March is Women’s History Month, and the Marshall County Museum is highlighting women in the county.
Potawatomi women who have contributed to Nishnabé communities in innumerable ways. First up is Massaw.
As the daughter of Potawatomi Chief Wassato and wife of a French fur trader, Massaw was a respected individual within Potawatomi communities.
“She may have been from an esteemed family, but she was the one who secured her place within powerful circles,” said
Blake Norton, Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Cultural Heritage Center’s curator.
She had a reputation as Tribal ogema (headman or headwoman) and prominent entrepreneur near
Lake Keewawnay in Indiana.
“She was a woman of her time,” Dr. Mosteller said. “She absolutely saw the world around her and understood the kind
of business that would make her successful. … She understood what the people and the circumstances of her time and place needed, and she made the most of that.”
Before the Potawatomi forced removal on the Trail of Death, Massaw ran a successful business out of her two-story home and had the same ranking as men during
numerous treaty negotiations and signings.
“Massaw could read a room,” Dr. Mosteller explained. “She could read the writing on the wall, and she was going to do what she needed to help herself, her family and her Tribe.”
While women have always held equal importance
in Potawatomi society, the cultural customs did not always translate to political and legal dealings with other countries
and entities. But, her cunningness and economic approaches opened the door for her to receive political standings other
women at the time could not achieve.
“It’s just speculation, but this may be why she was noted as a man on the first two treaties she signed,” Norton
said. “Women did sign treaties, but this would come a couple of years later as more land was being sold and reserved.”
Massaw presented herself in fine clothing. According to diary entries by English artist George Winter, he noted her
dark, smooth hair and bright-colored clothes adorned with ribbon applique, silver brooches and stately earrings.
“The appointment of her dress were expensive, including her moccasins, which were neatly made and handsomely checkered,” Winter wrote.
She also enjoyed playing card games, and many knew of her expertise.
“She understood the person who she was doing business with, whether that was at the card table, doing
a transaction for goods or getting somebody to pay up. She was not a shrinking violet, ” Dr. Mosteller said.
Learn more about Massaw by visiting potawatomiheritage.com.