The concept of “chief” was often one introduced to Native American tribes by white settlers and soldiers. Soldiers, especially, liked the supposed certainty of dealing with a single person who could speak for a tribe. The tribes themselves often held several members—often elders—in high esteem because of their various skills or wisdom. The fact that a certain chief would sign a treaty did not always mean he spoke for his tribe in doing so.
Pocatello was certainly a trusted leader of his band of Shoshonis. Most such leaders, according to historian Merle Wells, considered themselves equals. Circumstances brought on by the influx of settlers into traditional Shoshoni lands, however, made Pocatello “more equal among equals.”
There is more confusion about his name than about his rank. The name has been given several meanings over the years. Brigham D. Madsen, in his book Chief Pocatello points to the first mention of the man in the 1857 writings of an Indian agent who called him “Koctallo.” Two years later an army officer who had never met him, but had often heard his name, wrote it as “Pocataro.” Some insist that the meaning of the name is something like “he who does not take the trail” or “in the middle of the road.” Others say it may have come from the town in Georgia called Pocataligo, which may be a Yamasee or Cherokee Indian word, the meaning of which is also in dispute. Note that residents of Pocatligo often call the place “Pokey” for short, just as the residents of Pocatello do. In any case, the Georgia connection seems far-fetched.
So the whites are confused. What about his own people? Again according to Madsen, the Hukandeka Shoshoni called him Tonaioza, meaning “Buffalo Robe,” or sometimes Kanah, which is apparently a reference to the gift of an army coat given to him by Gen. Patrick E. Connor during the signing of the Treaty of Box Elder. According to his daughter, Jeanette Pocatello Lewis, Pocatello never used that name at all and always went by Tonaioza or Tondzaosha.
One popular explanation for the name still heard is that the man was well known for his love of pork and tallow. Get it? Porkantallow? One must—if one is me, at least—call BS on that one. Under what circumstances would one particularly desire those two items to the extent that he would be named for them? It seems an obvious backformation meant to belittle a man who in no way deserved it.
There is much more to tell about this historical figure. We will leave that for future posts.
The photo is a depiction of Chief Pocatello, a travertine statue installed in 2008 at the Pocatello visitor center, and sculpted by J.D. Adcox.