Chief Wah Shun Gah

Chief Wah Shun Gah 1907

In honor of the 30th anniversary of Wahshungah Days I thought it would be fitting to learn of the man whose name it bears.   The date of Wah Shun Gah’s birth is uncertain as well as his age at death.  The 1902 Kaw Allotment Roll shows the chief was 64 years old at that time; if the figure on the roll is correct, he would have been about 70 at his death.  Most people guessed him older than that as he looked pretty weathered I suppose.

We’ll just allow that he was born about 1837.  It is most likely that Wah Shun Gah was born in the Kansas River Valley somewhere between Topeka and Manhattan.  Wah Shun Gah means ‘cut face’.  He had received a tomahawk wound on his cheek which left a scar.  Other sources say that he was known as ‘Bird’.  Wah Shun Gah was said to have had twenty one wives in his lifetime, none of which survived him.

By 1847 the Kaw tribe was moved to the reservation surrounding Council Grove.  There were three bands or villages on this reservation.  The one Wah Shun Gah lived in was on Big John Creek of which Ishtalasea was the chief.  This village was located about 3 miles southeast of Council Grove where the Alegawaho Park is presently.  Supposedly Wah Shun Gah’s stone hut is the one farthest south of the three ruins along the creek.  The other two bands were located near Dunlap and Kahola Creek.

When the Kaw were removed from their Council Grove reservation in 1873 and sent to Indian Territory, they retained some of their Kansas identity.  The three bands which appear in government records of 1882 were known as the Kahola, Rock Creek and Picayune.  In 1875 Wah Shun Gah was made chief of the latter named and remained chief for life.  It seems his outstanding character and leadership earned him this right.

The most that we learn about Wah Shun Gah comes from a man who grew old with him.  General W. E. Hardy said he knew ‘Old Wash’ “since he was a small boy, knew him in 1847, knew him 1837.”  Hardy was secretary of the Kaw tribe for many years.  Concerning Wah Shun Gah’s character Hardy goes on to say, “He was a shrewd Indian.  He was smart, he knew how to handle the affairs of the tribe and secure for them everything that they should have.  There was not a shrewder, brighter chief and was one of the best that we ever had.  He loved his Indians.”

Wah Shun Gah was an Indian of the ‘old school’.  One of the practices he held to was shaving his head except for the scalp lock, which he was very proud of.  He did not take to white man’s ways except for the taste of whiskey perhaps, and this was something he was ever cautious of.  From the Kansas City Journal of Feb. 28th 1908 we read that Wah Shun Gah had a taste for strong drink but always made sure to leave home when he drank too freely.  This was because of an old tribal law which would expel any member of the council if found intoxicated.  On one occasion Wah Shun Gah came home pickled and realized he was on dangerous ground. Although that was not the end of his drinking, he made sure to not jeopardize his position as chief again.

A few anecdotes we find in the Arkansas City Traveler of 1908 give us a humorous look at our favorite chief.    Wah Shun Gah was a regular visitor to Arkansas City; he did quite a bit of trading there with a good friend of his, Mr. Newman.    He would call Mr. Newman up on the modern telephone and chat with him.  If Mr. Newman was not at his store when the chief arrived he would wait for Newman to return.  He refused to do business with anyone else.  If Newman was out of town Wah Shun Gah simply went home without doing any trading.

On one of his regular trips to Ark City some of the boys there introduced the chief to the bicycle.  They got the old Indian on the machine and showed him how it was done, supporting him until the bicycle got started on a downhill run.  Then they let go.  He made it a few feet down East Central Avenue until his blanket got caught in the chain and then he had a spill.  It was reported that when Wah Shun Gah was picked up he was cussing most vociferously and was ‘mad clear through’, so ended his interest in another of the white man’s inventions.

Concerning Arkansas City, the Chief prophesied that it would not be hit by tornadoes.  I found mention of this in a Council Grove Republican from 1954.  At that time tornadoes were wreaking havoc on the Oklahoma border and the citizens of Ark City were depending very much on the accuracy of the chief’s prophesy.  The article also stated that Indians prophesied Council Grove would never be visited by a tornado because of its valley location.  I just hope the prince of the powers of the air is aware of this arrangement.

Wah Moh O E Ke and Wah Shun Gah in 1902.

In 1902 Wah Shun Gah, along with Wah Moh O E Ke, went to Washington D.C. to represent the Kaw in the Kaw Allotment Act.  Charles Curtis, a Kansas congressman, member of the House Committee on Indian Affairs and part Kaw, was the man behind this plan.  The act essentially abolished the Kaw government and allotted tribal lands to their members.  Curtis had been working up to this since 1898 when the ‘Curtis Act’ was passed extending federal government control over the Indians.  If you think this sounds highly suspicious, I agree with you.  It is my understanding that Curtis got some land out of this deal.  There were a number of full bloods who opposed, but Wah Shun Gah did what he thought best for his people.  The reservation was divided among tribal members.  Wah Shun Gah always looked upon Curtis as a grandson, even though they were not likely blood relation.  Later this Charles Curtis would become Vice President of the United States under Herbert Hoover.

In February of 1908 Chief Wah Shun Gah came to the end of his trail.  The newspapers all report that he was found at the front gate of a house not very far from his own home.  He had apparently been drinking and they believed that was the cause of his death.  Perhaps his heart gave out.  The rest of the story was made known when Mrs. Jennie Graham stopped at the Trail Days Café for a bite to eat.  Mrs. Graham related to Ken McClintock how Chief Wah Shun Gah died at the gate of her grandparent’s home.  In her story the chief froze to death in a blizzard.  It is likely that the combined effects of alcohol and hypothermia did him in.

Mrs. Graham also shared about the wake held for Wah Shun Gah.  The wake was held at the Cooper School house.  Since the chief was frozen in a not so prostrate position, weights were placed on him to keep him laid out straight.  During the evening one of the Indians in attendance bumped the body and the weights fell off causing Wah Shun Gah to sit upright.  The room was evacuated in a disorderly manner.  There have long been stories of folks sitting up with the dead and the dead participating in the sitting up as well.  I cannot say if this is so as I was not present.

Addenda:   Although we in Council Grove spell it ‘Washunga’ Days, General W.E. Hardy states that the ‘correct spelling’ of the chief’s name is ‘Wah Shun Gah’, which is how I have spelled it throughout my article.  I did receive a little criticism for spelling it that way.  Apparently the Kaw Nation decided on the Washunga spelling some years back.  I hope the man who grew up and old with Wah Shun Gah would know how to correctly spell his name.

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