Chief Thunderwater

By John J. Grabowski, Ph.D.
Krieger Mueller Associate Professor of Applied History  CWRU
Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications, Western Reserve Historical Society

Editor, Encyclopedia of Cleveland History\


A broken tombstone in  Erie Street Cemetery opens a story critical to understanding an important part of the history of Native Americans in Greater Cleveland.   It marks the grave of Joc O Sot, a member of the Sauk tribe who had fought in the Black Hawk War, and then came to Cleveland in the early 1830s.  While his story is compelling, it leads to another story.   Years after his death, another native American, Oghema Niagara – known to the community as Chief Thunderwater – would hold an annual ceremony at the grave to honor Joc O Sot.

Indeed, Chief Thunderwater, who was active in the Early Settlers Association of Cleveland, became the symbolic Native American in the city.  Dressed in full Iroquois regalia, he often appeared at civic ceremonies as a representative of the true first people of Cleveland.   That is how the public came to see him up to the time of his death in 1950.   But, Oghema Niagara had a far deeper purpose, one that went well beyond being the “symbolic  Indian” in Cleveland.

Born on a reservation near Lewistown, New York, in September 1865, Oghema Niagara became a powerful advocate for the rights and heritage of Native American People in Canada and New York.   His advocacy took place at a time when stereotypes of Indians abounded and when native traditions were challenged by forced assimilation.  In 1914 he established the Council of the Tribes.  Headquartered in Cleveland, the organization fought for the rights of Native Americans on reservations in the US and Canada.   His home in Cleveland became a place where other Native Americans could find shelter and assistance, and later in life he paired with a Cleveland businessman to begin a program to educate students about the history of the first peoples.

Yet, his advocacy (which was stridently challenged by authorities in Canada) has largely been forgotten and likely obscured by his public image at civic events at ceremonies in Cleveland where many who saw him perhaps viewed him as a relic of the past.

Today we know this deeper story of Chief Thunderwater  thanks to the preservation of his papers by the Western Reserve Historical Society.   They were fortuitously acquired at an auction in 1967 and have proved immensely helpful in the research for a new book, Chief Thunderwater: An Unexpected Indian in Unexpected Places written by Professor Gerald Reid of Sacred Heart University.

You’ll be able to learn more about Oghema Niagara when Professor Reid comes to the Historical Society for our By the Book authors series on November  4.

John J. Grabowski

Chief Historian