Sachems and Shamans

After kinship, which defined the role of sagamore, Pawtucket leadership was accomplished mainly through a family’s and an individual’s charisma, achievements, and reputation. Leaders were empowered first through family status and then through popular choice. Because Pawtucket leadership was both inherited and consensual, and because band exogamy led to networks of alliance, political organization remained fairly stable even as leadership changed. Higher status families and individuals exerted influence through status symbols, which included optional additional wives, greater wealth as reflected in quality of dress and furnishings, and superior location of residence or preferred resource procurement sites.14

Sachems could have more than one wife, paid tribute or received and redistributed tribute from client bands, and lived on fortified heights or on easily defended river islands. In times of threat, leaders at Agawam and Wenesquawam, for example, would have governed from forts on hills or river islands in Newbury, Ipswich, Essex, Gloucester, Rockport, and Manchester-by-the-Sea that afforded good vantage points for detecting enemy raiders coming by sea.

Rock outcrops and high places had both secular and spiritual power. Hilltops, in addition to serving as lookouts and redoubts, also serve as ceremonial sites, astronomical observatories, and vision quest terrains. Some high mountaintops were viewed as places with the highest concentrations of manitou—the spiritual energy that inhabite people, trees, animals, rocks, weather, etc., which could work for good or evil. The Abenaki bmola (or pamola), for example, was a malevolent supernatural force (sometimes represented as a moose-headed bird) that lived on Mt. Katahdin in Maine and was responsible for cold winds and snowstorms.15

Mt. Washington in the White Mountains, the highest peak on the eastern seaboard, was regarded variously as a place of evil spirits or as the source of the Great Spirit’s manitou. It is said the Pennacook and Abenaki believed the mountain was therefore either too dangerous or too sacred to ascend beyond an altitude of 4,000 feet (1,220 meters). In 1636 an English colonist named Darby Field became the first European (and possibly even the first human) to climb Mt. Washington to its 6,288-foot (1,917-meter) summit.16

In addition to serving as watchtowers, defensive fortresses, sachems’ seats of power, sacred grounds, and the homes of powerful spirits, heights and hilltops also were places where special community gatherings took place, such as seasonal celebrations, powwows, and caucuses. Caucus is an Algonquian word for a meeting in which leaders or representatives of different families or bands debated and voted on policy, making decisions through consensus or by majority. Taking place on high ground, they literally were “summits” in the modern sense. Everyone who sat in the circle or “on the mat” had an equal say and could speak without fear of retribution. A speaker raised his hand to be recognized, providing an orderly procedure. The signers of the Declaration of Independence admired this model and adopted it in their quest for American sovereignty as a union of cooperating independent states.17

An Algonquian Caucus 18

In addition to sagamores and sachems, bands and tribes often had temporary leaders with complete authority for special purposes, such as pilgrimages to sacred sites, hunting parties, envoys to allies, and war parties. According to my tutor Sasachiminesh [Rolf Cachat-Shilling]:

The truth is, we don’t have proper terms or proper and complete knowledge of political entities in this region.  We don’t even have leadership terms properly sorted out: people use Sachem or Chief universally, but there are actually a number of official officer names, kinds of leaders (like ‘Chief’s men,’ Elders, Wise Ones, Ones Who Went Before, Herald, Chief’s Medicine Protector, etc., all of which have Indigenous terms specific to various nations).  Moreover, I have uncovered new terms for paramount chief and mid-level chiefs from land documents that seem to have been overlooked and are not cited anywhere….In Lenape [the oldest Algonquian language], a sakima’s [sachem’s] herald is called “puchel.”  There are terms from Indigenous persons for ‘headmen’ (lit. big persons) ‘leaders, big leaders’ (nikani, kitchinikani); tapauwauog (wise thinkers – Elders), which are akin to pauwauog (medicine persons), which are different from, but often include, nitskehuwaen (herbal healers); then there are mamontamak (diviners, petitioners), monetuak (fortunetellers, spell makers), and kosuquomak (sorcerers, black medicine makers).  We also have Tannagak (Cranes) who are the vision dance Elders and the drummers in the Xingwikaon….Abenaki have their own specialized terms, and i’m not certain hierarchy is an appropriate way to categorize these terms.  But, for example, kchisôgmô is a term for a paramount chief out of Abenaki at Odanak, such as Kchisôgmôak Masta and Sozap Lolo.  Mdawlenno is the general term for medicine person in Western Abenaki.

So Algonquian political organization was more complex that we think and we have much more to learn. Another example comes from the Massachusett. In times of conflict, a war chief called a muggumquomp (Anglicized to mugwump) was chosen in a caucus or appointed by the sachem or grand sachem of a confederacy or alliance.19 A confederacy was formed as an intended permanent union, while alliances were formed for particular, more or less temporary, purposes. Mugwumps often had the power to make war independently of, and even in opposition to, their peace-declaring leaders. Conflict resolution strategies in which mugwumps and their retinues of “braves” campaigned against each other were intended to conduct warfare on the sidelines and thus preserve security and normalcy in civilian life for the rest of the population. An analog might be a cross between gladiatorial combat and cyberwarfare.

This breaking away of autonomous military authority was confusing to Europeans, who sometimes attacked peaceful villages and noncombatants on the assumption they had authorized or abetted the depredations of mugwump-led raids. From mugwump we get a term first used in the 19th century for politicians who on principle break from their party on some issue.

 Political Cartoon 20

Like mugwumps behaving contrary to the wishes of their sachems, dissident Republicans were called mugwumps who bolted from their party in the 1884 U.S. presidential election over the issue of corruption. They supported the Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland instead of the Republican candidate James Blaine because of scandals associated with Blaine.

In addition to sagamores, sachems, and temporary or special purpose leaders, men and women specializing in spiritual leadership and healing were powerful and essential members of Algonquian bands. Powah (powwaw, pawaw, powwow) is Algonquian for “shaman” and also for the public curing ceremony, purification ritual, or other rite performed or led by the shaman. By 1780 the English were using powwow as a verb meaning “to confer”, but powwaw literally means “one who has visions”.

In addition to communicating with the spirits through trance and meditation and channeling spiritual forces, shamans had special knowledge of medicinal herbs and maintained extensive pharmacopeia. They cured illness; interpreted dreams; recited oral traditions; displayed dangerous skills, such as snakehandling, as a demonstration of their giftedness; recognized omens; practiced divination (telling the future) and sorcery (magically changing the future); supervised sweat lodge cleansings; and conducted purification rituals to prevent evil spirits from entering individuals, wigwams, or villages (or to exorcise them). Shamans also watched the sun, moon, and stars; presided over a complex seasonal ceremonial calendar; officiated at rights of passage such as puberty, marriage, and death; and served as key advisors to sagamores and sachems.21

Colonial Depiction of an Algonquian Shaman 22


In this colonial depiction by an unknown artist, the shaman in his wigwam, surrounded by the tools of his trade, shakes a gourd rattle and chants while preparing a potion.




Pawtucket shamans practiced sorcery against their enemies: the Mohawks (Kanienkahaka) and the Tarrantines (Mi’Kmaq) and later the English or the French.23 Geopolitical concerns included the Iroquoians to the west, especially Mohawk, who wanted access to the Atlantic seaboard and later a monopoly on Dutch trade in the Connecticut Valley, and the Tarrantines to the east, who wanted corn, hostages to ransom, and revenge for whatever previous casualties they suffered in intergenerational warfare. Geopolitical concerns extended ultimately to the Europeans, who wanted the land and all it contained.24