Their Job-Description , According to Both Colonial-Era Documents and Modern Studies of Frontier Encounters


We continue herein consideration of circulating-sakamos – leaders of or from one place, but active at or in another. Fluid voluntary societal organization allowed the Wabanaki peoples this very adaptive- advantageous status-&-role of mobile-manager. (Please see prior reports for organizational details.)

Although some persons & reference-books may tell you that a sachem outranks a sagamore, I will not do so, because I use the term sakamo to designate the whole spectrum of leadership from Sub-Chief up to Super-Chief – just as I have found it used in Colonial-Era documents about the Wabanaki Algonquian peoples (the Dawnlanders) of today’s northern New England USA and Maritime Canada.

However, please be wary of any preconceived notion of what the English word chief might mean herein, until you have been introduced below to the idea of authorityless leadership in the Wabanaki context. The focus of this report is the sakamo’s job-description, in general and in context. Specific historic sakamos’ handling of their jobs will follow in later reports.


During the 1600s, the era of the “Divine Right of Kings” in Britain and France, explorers & colonists of these two imperialistic Euopean nations began ever-more-frequent frontier encounters with the Wabanaki Algonquian peoples (then grouped as Micmac, Etchemin, & Abenaki-Pennacook, using modern analytic labels). What the Europeans took for granted about their own political leaders gave them little if any help in understanding that the Wabanakis had responsible leaders-without-authority.

Even today most Euramericans’ ideas about government still do not allow easy comprehension of Wabanaki sociopolitical organization. Indeed, modern political anthropologists have had to devise diagrams with special terms & categories for the leadership systems that the Wabanakis and many other non-western peoples took for granted just as easily as the Europeans did monarchy.

One such modern theoretical diagram (devised by Morton Fried) consists of THREE LEVELS-&-TYPES OF SOCIOPOLITICAL ORGANIZATION (called “SPO” for short). SPO refers to the general overall structure of an entire society resulting from its specific political structure – which results from both the society’s family structure and its patterns of land-use economic activities.

In Fried’s 3-Level/Type diagram, the simplest First Level/Type of SPO is long-gone today. It is termed the Egalitarian Society, within which there is no real prestige differential, and no economic differential, between either individual members of the society or their families.

The Wabanaki peoples had a more-complex Second Level/Type of SPO, termed the Rank Society, wherein there is a prestige differential, and maybe but not necessarily some economic differential, between either individual members of the society or their family groups.

European explorers & colonists confronted the Wabanakis, not only with more-advanced technology, but with the most-complex Third Level/Type of SPO, termed the Stratified Society, which has both prestige and economic differentials, between both individual persons and family groups.

Each Stratified-Society European monarchy had only one official king (or queen-regnant) at a time. All other sociopolitical leaders in the realm were subordinates of the monarch, in a complex hierarchy of major & minor differentials in both prestige and economic status, all with binding allegiance to authority.

By contrast, each of the several Rank-Society Wabanaki peoples had several sakamos at any one time, not only in different places, but even in the same place—where they cooperated, a single village might have two or more sakamos and allegiance to sakamos was voluntary, therefore changeable or fluid.

A sakamo’s most important criterion was rich prestige, and that prestige could be enhanced by the economic impoverishment resulting from giving-away personal goods to needy followers. Such economic sharing demonstrated the sakamo’s other major criterion of taking responsibility for followers. Having prestige and taking responsibility together were the two feet upon which Wabanaki authorityless leadership stood, and upon which voluntary & fluid followership leaned in dependence.

The Wabanakis seem always to have been looking for talent, but they also seem to have looked harder for it in some directions than in others. A talented person’s upward mobility started from one of three Wabanaki prestige categories: 1) Leaders & their families, 2) Followers & their families, 3) Captives & their families, in that order of preference. In each category, women were secondary to men. Women were never ignored or unheeded, but each woman’s potential importance was influenced by the prestige of her father & husband. We know of very few women sakamos, but it was possible for a woman to become a Wabanaki sakamo.

The various independent Wabanaki peoples all shared an extremely fluid societal organization and equally fluid political alliance system. Each kinship-based community had voluntary open membership, gaining and losing individual persons and nuclear families, sometimes only temporarily. Intermarriage among communities and peoples gave virtually everyone some relatives elsewhere; families enjoyed frequent travel and intervisitation.

Their flexible social organization allowed the Wabanakis constantly to move and regroup their communities, both seasonally for pleasure & economic sustenance opportunities elsewhere, and whenever under threat from natural disaster or invasion. Adept sakamos married-out their children to form widespread personal political alliances among traditionally-compatible neighboring communities, including those of other neighboring peoples, so that in times of trouble, friends & kinfolk were everywhere.

So, however awesome the Europeans might have thought themselves to be (especially since they believed that they alone had the one true religion), until the wilderness was tamed in northeastern North America by the eventual arrival of most of the cultural & social props needed to support their Level/Type 3 SPO, the Wabanakis had the better-adapted social-structure & leadership for survival in that wilderness at their Level/Type 2 SPO, with their voluntary fluid communities and in the responsibility-roles performed by their sakamos.

