Ounanguissé (“Shimmering Light of the Sun,” also spelled Onangizes, Onanguisset and Onanguicé) was wkama (leader) of the Potawatomi ca. 1660s–1701. He was an important figure in the alliance between the French and Indigenous people of the Great Lakes region during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He is most well known for a speech he gave regarding this alliance during a meeting he had with the governor general of New France, Louis de Buade de Frontenac in 1697. He also made an important contribution to the establishment of the Great Peace of Montreal in 1701.
The Potawatomi are an Algonquin people. They had an ancient alliance with the Odawa and Ojibwe. This alliance was called the “Three Fires.” Historian Donald L. Fixico has noted that the Potawatomi, Odawa and Ojibwe “helped to shape the history of the Great Lakes region.” At one time, living in the area north of Lake Michigan, repeated Haudenosaunee attacks in the early to mid 17th century made the Potawatomi move south. There, they established themselves in the region around Green Bay, Wisconsin.
In 1665, Nicolas Perrot, a French explorer and diplomat who hoped to become wealthy from the fur trade, established contact with the Potawatomi. Soon after, the Potawatomi and French made a trading and military alliance. The Potawatomi were eager to ally themselves with the French because they believed doing so would provide them with an opportunity to gain power and prestige among the Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region. The French wanted an alliance with the Potawatomi in order to thwart the advances of the British. (See also Indigenous-French Relations and Indigenous-British Relations Pre-Confederation.)
Ounanguissé and the French Alliance
One of the most vocal advocates of the alliance between the Potawatomi and the French was Ounanguissé. In 1669, he helped to establish this alliance while hosting a meeting with Nicolas Perrot in Green Bay. During the next 10 years, Ounanguissé became an important liaison between the French and the Potawatomi. He also became a leader in the fur trade at the newly established fur trading post on Rock Island. Ounanguissé seemed to have travelled to Quebec at around this time to trade in furs and speak with members of the government of New France. When the French explorer and fur trader René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle met him in 1679, he noticed that Ounanguissé was wearing a silver medal that was given to him by Louis de Buade de Frontenac.
Ounanguissé the Leader
From the 1660s until the late 1680s, the Potawatomi grew in prestige and wealth as a result of their participation in the fur trade and the influx of European settlers in their territory. (See also Indigenous Territory.) Many Indigenous groups moved to the Green Bay region to flee from Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) raids and trade with the French. By the mid-1690s, however, the prosperity and status of the Potawatomi among their Indigenous allies came under threat. A surplus of furs and Jesuit hostility toward fur traders lead King Louis XIV of France to suspend the beaver trade and order all fur trading posts in the west to be closed down in 1696. If the Potawatomi wanted to trade their furs, they would now have to travel to Montreal. France’s decision greatly angered Ounanguissé. While at a meeting with Frontenac in 1697, he candidly made his thoughts known:
Father! Since we want powder, iron and every other necessary which you were formally in the habit of sending us, what do you expect us to do? Are the majority of our women who have but one or two beavers to send to Montreal to procure their little supplies, are they to intrust them to drunken fellows who will drink them, and bring back nothing? …that the French come to visit us no more — you shall never see us again, I promise you, if the French quit us; this Father, is the last time we shall come to talk with you.
When commenting on the effect of Ounanguissé’s words, Frontenac’s secretary wrote, “His speech was so bold it shut everyone’s lips.” The French, in their desire to appease Ounanguissé and their other allies, decided to allow the fur trade to continue in the St. Joseph River Valley, even though doing so was technically illegal. Historian Susan Sleeper-Smith has written that “Onangizes’ [Ounanguissé’s] public threat revealed who controlled the [fur] trade. It was the Native Americans, not the French.”
Around the same time that the French were trying to maintain a good working relationship with their Indigenous allies, they were also attempting to bring about a peaceful settlement with their Indigenous enemies, the Haudenosaunee, the traditional allies of the British. To be successful, however, the French also needed the willing co-operation of their own allies. Ounanguissé was a key leader of the Potawatomi by the early 18th century and was at that point a very important French ally. He was reluctant to make peace with the Haudenosaunee at first, but he eventually agreed to participate in the negotiations, which were to be held in Montreal in late July and early August 1701. At Montreal, Ounanguissé represented the Potawatomi, Sauk, and most of the Illinois nations. Like all of those in attendance, he agreed with the peace terms offered up by the French. Speaking on behalf of his people he said: "Be assured…that my Nation and the one on the far side of Lake Huron will not forget what you have so happily completed; the earth is now made level. The Tree of Peace is now planted on the highest mountain; the Iroquois and all your Allies will have to look up to it often.” He subsequently stated, “Let us eat from the same kettle when we meet during the hunt.”
A few months after the Great Peace of Montreal of 1701, Ounanguissé died. He is an example of an Indigenous leader who, through skillful means, was able to successfully lead his people and defend their interests with the French during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. His life and work show that during this time the success of French policies was dependent on the co-operation of their Indigenous allies. Indigenous leaders like Ounanguissé were essential to the survival of New France.