Simon Pokagon: Problems of a Middleman

Simon PokagonSimon Pokogan (1830-1899) was born in Berrien County, Michigan, the son of Leopold Pokogan, chief of the Potawatomies for more than 40 years.  In 1832 Leopold, some believe, actually sold the land some of early Chicago was built on.  Simon attended Oberlin College for a year and Twinsburg Institute, near Cleveland, for two, then served as chairman of the Potawatomi business committee.  A controversial middleman figure to his own people, Pokagon on the one hand advocated for the Potawatomi community, often elegantly expressing the Native sadness of displacement and castigating whites for usurping their land.  On the other hand, he seemed a tireless self-promoter and was criticized for, among other things, selling the tribe’s interest in the Chicago lakefront by way of quitclaim—an echo of his father’s earlier sale?—and too readily acquiescing to white demands.

Queen of the Woods by Simon PokagonNevertheless, Simon Pokogan is an important early Native American literary figure, often referred to as the “Indian Longfellow” for his many poems.  He is also usually credited with being the first Native American to write a novel about Native Americans, Queen of the Woods/O-Gi-Maw-Kwe Mi-Tig-Wa-Ki (1899), though some scholars believe it was actually ghostwritten by his publisher, an indication of how he perhaps allowed himself to be used by whites promoting the noble savage image.

“In early life, I was deeply hurt as I witnessed the grand old forests of Michigan, under whose shades my forefathers lived and died, falling before the cyclone of civilization as before a prairie fire,” reads a typical passage in Queen of the Woods.  He contrasts the wild birds of old—who sang natural, varied songs—with “the songs of other birds that have come with the advance of civilization,” birds who “sing in concert, without pride,” and sing “alike”—that is, without deep purpose or connection—whether they are “in forest and field,” “before wigwam or caste,” or “before savage, or sage…chief or king,”

Simon PokagonIn his Red Man’s Rebuke he can be found writing: “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 Native American peoples, on the other hand his speech on “Chicago Day” at that very World’s Columbian Exposition—where he supposedly had “no spirit to celebrate”—had a decidedly conciliatory tone.  The October 10, 1893, edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune reports him as saying:  “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.’”

Smokestacks and SkyscrapersIn our book Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing, David Starkey and I included an excerpt from his famous account of the massacre at Fort Dearborn, where he urges readers to consider “the real causes” of the “massacre”—“the great Algoquin tribe, with others” being “slowly but surely pushed before the tidal wave of civilization towards the setting sun…,” despite the fact that when the whites “reached out their hands for wido-kaw-ke-win [help]…we filled them with wie-aus and maw-daw-min [meat and corn].”  He dismisses accusations such as the Patowatomies pretending “to be acting as escorts for the soldiers, when, in fact, they were luring them to their death.”

“Disguise the fact as the pride of the white man may,” he writes, “when he joins hands with unaltered savages in warfare he is a worse savage than they,” then accuses the white man of making the Indian worse.  “All our traditions and the accounts published by the dominant race show conclusively that the white man’s dealing with our fathers was of such a character that they were made worse.”  He recalls his father Leopold’s belief in the enormous corrosive effect of “fire water.”  It is an impassioned defense.  Yet even here his references to “unaltered savages,” his admission that Native Americans were “made worse,” and the way he often seems to identify  civilization with whiteness—all these lean towards confirming that Native Americans may indeed be less worthy.  He also seemed to think that his appeals could break through the “pride of the white man,” something that history has amply proven otherwise.

 Read about other Native American writers and artists: Metea, Mark Turcotte, Ramson Lomatewama.

Go to a list of Chicago Writers, most included in Smokestacks and Skyscrapers.

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Three Story Sandbox

Three Story Sandbox—the new release from jazz veterans Scott Robinson, Janice Borla, and Jack Mouse (left to right below)—manages to sound ancient and electronic, avant garde and traditional, world-musicky and rock-solid American all at once, and without sounding like a hodge-podge.  This age of single-song downloads has all but killed-off the concept of a unified album, but I did something I hadn’t done in a while: listened to an album straight through, all 57 minutes of this free-jazz recital, forward-moving and compelling, with Scott Robinson’s ending alto solo providing a wonderful release.

Scott Robinson, Janice Borla, Jack MouseWith the exception of some so-called smooth jazz, I’ve loved jazz seemingly forever, even when its standard forms become so predictable: main song theme, then solos—first sax, then trumpet, then piano—followed by the “fours”—various instruments trading solos four (sometimes eight) measures at a time—and finally back to main theme.  Over and over like this, song after song.  But even then you find delight in the cleverness of the improvisation, the mastery of the idiom, and occasionally in a solo breaking-out or breaking-through, and transcending the routine.  You love it when the ensemble groove becomes so together: when they’re “in the pocket,” as we say, even though they’re in the same box.  Or in the case of this new record, when they’re out of the usual box and playing around in another kind.  A sandbox, one chocked full of toys: Ojibway tortoise shell drums, Chinese, Nepalese and Japanese bells and gongs, Navajo cedar flutes, penny whistles, photo theramins.  These supplement Jack Mouse’s regular drum kit and Scott Robinson’s saxes, cornet, and guitar.  Then there’s Janet Borla’s voice which grounds us with her as-usual exceptional scat singing.  She reminds us that this free-jazz stew—with rhythmic and melodic fragments sticking out and sticking in everywhere—hasn’t left traditional jazz behind.  At the same time her voice manages to sound like electronic hisses, shaken shells, and, most of all, whispered hints that complement and stick together all the free-floating musical elements.

