Published on September 11, 2013 by Amy
Simon Pokagon (?? 1830- January 28, 1899) was a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, an author, and a Native American advocate. He was born near Bertrand in southwest Michigan and died on January 28, 1899 in Hartford, Michigan. Dubbed the “Red Man’s Longfellow” by literary fans, Pokagon was often called the “Hereditary and Last Chief” of the tribe by the press. He was a son of his tribe’s patriarch, Leopold Pokagon.
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Simon Pokagon was born to Leopold Pokagon and his wife, who were Potowatomi.
He claimed attendance at Notre Dame University and Oberlin College, but that has been challenged, as they have no record of his matriculation. Some scholars have challenged his claims of fluency in four of the “classic” European languages. Template:James Clifton, 1994
Pokagon wrote several books and multiple shorter works. He is identified as one of the recognized Native American authors of the nineteenth century. Some have argued that his writings may have been substantially edited by the wife of his personal attorney, although that remains speculation and a matter of controversy among scholars.
Pokagon was a featured speaker at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. While his popularity with some fellow tribal members waned, he was always welcomed among the Gold Coast “High Society” of Chicago and the Chautauqua literary groups of the East Coast.
He was an early activist trying to force the United States to pay monies owed pursuant to treaties and to provide 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, he sold “interests” in that Chicago land claim to real estate speculators, angering some in the Pokagon community.
In much of his writings, Pokagon wrote about the past and traditional ways of life; he lamented the passing of a “vanishing” race of Indians. But the Pokagon Potawatomi were not vanishing. They 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 at local factories and farms and retained close ties to the Catholic Church. According to the historian Susan Sleeper-Smith, unlike the neighboring Miami in Indiana, who “hid in plain sight”, the Pokagon Potawatomi tightly held onto their traditions and sense of community.
In a publication originally titled Red Man’s Rebuke and subsequently Red Man’s Greeting, Simon wrote:
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 characterize him as a great early spokesperson of resistance for American Indian peoples, his speech at the World’s Columbian Exposition on “Chicago Day” was reported in the October 10, 1893 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune and had a conciliatory tone:
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.’
Pokagon was not the last chief of the Potawatomi nor a hereditary chief of the tribe. The Pokagon have had chiefs since his death, and leadership in Potawatomi communities is not hereditary. For a while, he was the head of the Business Committee of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, until his political fortunes soured and he was replaced. He became an ambiguous icon of an early Indian who obtained “celebrity” status.
A monument to both Simon and his father Leopold Pokagon was proposed for Chicago’s Jackson Park but never built. (Jackson Park Office, Chicago Park District).
Pokagon State Park in northern Indiana is named for both of them.