Table of contents
Table of contents
Essay / Creative Nonfiction

A Free Man: The Story of a Menominee Elder

An anthropologist and Menominee Indian Nation citizen recounts the story of independent-minded Frank, a man who kept tribal lifeways in the early 20th century.
A photograph features a wide river lined on both sides with trees ranging in color from green to orange to yellow. Topped with blues skies, the trees along the back of the image are optically reflected in the water below.

The Wolf River runs through the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin.

Chris Ford/Flickr

“A Free Man: The Story of a Menominee Elder” is part of the collection Indigenizing What It Means to Be Human. Read the introduction to the collection here.

This story is excerpted from the forthcoming collection Survival Food: North Woods Stories by a Menominee Cook. Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2023. All rights reserved.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Menominee Indian Agency administrative functions, including jail and courts, were warehoused under one roof. Inside the four brick walls, almost all the interactions between the Great White Father and individual Menominee tribal members occurred. The jail punished infractions like insubordination to an American official (talking back to a White Man); destruction of federal property (cutting down a tree); and public nuisance (intoxication by an Indian). This kind of lawbreaking occupied the local Indian Agency supervisors and a dedicated set of Washington, D.C., bureaucrats up the chain of command.

One story my Grandpa Moon told about the jail involved a traditional man Frank, who was picked up for public intoxication. When Grandpa first knew him, in the 1940s, Frank was already middle-aged. He was, as Grandpa described him, a shirt-tail relation. Frank, like us, was a member of the Keso’ Band of the Menominee Tribe. “K” is an approximation for a glottal stop, sometimes replaced by a “W,” which is my current surname, Weso. In English, Keso’ means Sun, which suggests the strength of One Who Stands Firm. When this band was forced to move to the new reservation in the late 1850s, they settled near several springs located just west of the Wolf River at Dead Man Spring in what is today Wisconsin. The group of springs ranged to Perote, north along the edge of the reservation, east to the Bass Lake area, and south to Zoar.

Around Keshena, Frank was called a “pagan Indian” by local Christians (assimilated Natives). Early anthropologists used that term to describe non-Christian American Indians. This pejorative word in English meant a tribal member who chose to adhere to tribal lifeways. Frank was, like most of my family, a pagan.

Grandpa admired him, as he lived without encumbrances or personal property. Grandpa told us grandchildren stories about him after evening meals. Frank carried his home and all his possessions upon his back. He didn’t wear his bedding as a backpack but instead as a layer of clothing. Our patriarch said, “He was free to come and go as he wished.” When Frank grew tired after a long day, he would just lie down wherever he happened to be and sleep. Grandpa better described it this way, “Frank would just fall backward into a drift of snow to make camp.” A flint, a knife, and plenty of furs made the majority of his kit. My Grandpa Moon ran a household, with his able wife, of 12 to 30 people, so he might have envied that freedom more than he said.

What really made Frank famous, or rather infamous, was his appetite. He could eat an entire deer at one meal. He did this not just once, as if he had won a competitive eating bout on the Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food, but as a regular practice. That voracious appetite was the reason for his unpopularity as a hunting companion, even though Frank was an expert at finding and killing game. He could consume an entire expedition’s meat.

Besides being a pagan, Frank was a social pariah. Under Catholic rule, the town of Keshena became more and more genteel, filled with inflexible social hierarchies. Frank lived in the “Lake Country,” a part of the reservation as far away from Catholic institutions as possible. The lake country was once an idyllic area filled with small, sandy lakes. In those days, a canoer could paddle from the Wolf River through a chain of lakes all the way to Moshawquit Lake. At least one of those lakes, Blacksmith Lake, was spring-fed and deep, considered bottomless by elders. This place was once surrounded by giant white pines, but now all have been drowned by a human-made reservoir, a resort area called Legend Lake. The reservoir’s dam has no purpose for flood control, crop irrigation, or for the generation of electricity. This place is now a dying lake, with silt runoff choking it. This folly of the real estate developers, though, was in the future. Frank lived in the pristine landscape, alone most of the time. When he went to town, a whiskey run was his only indulgence. Such an excursion usually ended with Frank’s perfunctory arrest as a public nuisance. He could count on a night in jail and a warm meal, something he looked forward to. His accumulative list of arrests all indicated intoxication.

Frank, like many Menominees and especially members of the Keso’ Band, was also Potawatomi. These are closely related tribes. Members of both consider them to be the same tribe, although there is some variation of dialect and culture. The name Potawatomi in English means “Fire Keepers.” According to Grandpa Moon, “Wherever two trails crossed, the Potawatomis kept a fire burning for travelers where they would be safe, fed, and warm.” Early Catholics built the Second Station of the Cross Chapel in Keshena at one such trail crossing. This disrupted the traditional lifeways by blocking travel.

The 1960s Legend Lake construction destroyed not only that chain of lakes, rice beds, and sturgeon runs, it also drowned the ceremonial fire. This fire was kept alive by a lineage of Potawatomi medicine men since before any Euro-American history began on this continent. Many Potawatomi were accomplished sorcerers, while others were fearsome warriors. It has been documented that they would eat the still-beating hearts of their fallen enemies taken in battle.

As a pagan who may have eaten a few hearts, according to my Grandpa’s tales, Frank spent his later days trapping small game for food and furs. He lived off the rabbits, porcupines, squirrels, deer, and fish he caught. A few times a year, he paddled to town in his birch-bark canoe to sell animal pelts, buy supplies, and, after taking care of business, enjoy a few drinks. There was a tavern and a sawmill in Keshena even before there was a town or a reservation.

