By Sallie Cotter Andrews
Exactly what inspired Chief Leonard Nicholas Cotter to dedicate his life to the service of the Wyandotte Nation, American Indian people in Oklahoma and his community, may never be known. But it was a decision that took him to the White House to meet President Gerald R. Ford and led him to be a public speaker in Oklahoma and in distant states on behalf of his people.
Serving as Chief or Second Chief of the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma for 37 years, his decisions and influence set the tone for the Tribe’s future economic success and set the tone for Oklahoma Indian healthcare policy. He served as Chief from 1936-1942, 1948-1954, and 1964 until his death in 1976; and as Second Chief from 1932-1936 and 1954-1963. During his tenure he made sure the Wyandotte people were well represented, remembered and honored in Oklahoma and throughout the United States.
Leonard Nicholas Cotter was born on July 3, 1906, in Wyandotte, Indian Territory, the sixth child of Joel Anthony Cotter and Sallie Belle Dawson Cotter. His siblings were Claude, Clarence, John Paul, Mabel, Homer, Everett Dee, Maude, Mary and Josephine.
Although he never knew his grandfather, Nicholas Cotter, who served as Chief of the Wyandotte Tribe from 1880 to 1882, Leonard no doubt heard the stories of Nicholas’ adventurous life that took him from shore to shore – west to California with John C. Fremont (The Pathfinder) in 1849 and east to Washington, D.C., in 1875. Nicholas Cotter was of the Big Turtle Clan. His Wyandotte name, “Ron-nyan-es,” meant “Striking the Sky.”
Leonard may have remembered his grandmother, Lizzie Arms Cotter of the Deer Clan, who died in 1910. Her Wyandotte name, “Tewatronyahkwa,” meant “Lifting the Sky.” When Lizzie came to Oklahoma from Kansas as an orphan after the Civil War, she did not speak English, only the Wyandot language. Leonard’s father, Joel Cotter, was born April 17, 1869. He received his education at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa., where he learned to be a blacksmith and also at Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. Joel died in 1919 during a flu epidemic when Leonard was 13 years of age. His mother, Sallie, born Oct. 5, 1875, lived until 1951.
Leonard was a handsome, athletic young man who played football, basketball and boxed for Wyandotte High School where he graduated in 1924.
He married Ada Cox of Afton, Okla. Ada graduated from Northeastern State Teachers College in Tahlequah, became a school teacher in 1927 and taught for 45 years. In 1969, she was named the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year. In 1946, Leonard owned a gasoline service station in Wyandotte. He was also a mechanic for the Oklahoma Department of Highways in the Indian Reservation Roads department, which was established to provide access within Indian reservations, and Eastern Oklahoma was included in this designation.
On Dec. 25, 1931, Leonard and Ada’s son, Leonard Nicholas (Nick) Cotter, Jr., was born. In 1941, World War II began, and although Leonard was 35 years old he felt compelled by patriotism to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. He completed boot camp training and then was discharged due to his age, then 36. This was a great disappointment to him because he was very eager to serve his country overseas. In 1943, Leonard and Ada welcomed their baby daughter, Suzon, into the family.
In 1950, Leonard was one of the Oklahoma Department of Highways men who built the Twin Bridges over the Spring and Neosho Rivers near Wyandotte, Okla.
Community service became key to Leonard’s life. He joined the Lion’s Club, the Wyandotte United Methodist Church, was a 32nd Degree Mason and member of the McAlester Consistory. He served on the Seneca Indian School Board, was a Member of Indian State School Board and Vice-President of the Eastern Executive Indian School Board. He became President of the Inter-Tribal Council at that time composed of eight tribes: the Seneca-Cayuga, Eastern Shawnee, Ottawa, Miami, Peoria, Quapaw, Modoc and Wyandotte. He served as a Member of the Alcoholism and Rehabilitation Program of the Inter-Tribal Council, member of Claremore Indian Hospital Board and President of the State Health-Education-Welfare Board.
Chief Cotter served the Wyandotte people during years that included the Great Depression and World War II, as well as years of national policy change for Indian people, and years of social unrest including the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) activity in the late 1960s and 1970s. It was not easy dealing with pressing issues from inside and outside the tribe. Chief Cotter refused to sell the Huron Cemetery in Kansas City, Kansas, a far-sighted move that ultimately kept the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma eligible for federal recognition. He worked diligently on the Ohio claims cases against the federal government, asking for payment for tribal land lost in 1843 when the Wyandotte Nation was forced to move from its Ohio land. He kept the tribal citizens informed on the slow process in the courts. He helped establish a new roll and worked closely with the Department of Interior to write a new Wyandotte constitution, bylaws and corporate charter. He had a good relationship with the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Muskogee and received training on the Indian Self-Determination Act and oversaw the purchase of the land for the new Wyandotte Tribal Center on Highway 60.
