opportunities enabled him to inculcate. The Snake was the first of the chief men to appreciate the value of this establishment; he applied himself to the study of husbandry, and placed his family under the tuition of Mr. Lowry. His example was the more valuable, as the Indians generally are opposed to all such innovations; and the Winnebago were obstinately hostile to the efforts made to induce them to adopt the habits of civilized life. The decision of Wakawn, and the zeal with which he advocated the benevolent views of the government, brought him into collision with the other chiefs, who viewed his predilection for the knowledge and habits of the white men, as an alien and degenerate partiality, inconsistent with the duty which he owed to his own race; and on one occasion he defended his opinions at the risk of his life.

Notwithstanding the disgrace attached to the practice of manual labor among the Indian braves, the Snake often threw aside his blanket, and joined his wife in her rude but persevering attempts to support the family by tilling the soil. The fertile prairies of Wisconsin, where the soil has never been exhausted by culture, yields abundant returns, and he soon became convinced that he could more easily obtain a livelihood in this manner, than by the fatiguing and precarious labors of the chase. But when urged by the Superintendent of the school to give the full weight of his character and influence to the proposed reformation, by laying aside the character of the brave, and adopting entirely the habits of the civilized man, he replied that he was too old that the Indians who had been reared in the free and roving pursuits of savage life, could not abandon them, but that their children might; and while he declined doing what would be a violence to his own nature, he strongly advocated the employment of means to civilize the youth of his nation.

The difficulty of changing the habits of a people was exemplified in an amusing manner, in the family of this chief. At his own request a log-house, such as constitutes the dwelling of the American farmer in the newly settled parts of the country, was erected for him, at the expense of the government, under the expectation that, by giving his family a permanent residence, one step would be taken towards their civilization. The house was arranged in the ordinary way, with a chimney and fireplace; the operations of cooking were commenced in due form, at the fireplace, and the family assembled round the hearth, pleased and amused, no doubt, with this new form of social economy. But it was not long before the newly adopted contrivance was abandoned the floor was removed, and a fire kindled in the center of the house the family gathered in a circle about it a hole was cut in the roof for the smoke to pass through and the mansion of the Snake family became once more, thoroughly and completely, an Indian lodge.

Nor could Wakawn himself resolve to abandon the superstition^ of his race: while he recommended civilization to others, he clung to the customs of his forefathers. Believing in the existence, and the superiority of the true God, he could not sever the tie that bound him to the ideal deities of his people. He continued to join his tribe in their religious feasts and dances, and usually presided at the exercises. He probably had the faculty of veneration strongly developed, for his grave and solemn demeanor, on such occasions, is said to have rendered them interesting, and to have given an imposing effect to the ceremonies.

Unfortunately this respectable chief, who possessed so many estimable qualities, and so just a sense of the true interests of his people, was subject to the weakness which has proved most fatal to them. He was addicted to intoxication; and unhappily there is nothing in the religion or the ethics of the savage, nothing in their public opinion or the economy of their domestic life, to impose a restraint upon this vice. When a fondness for ardent spirits is contracted, it is usually indulged, with scarcely any discredit to the individual, and without a limit, except that imposed by the want of means to gratify this insatiable appetite. Wakawn lived in the neighborhood of Prairie du Chien, where the temptation was continually before him, and where ardent spirits were easily procured; and he was often drunk. This vice was the cause of his death. In November, 1838, after receiving their annuities from the United States, the Winnebago indulged themselves in a grand debauch, a kind of national spree, in which all engaged, without distinction of age, sex, or condition; and scenes of drunkenness, of violence, and of disgusting indecency were exhibited, such as had never before been witnessed among this people. Wakawn indulged freely, and becoming entirely helpless, wandered off, and threw himself on the ground, where he slept without any protection from the weather, during the whole of a very cold night. The next day he was attacked with a pleurisy, which soon terminated his existence.

The Snake was buried according to the Indian customs. A pipe, and several other articles of small value were deposited with his remains in the grave. As those had been intended for the use of the spirit, in the happy hunting-grounds of the blessed, his wife was desirous of adding some other articles, and brought them to the place of interment, but they were claimed by a rapacious chief, in remuneration of his services in doing honor to the deceased, arid actually carried away. Previous to filling up the grave, the family and relations of Wakawn stepped across it, uttering loud lamentations, and then, after marching from it, in single file, for several hundred yards, returned by a circuitous route to their several lodges. This custom, which the Winnebago usually pursue, is practiced from a regard for the living, and is supposed to be efficacious in diverting the hand of death from the family of the deceased.

The grave of this chief is often visited by convivial parties of his friends, who gather around it and pour whisky on the ground, for the benefit of the departed spirit, which is supposed to return and mingle in their orgies. It would not be difficult to point out, in the bacchanalian lyrics of the most refined nations, some ideas more absurd and less poetical than this.

The wife of this chief still survives, and is a pattern to her nation, in point of morality and industry. She had the sagacity to see the advantages which civilization offered to her sex, and became an early advocate for extending its benefits to her children. She has uniformly resisted the temptation to which most of the Indian women yield, and has never been known to taste whisky. Always industrious, she contributed largely to the support of her family, during her husband’s life, by cultivating the soil, and since his decease has maintained them decently by the same means Shortly after she became a widow, a brother of her late husband offered to marry her, in conformity with a custom of the tribe, but she declined the proposal.

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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