Three Story SandboxThe album begins with fragments of rhythm from shells, shakers, gongs, and sticks, over which both skittish and long, sometimes ghostly flute fragments dart and float.  The second number follows with little or no break, beginning with gong strikes, perhaps reflecting the song’s title, “The Forge.” Then Jack Mouse’s ever-inventive rhythms begin resembling electronic pulsing and white noise, which Robinson answers with jagged, squiggly sax sounds before Borla enters.  She alternates between fleet be-bop scat riffs, breathiness, and longer, bluesier fragments of melody that both remind us we’re still connected to traditional jazz while also echoing the Navajo flute sounds of song one.  These first two songs lay down a pattern the rest of the album elaborates on throughout the unified first seven numbers (called the “Sandbox Suite”) and continues to detail and develop in the next nine, more distinct numbers beginning with “Slap Happy” and ending with “Hand Blown,” before the final number, “Scott Free,” provides the release I mentioned earlier.

Voices and Freedoms: A History of JazzIn my first book, Voices and Freedoms (see the link below), I proposed understanding jazz history by following two dimensions: first, Form—something that changed to become looser and lead towards more “freedoms,” and, second, something that didn’t change: Voices—the human voices infusing jazz instrumental sound and signifying a warm, caring, struggling humanity—a humanity compelled to express its persistence, even its triumphs, despite the heaviest trials.  Janice Borla’s magnificent voice testifies to this unchanging presence throughout the album, but in a way the most human voice comes at the end when Scott Robinson’s sax goes it alone.  The first song “The Summons” called us to journey and explore.  “Scott Free” sounds like a benediction signaling both end and beginning.

I had one criticism of the album as I listened the first time.  I would have liked seriousness and playfulness to have been more evenly balanced.  Though much, much different in mood, the arc of the album reminded me of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, which begins with an “Acknowledgement” of the need to journey and to pursue love more deeply, and ends with a “Psalm” resolving the search and promising new life.  That’s obviously heavy stuff, and many elements of the avant garde idiom—rhythmic inventiveness, fragmented musical lines, a tone often more somber than playful—sometimes lead the music to sound more serious than it may actually be.  That seriousness was part of the reason this album was so riveting, but it didn’t quite jibe with the “Sandbox” title, until my wife Linda—probably watching my wide grins—shouted at me from across the room, “Looks like you’re having too much fun over there!” and we remarked, simultaneously, how much the music reminded us of Chicago’s old Velvet Lounge at 21st and Indiana—a temple of free jazz flanked on one side by Harold’s Chicken Shack, and on the other by Fitzee’s Ribs.  We like to say our kids practically grew up there, sometimes mesmerized, sometimes lulled to sleep, by free form jazz and world music improvisations sometimes lasting 45 minutes or more.  “If you could see them play Three Story Sandbox, you’d catch all the playfulness you need,” Linda said.  “Just think of Jack smiling, and the faces Janice would be making.”  That snapped it all into place, balancing seriousness and playfulness more dynamically in my mind.  I listened again, this time catching all the playfulness I had missed the first time around.  Of all music, jazz just has to be live.  You have to at least imagine seeing them played live to hear great jazz records fully.  Here’s hoping that more and more of this free jazz pops up in the live concerts these wonderful musicians are in the habit of playing.

 Go to the main page for Voices and Freedoms.

 Go to a sample of the Voices and Freedoms radio series, this one an excerpt from show #14 on Ornette Coleman, a pioneer of free jazz.

Go to a list of Reviews.

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Gospel Extravaganza 28


The 28th Annual Gospel Extravaganza happens this February 6th in Pfeiffer Hall on the campus of North Central College in Naperville.

This year it features rising gospel star Anita Wilson, who’ll spend the day doing workshops with three gospel choirs.  Then she and those choirs will take the stage at 7:00 p.m.

It’s a different format from other Extravaganzas, but promises to be as electric as others, too.  It’s also a little later, and serves, as it usually has, as a bridge between the college’s annual, week-long celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.* and Black History Month.  I helped found the Gospel Extravaganza those many years ago…and more.  The process started the year before when a group of our students put on a gospel concert at Community United Methodist Church just down the street. They invited me to it and asked if I could bring the event to the college.  I had started the college’s present-day Cultural Events program and was still head of it, so I was in the position to promise them I would.  It’s been at North Central College ever since.  Follow the links below to watch a little of the 25th anniversary concert and read about it and other memories.  And please join us on February 6th.

  Watch video and read about the event’s 25th Anniversary.

 Read Father Mike Pfleger and Other Gospel Extravaganza Memories.

*  Go to a video of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Riverside Sermon,” and follow links there to other MLK material.  The sermon was perhaps his most courageous, and miles away from “I Have a Dream.”

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