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Is there any information about who was Chief Poking Fire? He was the chief of Kahnawake reservation close to Montreal (Canada).

On all the pictures he looks like a person with European descent. Is there any information about this person?

Chief Poking Fire

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    Welcome to History:SE. What has your research shown you so far? Where have you already searched? What did you find? Can you explain why the relevant Wikipedia pages and google searches didn't answer the question? Please help us to help you. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and Help Centre and, in particular, How to Ask. – sempaiscuba Sep 17 at 3:03
  • Hi @sempaiscuba. I searched on Wikipedia and on google already and was not able to found any information about the origins of the chief. That is why I decided to ask for help here. – Vitalii Sep 17 at 3:10
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    The feather headdresses, clothing styles, and teepee in the picture (and the headdress worn by "Poking Fire" in the link) are typical of plains tribes like the Lakota, NOT Northeastern peoples. Also, you'd be highly unlikely to find children wearing the feather headdresses, as they were a mark of status: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_bonnet I suspect this is some sort of frontier reenactment group, or perhaps a performance for tourists. – jamesqf Sep 17 at 4:59
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    @jamesqf - You suspect correctly. It appears to have been what we in the USA call a tourist trap. – T.E.D. Sep 17 at 14:01
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Chief Poking Fire's main claims to fame are probably owning and running an Indian museum, and founding and running a tourist village. He also apparently presented Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King with an Indian head-dress in 1948. The story that he was a Ukrainian Soviet WWII pilot who survived being shot down and escaped to Canada to become an Indian chief is pure fabrication.

According to this ancestry page, his full name was Jean Baptiste Sawatis Atsienharonkwas Macomber, and he was born in 1896. More details on his ancestry can be found in John Masiewicz's Gervase Macomber And His 26 Children in Kahnawake. His wife, Louise (or Gathering Words), in addition to assisting her husband in his varied enterprises, was also (as Louise McComber) a nurse's aide and Director of the Kateri hospital in Caughnawaga (this link downloads a pdf). According to both the ancestry page and Masiewicz's book, the couple were married in 1917.

The most straightforward account of Chief Poking Fire is probably this:

The Poking Fire "set-up" was a tourist attraction developed by John McComber, also known as Chief Poking Fire, in the village of Kahnawake in the 1930s. Originally known as "Chief Poking Fire Totum [sic] Pole Indian Village," McComber's enterprise provided visitors with a highly staged representation of Indians as exotic others.

enter image description here

Source: Historic Images of Kahnawake

The 1954 article The High-Flying Braves Of Caughnawaga has the following not incompatible account. The real Caughnawaga

laugh good-naturedly at John Macomber assuming the title “Chief” Poking Fire. There hasn’t been an authentic chief of the village since the tribal system of government was abolished by Ottawa in 1890. But, as they point out, there’s nothing to stop anyone from calling himself “Chief,” and Poking Fire has his own little tourist village where he parades around in Hollywood Indian costume to the delight of the tourists and the enrichment of fellow villagers who operate stalls within his compound.

The blue-eyed “Chief” is admired too for the tenacious way he built up his village from a shaky start in 1929 when, with twelve dollars to his name, he refused to ask for government help. Instead he built a wigwam and advertised with a crude sign the Indiancraft he and his wife made—they didn’t have the money then to buy the factory product. Today, thirty-two families take part in Poking Fire’s tourist village, and when the weather is good they do a thriving business.

John Macomber, not to be confused with the Harvard Business School lecturer / businessman, died in 1979, leaving his 'enterprise' to his descendants. Both T.E.D. and jamesfq have noted that some of the attire at least is not of the Kahnawake region (and Poking Fire was clearly in the tourist business with little regard for historical or cultural accuracy), but there seems to be no real evidence that he was some kind of Caucasian impostor.


One story found on the internet is that John Macomber (or John McNober) may or may not have been Ukrainian Soviet air force pilot Ivan Dodoka, supposedly shot down and killed during World War II before escaping to Canada and becoming Chief Poking Fire. He was then discovered, the story goes, by a visiting Soviet delegation who heard the Indian chief speaking Ukrainian. However, pre-war photos clearly disprove this story. For those interested, a film based on Ivan Dodoka's alleged experiences (Firecrosser) was released in 2012.

enter image description here

Source: British Museum (dated 1930s)

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    One thing to add from my research: The local tribe was Iroquoian, but the tourist trap ... er ... "village" showed primarily stereotypical Great Plains cultural artifacts like teepees, along with totem poles, which were a Pacific Northwest artifact. He does seemed to have employed natives in his enterprise though, which its tough not to approve of. Particularly as this was the Great Depression. – T.E.D. Sep 17 at 13:21

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