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Potawatomi leader Wabaunsee remembered for his prowess in battle and impact on 19th century Indian Policy

Wabaunsee, born Nakses, was a powerful and influential headman among the Potawatomi, Odawa and Ojibwe villages of Illinois and Indiana. With a reputation that preceded him, Wabaunsee was not only a noted veteran of the Osage Wars, Battle of Tippecanoe, and War of 1812, but also an esteemed religious leader within the ancient Midewiwin Medicine Lodge.

Openly opposed to American expansion, yet understanding the need to delegate for peace and the survival of his people, his name appears among numerous treaties signed between the United States and the Potawatomi. Wabaunsee steered removal negotiations for the United Band of Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi, and led the villages of Illinois and Wisconsin to a new reservation in Council Bluffs, Iowa, following the Treaty of Chicago of 1833.

Wabaunsee’s name represents his ability to successfully strike against his enemies.

Through his lifetime, Wabaunsee’s many achievements included leading successful war parties and meeting President Jackson. Although he never made it to the Potawatomi reservation in Kansas, a county, municipality and lake in the northeastern corner of the state bear his name.

“Most accounts indicate that Wabaunsee was born between 1747 and 1765. He was afforded a traditional upbringing, before foreign settlement and influence permanently changed tribal life,” said Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center Curator Blake Norton. “He endured the customary rites of passage for Potawatomi men, becoming a skilled hunter and warrior at a young age.”

Potawatomi have always held skilled soldiers in high esteem. Despite his quiet demeanor, Wabaunsee built a reputation as a talented fighter and gifted archer from an early age.

“His father Wabskum and older brother Mkedépeki were both famous warriors, motivating him to take the same path,” Norton said. “He was extremely ambitious and opportunistic; characteristics that helped seal his legacy.”

Spirituality

The Potawatomi traditionally hold high respect for leaders with divine connections, and Wabaunsee held a reputation as a medicine man in the Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Society.

“It’s understood that he was a high-ranking Mide,” Norton said. Each degree or rank comes with special knowledge and training.

Wabaunsee’s metaphysical powers would have helped him in battle,” he added.

Osage

Wabaunsee held the rank of a brave amongst the Potawatomi, Chippewa, Odawa, Sac and Fox, Kickapoo, Delaware, Shawnee, Menominee and others, and often participated in or lead war parties against enemies like the Osage.

“Given their close proximity (Missouri/Illinois), the Osage and Potawatomi disputed over territory, resources and position in western trade networks that grew into a cycle of retaliatory attacks. In the 1750s, when the Potawatomi were at war with the Illinois, the Osage gave aid to the Illinois, becoming formal enemies of the Potawatomi. These tensions were exploited by Spanish officials in the 1790s, as Potawatomi mercenaries were contracted to rid the Louisiana Territory of Osage raiders,” Norton said.

During one of the excursions into Osage land, Wabaunsee stepped up, proving his bravery when the other leaders refused.

“They had traveled to western Missouri in hopes of returning with war prizes … horses, captives and scalps,” Norton said.

By the end of the trip, most warriors decided to give up, but Wabaunsee protested returning to the Great Lakes region without at least one symbol of triumph. As the group approached a fort operated by Pierra Chouteau where Osage warriors were seeking refuge, Wabaunsee decided to enter the facilities through a small porthole at night. To fit in the tiny space, he left his rifle behind and entered the fort with only his tomahawk.

Once inside, Wabaunsee found a building where many Osage warriors slept, including the infamous Big Buffalo Osage. With protuberances on his head that resembled the horns growing on a calf, some acknowledged the Osage warrior as having supernatural powers.

“His deformity was recognized as a symbol of divine purpose,” Norton said. “Neighboring tribes knew of the Big Buffalo Osage and his powers. It was just luck that Wabaunsee found him.”

Wabaunsee struck Big Buffalo Osage with his tomahawk, and with each blow, the Buffalo Osage yelled in pain that awoke everyone in the structure. Once awake, the Osage cried for their leader who was bleeding. They began pushing and shoving, trying to capture Wabaunsee without success. Once the Potawatomi leader seized an Osage scalp, he escaped back to safety through the porthole.