On his last visit to town, Frank made some unfortunate comments to the local womenfolk. These were Catholic women, and since the federal government had given the Catholic dioceses de facto control of the Indian population, descendants of Native leaders now served as agents of the local priest. Although Frank was arrested for his lewd comments, “intoxication” made a convenient excuse for jail time.

Previously, Frank had been allowed to sleep it off in jail and pay a small fine. He would be released the next day before the noon meal, as was standard practice. On this occasion, however, during court the following morning, the Justice of the Peace, hearing of his repeat-offender status, sentenced him to 30 days plus a hefty fine. Police escorted him from the court room around the corner to a jail cell. He began to serve his jail sentence less than one minute after receiving it.

Frank made no complaint. After lunch on the first day of his sentence, he asked for a drumstick to help him sing his prayers. The Justice of the Peace, a man of faith, allowed this privilege on religious grounds, and a stout ironwood, or blue beech, branch was found and delivered to the new inmate. The stick had to be of hard wood so it wouldn’t break after repeated drumming. By that first evening, Frank had prepared the stick both physically and ceremonially for its upcoming duties.

Right after the evening meal, the traditional Potawatomi man began singing a prayer, keeping time by beating upon the jail cell door with the drumstick.

At first it was a pleasant musical interlude. By the next morning, though, the jail had already received numerous complaints regarding the all-night prayer vigil. The singing and the tapping of wood on metal, at full volume, drowned out all other sounds in town. Frank stayed awake all night singing and praying. It was now mid-morning, and still he kept it up. Each song was repeated four times. The Justice of the Peace was also just as resolute. Frank could keep singing for another 29 days. He could care less.

The duty officer abandoned his post that afternoon after enduring almost six straight hours of prayer. Nobody bothered to bring Frank his evening meal, and still his song continued. Around midnight, his singing faltered. For a few brief moments, he couldn’t sing. Yet, he maintained his four-four cadence with the drumstick.

It was straight up 3 a.m. when the drumbeat, and the hoarsely whispered accompaniment, finally stopped. In relief, after 30 hours of constant singing and drumming, nobody came rushing to the jail to ask the reason for the deafening silence. They simply nodded off. It would be another four hours before breakfast was to be served before anybody even thought about the jail.

At 7 a.m., breakfast and hot coffee, contracted out to neighborhood women, was to be delivered to the jail, portioned out, and served to the guards and inmates. This time, though, with the guards still sound asleep, Frank’s pagan singing made a good excuse for the Catholic ladies to take some time off. No harm done, as Frank was the only inmate, and he certainly wasn’t going anywhere.

Finally, at the noon meal, the guards returned to eat, and Frank wasn’t in his cell. The door to his empty cell was wide open with the lock unclicked. Thirty hours of rhythmic beating upon the iron lock with an ironwood branch caused the lock mechanism to slip. Frank’s pagan prayers were answered, and he was far away in the scrub oak forest depths of Lake Country. No one went in pursuit.

The Catholic community got its wish. Frank was now a wanted man, and so he never again returned.

I asked Grandpa if he ever saw Frank again. He told me about the last time that he saw Frank. This was many years later up by Weso Lake when Grandpa was a state game warden. Hardly anyone ever went there, maybe because the only road was in such horrible condition. This meant that Weso Lake was only accessible in the winter when the road was frozen and could support a vehicle.

As game warden, Grandpa patrolled for any illegal activity, meaning unlicensed hunters or fishermen or fisherwomen. He checked every access point to every hunting or fishing spot on the reservation, in rotation. This was how, one early morning, he arrived at Weso Lake, just going down the list of places to check.

As Grandpa pulled into the small turn-around at the end of a drive, the only access point to the lake, and not seeing any other vehicles, he got ready to leave. To his amazement, an old man began to dig his way out of a pile of snow-dusted leaves, finally revealing himself in a flurry of excitement. The man stood, ignored Grandpa Moon for the moment, and finished brushing the leaves off himself. It was a very elderly Frank.

Recovering from this unexpected moment, Grandpa shared his coffee and lunch with Frank, catching him up on local events. “I had a real good visit with Frank. It was good to talk with him again,” Grandpa said. “I was also Town Constable and the Justice of the Peace of Keshena then, too, but I never mentioned it to him.” Grandpa was required to bring in any wanted criminals, but he ignored this duty. You do not arrest family.

Grandpa paused thoughtfully, then continued, “That was the last time that I saw him. He must have been in his late 80s, maybe late 90s by then.” Grandpa did not tell me what the two old men talked about, but Frank was the man I thought of every time Grandpa talked about the old Potawatomi elders. Grandpa had finished his story, “He must have died in the woods, someplace, somewhere that nobody ever goes, maybe some cedar swamp. No one ever found a body. He died as he lived, a free man.”

Thomas Pecore Weso, an enrolled member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, received an undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Kansas and a master’s in Global Indigenous Studies. He taught anthropology, sociology, and other social sciences in Kansas City–area colleges. He is the author of the forthcoming Survival Food: North Woods Stories by a Menominee Cook (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2023). His Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir was a National Gourmand Award winner for Historical Recipes and finalist for the International Gourmand Award. His children’s book Native American Stories for Kids: Twelve Traditional Stories From Indigenous Tribes Across North America is a bestseller on Amazon. Weso is also a co-author of Langston Hughes in Lawrence (Mammoth Publications). He lives in Sonoma County, California.

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