Logan Fontenelle - Chiefdom Dispute

Chiefdom Dispute

Some historians contend that Fontenelle was made a chief of the Omaha in 1853 after the death of Big Elk. This assertion is contradicted by contemporary accounts that Fontenelle was respected, but only the whites thought he was a chief. They were the only ones to commemorate him after his death.

It appears confusion arose because he accompanied the chiefs to Washington, DC as an interpreter. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) also used Saunsouci as an interpreter. For some reason, the officials included Fontenelle's name as one of the seven chiefs on the treaty, which he signed, but the name of chief Two Grizzly Bears was not included, nor did he sign. Fontenelle was the only one of the group who was literate and could read what was on the treaty. Boughter suggests that Gatewood may have represented him to the BIA officials as a chief, or the Omaha did to increase his stature. He may have been recognized as a chief because of "charitable acts" and gifts to the tribe.

An 1889 sketch of Joseph LaFlesche in the Bancroft Journal said he was the only chief of the Omaha to have had any European blood; as noted, he was adopted as a son by Big Elk, which was the way he fully entered the tribe. Although A. T. Andreas called Fontenelle the "last great chief" of the Omaha in his 1882 history of Nebraska, the assertion of chieftainship is not supported by the evidence of tribal structure and contemporary views provided in 1919 by Melvin R. Gilmore, curator of the State Historical Society of North Dakota and the 20th-century historian Judith Boughter; it appears that only the whites thought Fontenelle was a chief in his own lifetime and during the decades after his death. As Gilmore noted, the Omaha had a tribal structure that had patrilineal hereditary leadership; because children belonged to their father's gens, there was no place in the tribe for a child fathered by a European or American, unless the person was officially adopted by a person in the tribe.

Dr. Charles Charvat reports in his work a passage from The Omaha Tribe that "on account of business and governmental interferences, two classes of chiefs developed in Indian tribes : one class was called regular chiefs, because they had attained their position through inheritance or through adoption by a former chief ; and a second class was known as 'paper chiefs,' because they usually had some document assuring them official and extra-tribal favor...it is likely that had acquired titular and other influence as the United States interpreter, and then through personal effort and natural ability attained prestige which made him a de facto chief."

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