According to an article written by 19th-century Potawatomi leader Joseph Napoleon Bourassa, although Wabaunsee proved successful in every war expedition, he regretted wounding the Buffalo Osage. Bourassa served as an interpreter for Wabaunsee on numerous occasions and compiled a biographical article to remember the leader’s influence.

Name change

Although born Nakses, meaning Shining Sun, he received the name Wabaunsee to reflect his aptitude. During one Osage raid, Wabaunsee lost a close friend and wanted revenge. He approached a camp of Osage, killing many and taking around 40 captives. From this, he received his warrior name Wabaunsee, which means Break of Day or He Causes Paleness.

Another story describing his name change occurred after he received wounds while attacking a supply vessel. Once slightly healed, Wabaunsee desired retribution.

“After several days of attacking the countryside, Wabaunsee decided to steal some horses from a local farm,” Norton explained. “As he was leaving with the horses, he was followed by most likely the owner, who he attacked and killed. He would later describe that when he killed a man, their spirit faded from them as they turned pale like dawn.”

War of 1812

Knowing Wabaunsee’s skill and leadership, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh asked his help in rallying Native forces in his region against American encroachments.

“Tecumseh approached many war leaders at this time, in an effort to build an intertribal force to march on key regional locations and eventually Canada,” Norton explained.

By bringing Native troops together under one mission, Tecumseh and his brother, the Prophet, hoped to keep the remaining Native lands from settlement.

In September 1811, Wabaunsee successfully led an attack against William Henry Harrison’s supply on the Wabash River. He also directed Potawatomi warriors, alongside leaders like Shabbona and Winamac, during the Battle of Tippecanoe later that fall.

Throughout the early 19th century, Potawatomi communities often had to make decisions based upon what was best for their specific area and circumstance. Wabaunsee and several other Potawatomi leaders held neighborly relations with nearby settlers. Because of these relationships, during the Battle of Fort Dearborn, Wabaunsee assisted and protected fur trader John Kinzie and his family.

“It’s speculation, but it could have been personal relationships and/or him simply wanting to assist his brother, Black Partridge, in saving local settlers,” Norton explained.

Although the Potawatomi leader supported some of Tecumseh and his brother, the Prophet’s, platform of holding back the Americans, Wabaunsee disagreed on many key issues.

“When asked if he was saddened or disappointed to hear of Tecumseh’s death, he said no,” Norton explained. “Wabaunsee described that Tecumseh’s political views were geared only toward fighting and war. Despite the cause, Tecumseh was always ready for battle.”

US relations

Wabaunsee understood that amicable relations with the U.S. were necessary,” Norton said. “That’s why he was party to so many treaties. He wanted to represent his Nation, and as a delegate, he could hold both his people and the U.S. government accountable to each treaty’s terms.”

Nineteenth century Potawatomi leader Bourassa wrote of Wabaunsee’s decisiveness and reserved, yet shrewd, approach with the federal government.

“These qualities made him a first rate diplomatist in treaty making. There never were sufficient barriers in his way to thwart him from executing any projects he might have in view,” Bourassa wrote.

In late fall 1836, Wabaunsee met with President Andrew Jackson. Although support for the meeting was difficult to procure, the Potawatomi leader refused to wait for fair weather.

Wabaunsee stated that he did not belong to the president and should not be restricted to meet with him, as he considered them to be equals,” Norton explained. “He had an urgent message for President Jackson and that is why he ignored invitations to meet in the summer. This small statement has a lot of impact. It shows that Wabaunsee understood how important he was to his nation.”

In November 1845, Wabaunsee visited Washington D.C. a second time to discuss a potential new treaty and represent the Potawatomi at Council Bluffs. The government desired all the Potawatomi removed west to consolidate on one reservation in present-day Kansas. Records indicate he was around 80 to 90 years old when he made the journey. Sadly, on Wabaunsee’s return to present-day Iowa, his stagecoach crashed, and his injuries ultimately resulted in his passing.

“His death was a shock to the whole nation — it had seemed as though he never was to die, by his calculations and the sayings of the people,” Bourassa wrote of Wabaunsee. “He was the strongest man in our national councils, and was as a serpent in Indian diplomacy and national affairs in general, and a master judge of human nature.”

Tour the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center’s gallery Treaties: Words & Leaders That Shaped Our Nation to learn more about Wabaunsee and this period in Potawatomi history.