Filed Under Race and Ethnicity

Chief Thunderwater

Oghema Niagara of the band Pishqua, tribe Osauckee of the Algonquin nation, was born amid the thunderous sound of the Niagara on September 10, 1865, in the Hut of Two Kettle on the Tuscarora Indian Village in Lewistown, New York. Cleveland became his home during the first decade of the 20th century. He came to be known among white men as Chief Thunderwater and built an impressive career as a business leader and civic booster while maintaining his native identity.

As a member of the Pioneers Memorial Association, Chief Thunderwater led a long crusade to save the Erie Street Cemetery from relocation/desecration with a warning that "should the body of [Mesquakie chief and cemetery resident] Joc-o-Sot’s ever be touched, a terrible disaster would befall Cleveland." It would not be his last or even most famous prophecy. He also claimed, ex post facto, to have seen a vision in 1948, correctly predicting a World Series win by the Cleveland Indians baseball team. It is unknown whether the Chief was sincere or if, understanding the strange condition of native peoples in modern North America, he was merely playing the expected role of mystic. After all, Oghema Niagara had an agenda.

Born and raised during the final stages of the Indian Wars, he knew that adopting the ways of white men came with both opportunity and risk. Native Americans who entered white society were expected – and often forced – to abandon native cultural practices. Oghema Niagara learned that if he were to preserve his culture, he would need to understand what white Americans saw as important. It is likely his experience as a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show gave him some idea of how to proceed. By showcasing (sometimes imagined or invented) native ways, he sought to promote the humanity of native people and demonstrate the value of traditional cultures. Along the way, he also made the social connections that would help establish him among the burgeoning Cleveland business class and lend him the influence he needed to serve as a voice for his people.

Chief Thunderwater began selling herbal cure-alls in Cleveland in the early 1900s. His products – including "Mohawk Penetrating Oil," "Thunderwater Tonic Bitters," "Seminole Sweet Gum Salve," and "Jee-wan-ga tea," – were supposedly derived from traditional medicines "from back in the days when bison trampled the prairie flowers in the dust." He ran his own Thunderwater & Rose company and served as president of the Preservative Cleaner Company, a manufacturer of polishes. He belonged to the Cleveland Business Men's Taft Club, made up of Republican Party supporters, and personally met Presidents Wilson and Taft. His 17 room dwelling at 6716 Baden Court served as his business headquarters. It also became a de facto inn for traveling Native Americans and an occasional home for those in need.

Oghema Niagara was Cleveland’s last known "sachem" and served as a founder and leader of the Supreme Council of Indian Tribes from 1917 to 1950. During that period, he addressed Indian affairs from his home and often travelled thousands of miles to personally diffuse situations throughout North America. He lectured vigorously in support of American Indian rights, leading the fight, for example, in United States, Ex Rel. Diabo vs. McCandless regarding the border between the U.S. and Canada and Indian acknowledgement thereof. Thundering against the "wrongs that the white man did unto his red people," Oghema Niagara led The Thunderwater Movement, which agitated for, among other things, unification of the tribes for the purpose of securing an independent Indian Nation roughly the size of Texas. In the latter half of his life, he was a consistent and controversial figure in the still-nascent movement for Native American rights, butting up against the repressive policies of the Indian Affairs office in the US and the Indian Department in Canada, as well as more assimilationist Native Americans.

By the time of his death on June 10th of 1950, Chief Thunderwater had become something of a ceremonial celebrity in Cleveland, at least in part thanks to the name of the local baseball team, for which he rooted near the end of his life ("May the best warriors win, as long as they are Cleveland's" he declared prior to the Indians' 1948 World Series win). Some claim he was the inspiration for the team's racially-insensitive Chief Wahoo mascot, an indignity imposed on the memory of a handful of other Native American Clevelanders, including baseball players Allie Reynolds and Louis Sockalexis. The Canadian government claimed he was not a Native American at all, but a "negro" conman named Henry Palmer – a charge his supporters (plausibly) considered a transparent fabrication meant to discredit the Pan-Indian Thunderwater Movement.

Chief Thunderwater, Henry Palmer, Oghema Niagara, is buried at Erie Street Cemetery, a place he helped preserve, alongside the unmoved grave of Chief Joc-o-Sot.

Images

Chief Thunderwater Cleveland resident Chief Thunderwater, outfitted in full Native American dress, reflects his proud heritage and dedication to Native Americans. Several of his personal effects, including the headdress worn in this photo, are part of the Western Reserve Historical Society's collections. Image courtesy of Western Reserve Historical Society
Joc O Sot's Grave The grave of Joc O Sot, chief of the Sauk Tribe, has occupied a place in Cleveland's Erie Street Cemetery since 1844. In the early 1900s there was a plan to move the grave. Chief Thunderwater took up the cause to prevent the removal of Joc O Sot's grave, however, making the dire prediction that if his body was touched, a terrible disaster would befall Cleveland. Thanks to Chief Thunderwater's efforts, the grave was not moved but restored instead. Image courtesy of Sarah Doyle
Thunderwater's Grave Chief Thunderwater is buried in Erie Street Cemetery, the place he championed to save decades earlier. The peace pipe featured on the stone symbolizes the great efforts he took to champion the plight of his people and their need to peacefully coexist among themselves and with the broader world. Image courtesy of Sarah Doyle
Council of Nations Chief Thunderwater was named Chieftain of the Six Iroquois Nations in 1914 and Peace Chieftain of the Supreme Council of Tribes in 1917. He split time between Canada and the United States to fulfill these duties.The latter group was a revival of the old Confederacy of Iroquois Nations and was formed to provide support for the dwindling number of Iroquois Indians living in their original homelands at this time. Thunderwater also belonged to Cleveland's 'Business Men's Taft Club,' made up of Republican Party supporters, and personally met Presidents Wilson and Taft. Image courtesy of Dalene Kelly
Thunderwater in Canada In 1917, Chief Thunderwater helped to form the Supreme Council of the Tribes, an Iroquois group whose purpose was "assisting the members in sickness and distress by voluntary contributions, and to adopt means to promote the general welfare of the American Indians: to propagate the doctrine of temperance and education among them and to legally protect and preserve their rights and interests generally." Image courtesy of Dalene Kelly
Granddaughters Chief Thunderwater's granddaughters attended the Giddings School in Cleveland. Marion Wanda (Mahoniaee Mahoniaee) was the mystery lady of Erie Street Cemetery, leaving corn and other items on the graves of her grandfather and Joc o Sot until her death. Now other family members continue the tradition. Source: Mona Secoy
Kit Carson Receipt Chief Thunderwater, whose English name was Henry Palmer, joined forces with fellow Indian Charlie Rose to start several businesses. Kit Carson, son of the frontiersman Kit Carson Sr., was a personal friend of Chief Thunderwater and patron of his herbal business. The Chief was a renowned healer who inherited the skill from his mother and father who were both Seneca Indians Image courtesy of Western Reserve Historical Society
1948 World Series The Cleveland Indians walk off the field after winning the 1948 World Series by defeating the Boston Braves. Chief Thunderwater made the following prediction, "May the best warriors win, as long as they are Cleveland's." He went on to say, "I knew they were going to win. That came to me many moons ago. I saw a cloud on the horizon but I didn't know what it was. It must have been Hal Newhouser. Now the Cleveland Indians are going to beat the Boston Braves." The Chief was right - The Cleveland Indians won the 1948 World Series! Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library University Special Collections
New York Times obituary, 11 June 1950 Source: New York Times Date: 11 June 1950

Location

Metadata

“Chief Thunderwater,” Cleveland Historical, accessed September 25, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/275.