The very wisest thinkers, both Red and White, understood this point – yet they were not necessarily the de-facto leaders of their peoples, and many actual leaders, both Red and White, neglected the point if they ever knew it. Richness and poorness are very relative concepts indeed, we now can see and say, with hindsight.


Our sources of information about Wabanaki leaders in the 17th- & 18th- centuries are the reports sent home from the frontier, & the books published after returning home, written by the French & English explorers, traders, adventurers, colonizers, & missionaries who visited & lived with the Wabanakis. An eager public in Europe, as well as the governmental, commercial, & religious bosses, avidly sought all the information they could get about the “New World” & its exotic Native peoples.

Many of these accounts were deliberately pitched to attract financial support from investors & benefactors, from additional royal grants down to occasional church-service special-collections so they are not dry-dull reading. Yet these old documents frequently frustrate ethnohistorians today, because their authors often did not share our specific interests (nor we theirs!), or tell us quite as much as we now want to know even when they did discuss information we seek.

Collectively, nonetheless, our sources give us the following status-&-role profile of Wabanaki sakamos. I use the generic (sex-unspecified) pronouns he & his throughout. Indeed, a woman sakamo might, or might not, have delegated some part(s) of her overall role to a male proxy, rather than push aside some strong traditional ideas of men’s work. (Cost/benefit analysis is nothing new in leadership tactics!)

A Wabanaki sakamo usually inherited his position through his elite lineage (i.e., his already-prestigious, leadership-providing, family). But then he needed to earn public recognition by showing his own personal superior abilities: 1) in leading people by his example; 2) in inspiring confidence in his wisdom & physical prowess; 3) in proving his concern for & generosity toward others; 4) in attaining success in hunting, diplomacy, warfare, & supernatural affairs (which could influence most other things).

The greatest Wabanaki sakamos were themselves also shamans (supernaturally-endowed “medicine” -persons) and ginaps (supernaturally-endowed war-leaders who could be non-sakamos & non-shamans). Less-eminent sakamos merely controlled the services of non-sakamo shamans & ginaps. Any sakamo needed all of the supportive props that he could muster to enhance his image & influence (i.e., his prestige), because he had no sovereign authority in political or economic affairs (as was discussed earlier).

A fluid (i.e., changing), voluntary, kinship-&-marriage-based group of persons delegated to a sakamo whom they respected the responsibility but not the authority for their welfare. Only in warfare was authority an expected feature of Wabanaki leadership. Every sakamo seems usually to have had & heeded a Council of Elders to advise him. Even though he acted as economic redistribution agent for his constituency (usually a kinship-structured village band, sometimes more than one band), a sakamo could keep no greater accumulation of tangible riches than his people thought proper for him to have. Respect for & deference to his opinions were his true worldly treasures.

However, if a sakamo’s Council Of Elders was weak, &/or if his people were overly deferential, a particularly strong sakamo easily could become haughty even authoritative. Theory and practice sometimes did diverge, to the detriment of all parties. And the attire of a sakamo ranged all the way from old shabby Native clothing on an overly-generous leader to foppish European apparel & jewelry on an overly-selfish leader. At least a few European gifts to sakamos usually were worn or otherwise displayed, as a show of diplomatic success. That a leader should dress like a leader was an expected norm, then as now.

Although it depicts a rather pompous sakamo, the following passage (written by an Englishman residing in coastal Pennacook country in the early 1630s) is too vivid to ignore. It appears internally in Chapter 5 (titled Of Their Apparel, Ornaments, Paintings, & Other Artificial Deckings) of William Wood’s (1635) NEW ENGLAND’S PROSPECT*. It well exemplifies the genre of biased antique Euramerican accounts from which ethnohistorical anthropology must seek data about Frontier-Encounter-Era Native Americans.

“xxx But a sagamore with a humbird in his ear for a pendant, a black hawk on his occiput for his plume, mowhacheis for his gold chain, good store of wampompeag begirting his loins, his bow in his hand, his quiver at his back, with six naked Indian spatterlashes** at his heels for his guard, thinks himself little inferior to the great Cham. He will not stick to say he is all one with King Charles. He thinks he can blow down castles with his breath and conquer kingdoms with his conceit xxx”

The logo shown at the right and used here for this Sakamo Series of Mawooshen Memos is a silhouette of a 19th-century drawing (probably based on Wood’s 1630s statement, just quoted) supposedly depicting 17th-century Pennacook paramount-sakamo Passaconaway. He & other Wabanaki superchiefs of the 1600s will be the next topic considered herein, that to be followed by two reports on Wabanaki mobile managers, and one on Wabanaki women leaders.

*NEW ENGLAND’S PROSPECT. William Wood [1635, 2nd Ed]. Edited by Alden T Vaughan (1977). Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press [1993, 1st Paperback Ed]. Pages 84-85.

** “A variant of ‘spatterdash’—a kind of legging worn to protect trousers from spatter. Here used figuratively.”—p 85 of Vaughan (1977).