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The Sagamore of the Wabash

Most states honor their favorite sons and daughters. In Indiana, the governor confers the odd-sounding "Sagamore of the Wabash" title.

Most states have a special way of recognizing their favorite sons and daughters. In Indiana the ritual has at times involved the governor donning Native American regalia to confer an esoteric-sounding title. The Sagamore of the Wabash award honors those who have made a significant contribution to life in the Hoosier state. The designation was created in the late 1940s during the administration of Governor Ralph Gates. When the governor discovered that he was to be made a “Kentucky Colonel” during a tri-state meeting, Gates quickly devised the award as way of reciprocating the honor. Though the word “sagamore” is known to come from the Algonquian language, it’s not entirely clear how Gates arrived at it. James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans is one potential source of the term, defined as a lesser chief to whom the tribe’s true chief would turn for wisdom and advice.

It has been emphasized that one need not win the Indy 500 or write “Stardust” to be honored as a Sagamore of the Wabash. The award has been bestowed upon ordinary people who have shown outstanding service as volunteers, veterans or educators, for example, along with presidents, astronauts, entertainers and entrepreneurs. Recipients have ranged from IU President and Chancellor Herman B. Wells to Garfield the Cat, the creation of Muncie native Jim Davis. The recipient need not even be from Indiana –Willie Nelson, for example, was honored for his work on behalf of American farmers. Mildred French, first Director of the Indiana Youth Council, was the first female recipient.

The criteria by which a governor selects his honorees are not hard and fast; nor are the guidelines for how many awards may be made or how many times one person may be honored. Whereas only a handful of Sagamores were named in the award’s early years, during subsequent administrations the number exploded. Robert Orr, is said to have awarded 4,207 Sagamores during his eight-year term; Evan Bayh, about 3,200. It has been estimated that more than 14,000 awards have been made in all, although the official tally has not been kept. A prevailing sentiment in recent years, however, has been that the Sagamore has been devalued by the frequency of its presentation. In March 2006 Governor Mitch Daniels announced that he would revive the Sachem award as the state’s highest honor, and make just one appointment a year.

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