John Kayrahoo

By Richard Zane Smith

“Here is what I think: there are two kinds of things, the old customs and the modern ways.  Everybody (the Wyandot) in this land has to follow one or the other…”  — John Kayrahoo 1912

John Kayrahoo was born in Ohio in 1840, and was three years old at the time of forced removal to Kansas.  His Wyandot name was Hu’uⁿdažú, and he was of the Porcupine Clan.  John was one of the remaining Wyandot traditionalists of his era.  Because he spoke the Wyandot language exclusively, all interviews by Dr. Marius Barbeau were translated into English.

John’s own interviews give a rare look into a traditional Wyandot mind.  John Kayrahoo was actively involved in the Wyandot ceremonial ways, even when some of these practices were considered illegal and threatening (for example, war dances) to the US Government. *

When referring to a traditional way of life as “the old customs,” John was not denying everything modern.  He freely chose to use tools once foreign to Wyandot people.  He said, “I have picked up just a little of these new things, that is, only in so far as it is useful to me.”  Even a staunch traditionalist could benefit from technology.  He gave examples of how some change is inevitable; game became scarce, so using hides for clothing naturally yielded to clothing made from woven textile.  He wanted it known that he wasn’t simply against the new.  Any living culture adapts and changes.

What did concern John Kayrahoo was seeing a mix of ideologies; one newer untested pattern was replacing an older and more sustainable pattern.  He noticed change in community.  Older matriarchal clan-based systems of governance were breaking down.  An older pattern of tribal community responsibility was being replaced by a foreign frontier “Individualism,” where every person, or every family, looked after themselves.°

In contrast John described himself as traditional, a hunter for those who needed meat.  He said, “The people used to ask me [to hunt for them], because they knew that I was always pleased to supply them with whatever they wanted.  I was [known], therefore , as a good-hearted man, always willing to comply with the requests addressed to me.  This is how it used to be in the old time.”

But life was changing. Older Wyandot community life ways were being replaced by a capitalistic monetary system. “We are all advised to take up work,” and it seemed that the past ways were becoming a mere shadow; only a topic for elders to sit and reminisce.  He said, “the old customs of the time past are merely what we talk about…”

John was an outspoken traditional activist for his time.   He narrates a story about the coming of the white people and he finishes it off by saying, “So it is and so shall it always be! The white fellow shall always undermine the Indian until he has taken away from him his last thing…” Today, we’re used to hearing such sentiments expressed, but in 1912 these words would have been very daring and even dangerous.  He said, “This is the way the white man does. He cheats the Indian.”

The interviews taken by Dr. Marius Barbeau of John Kayrahoo are the only surviving conversational musings taken completely in the Wyandot language.  John’s thinking is illuminating as it is also bittersweet.  He said, “If I really wished to speak of all the modern things that are not good, it might take a great deal of time. There would be a number of stories to tell here…..but I do not wish to add any more. It would not be worth while: for I am a man of the past; my ways are the old ones; and the only things I know well are those of long ago.”  John Kayrahoo died in 1913.

–Exiles and Pioneers: Eastern Indians in the Trans-Mississippi West    By John P. Bowes

–Huron and Wyandot Mythology , 1915,  Dr. C. M. Barbeau


* see:

-in the 1885 Report, “Under the date of April 10, 1883, the then Secretary of the Interior gave his official approval to certain rules prepared in this office for the establishment of a court of Indian offenses at each of the Indian agencies …  It was found that the longer continuance of certain old heathen and barbarous customs, such as the sun-dance, scalp-dance, war-dance, polygamy, &c., were operating as a serious hindrance to the efforts of the Government for the civilization of the Indians. …

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