On June 11, 1950, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published an obituary under the bold headline “Chief Thunderwater, Famous in Cleveland 50 Years, Dies.” And there, it seems, the consensus on Thunderwater ends. Was he, as many say, a con artist and an imposter posing as an Indian who lead a political movement that was a cruel hoax? Or was he a Native activist who worked tirelessly and successfully to promote Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, sovereignty in Canada? The truth about this enigmatic figure, so long obscured by vying historical narratives, emerges clearly in Gerald F. Reid’s biography, Chief Thunderwater—the first full portrait of a central character in twentieth-century Iroquois history.

Searching out Thunderwater’s true identity, Reid documents Thunderwater's life from his birth in 1865, as Oghema Niagara, through his turns as a performer of Indian identity and, alternately, as a dedicated advocate of Indian rights. After nearly a decade as an entertainer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Thunderwater became progressively more engaged in Haudenosaunee political affairs—first in New York and then in Quebec and Ontario. As Reid shows, Thunderwater’s advocacy for Haudenosaunee sovereignty sparked alarm within Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs, which moved forcefully to discredit Thunderwater and dismantle his movement.

Self-promoter, political activist, entrepreneur: Reid’s critical study reveals Thunderwater in all his contradictions and complexity—a complicated man whose story expands our understanding of Native life in the early modern era, and whose movement represents a key moment in the development of modern Haudenosaunee nationalism.

About The Author
Gerald F. Reid is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He is the author of Kahnawà:ke: Factionalism, Traditionalism, and Nationalism in a Mohawk Community.

Reviews & Praise

“In this fascinating detective-like story, Gerald F. Reid shows that Thunderwater was of American Indian ancestry, that he was an early leader in the Indian community in Cleveland, that he represented the interests of Seneca chiefs and clan mothers, and that he had leadership qualities respected by Indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada. Chief Thunderwater is an excellent study.”—Laurence M. Hauptman, author of Coming Full Circle: The Seneca Nation of Indians, 1848–1934

Book Information
12 b&w illus., 2 maps
200 Pages
Hardcover 978-0-8061-6731-2
Kindle 978-0-8061-6940-8
e-pub 978-0-8061-6961-3
Published January 2021
Related Interest