CHIEF THUNDERWATER (10 September 1865-10 June 1950), whose birth name was Oghema Niagara, was a NATIVE AMERICAN entertainer, businessman, and political activist who worked to protect the rights and cultures of Indigenous peoples, improve their welfare and promote their image among non-Native people in the United States and Canada. Born on the Tuscarora Reservation near Lewistown, New York, he was the son of Au-Paw-Chee-Kaw-Paw-Qua, a Sauk/Ojibwe who was a daughter of Chief Keokuk, and Jee-Wan-Gah, a Seneca who grew up in the vicinity of Buffalo, New York.
Thunderwater followed his parents into entertainment work and during the late nineteenth century appeared in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West shows. He became a dedicated political activist in the mid-1880s after participating in the events and protests in Buffalo related to the exhumation and reburial of Red Jacket, a famed Seneca Chief and orator. In the early 1900s Thunderwater settled in Cleveland, a city he had come to know well as a result of his parents’ travels and connections to its urban Indian community. There he became president of his own company, Preservative Cleaner Co., manufacturing and selling polishes and herbal medicines and teas. He also formed and helped manage his own amateur baseball team, the “Thunderwaters.” He became a concerned advocate for Indigenous people living in and traveling through Cleveland and for the next five decades offered aid and hospitality to Native people from a variety of tribal backgrounds in his home at 6716 Baden Court on the city’s near-east side. A personal, life-time political cause became the protection of the ERIE STREET CEMETERY grave of JOC-O-SOT, a Sauk warrior who was active in the Black Hawk War of 1832 and died in Cleveland in 1844.
Around 1910 Thunderwater became involved in advocating for the rights and welfare of Seneca and Tuscarora people in Buffalo and on reservations in western New York State. To further this work, in 1914 he established The Council of the Tribes, a pan-tribal Indigenous rights and self-help organization based in Cleveland, but reaching out to reservation communities in the United States and Canada. In late 1914 he became involved in the political affairs of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois/Six Nations Confederacy) communities in Canada and he and his organization soon became an influential force for Haudenosaunee sovereignty and restoring traditional government at Akwesasne, Kahnawake, and Kanehsetake in Southern Quebec and Tyendinaga and Grand River in Southern Ontario. Concerned about the political movement he helped to inspire, officials in Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs, worked to discredit Thunderwater and orchestrated a “dirty tricks” campaign that painted him as, among other things, a Black man and an imposter who sought only personal gain. The effort was successful and was one important factor in bringing “Thunderwaterism” to an end around 1920. Despite this, Thunderwater and the Council of the Tribes served to keep the struggle for traditional government and sovereignty alive in Haudenosaunee communities in Canada.
Thunderwater’s efforts to educate White Americans about Indigenous peoples included being active in the EARLY SETTLERS ASSOCIATION OF THE WESTERN RESERVE, appearing at public ceremonies in Cleveland in full Native regalia and holding an annual ceremony at the grave of Joc-O-Sot. His efforts also included Native Americans, a publishing venture in 1926 with Cleveland businessman Frank Burr that was intended to educate young people about the history of Indigenous people in the United States. Thunderwater’s attempts to promote the publication led to controversy in Louisville, Kentucky, where critics used false information provided to them by Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs to raise suspicions about his ancestry and motives. Thunderwater sued his opponents for libel and for two years fought in the courts to protect his identity and character.
Thunderwater had one son, Louis Keokuk, who was born in 1899, and whose mother was a White woman from Detroit by the name of Euphemia Waters. Thunderwater died in Cleveland and was buried in the Erie Street Cemetery alongside his hero Joc-O-Sot.
Reid, Gerald. Chief Thunderwater: An Unexpected Indian in Unexpected Places. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021.