In 1974, Chief Cotter addressed the Sesquicentennial Celebration of the Wyandotte Indian Mission Church in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, and met Mrs. Thelma Marsh, Wyandot historian and author. In 1976, Chief Cotter and other American Indian leaders met President Gerald R. Ford in the East Room of the White House.
Chief Cotter was Grand Marshal of the 1976 Bicentennial July Fourth Parade in Wyandot County, Ohio, and attended the historical pageant “Wyandotte, Wyandot,” which portrayed the Tribe’s removal to Kansas. He met Joe Hall, composer of the musical score for the pageant, the local mayor and his wife, and was presented an engraved canoe oar from the people of Wyandot County, Ohio.
He was presented a replica of the totem pole in Wyandotte, Mich. (founded in 1854), and was grand marshal of their parade. There he saw where his ancestors had lived on the banks of the Detroit River. Chief Cotter was invited to Wyandotte, Mich., for the unveiling of a beautiful 12-foot bronze sculpture depicting a typical Wyandotte family and commemorating the importance of the Wyandotte people to the history of the area.
Chief Cotter enjoyed learning the Tribe’s history and visiting the sites where his people had lived in Canada, Michigan and Ohio. He worked closely with Aubrey and Pat Buser, Wyandotte historians from Maryland, who often came to Oklahoma. The Cotters and Busers enjoyed a special bond because both men were Marines and both loved the history of Wyandot Chief Tarhe. Mr. Buser also assisted Chief Cotter with the Ohio claims cases. Long-time tribal secretary and board member Juanita McQuistion remembers Chief Cotter as being “a man’s man.”
“He was a true warrior who served his country. He got along well with other chiefs and he helped others advance,” she said. “For example, he had me admitted to the Seneca Indian School Board. He also had a true and faithful wife who was greatly admired as a school teacher.”
Chief Cotter died Nov. 18, 1976, while in office. His nephew, Ronnie Fisk, shares a family memory of him.
“My earliest recollections of Uncle Leonard go back to very early childhood and I always looked upon him as being a guy who was “steady as a rock.” You could always count on him to be the same day in and day out. Things always seemed to be either right or wrong to him with little or no “gray” areas involved. It wasn’t very difficult to know where you stood with him. I always respected him for all the very hard work he did on behalf of the tribe. He was Chief or Second Chief for 37 years. There were some interruptions in his service, and one of the interruptions was during WWII. It is my understanding (I think from my mother, Mary Cotter Fisk, and my Aunt Jo Cotter Bolles) that Leonard, sometime after the Pearl Harbor attack, volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps. The story is that he went down to enlist and was told that he would never be called because he was married and had a child, but he insisted on enlisting and did so. I was also told that he was somewhat frustrated because he never made it overseas. I’m pretty sure the story is true since it sounds like exactly the type of thing he would do.”
In 2015, Leonard and Ada Cotter’s family includes: Nick and Martha Cotter (their son and daughter-in-law), and their children Ada Diane Cotter Hartig and Steven Nicholas Cotter; and grandchildren Lisa Josette (Josie) Hartig, Avery Kelly Cotter, and Ryan Nicholas Cotter; and Suzon and Larry Pogue (their daughter and son-in-law), and their children Angela Beth Pogue Love, Julie Marie Pogue Breckenkamp and James Terrell (J.T.) Pogue; and their grandchildren Jessica Marie Love, Samuel Bradburn Love, Tyler Scott Breckenkamp, Connor Allen Breckenkamp, Spencer Thomas Breckenkamp, and Cotter James (C.J.) Pogue.
When Chief Cotter’s grandson, Steven Nicholas Cotter, went for his first interview for a pilot’s job with a major airline, he was asked by the interviewer to name a person he always admired and looked up to, and Steven responded, “my Grandfather Cotter, who was the Wyandotte Indian Chief!” Steven always said that was probably why he got the job! Without a doubt, his family adored and admired him.
Chief Cotter was impressed by a monument to the great Wyandot Chief Tarhe located on a country road in Ohio that reads “Distinguished Wyandot Chief and Loyal American,” and he said that was the way he wanted to be remembered. A look at his family and life of service shows he met his goal well. Chief Leonard Nicholas Cotter has a distinguished place among the great chiefs of the Wyandotte Nation.
Notes from Leonard N. (Nick) Cotter, Jr., and Martha Cotter, Lenoir City, TN, 2014 and 2015.
“Birth Dates of the Cotters” ca. 1950.
Wyandot Names Gathered by Larry K. Hancks, Kansas City, Kansas, 1998.
“Forty Years Among the Indians – A Descriptive History of the Long and Busy Life of Jeremiah Hubbard,” Sponsoring Society – Back Creek Monthly Meeting of Friends. Reprinted, 1975.
1875 photograph of Nicholas Cotter by William H. Jackson, Smithsonian Institution – Office of Anthropology, Washington, D.C., with notes on back by Charles Aubrey Buser, Frederick, MD, 1990.
Notes by Marius Barbeau, Oklahoma, 1910.
Notes from Michel Gros Louis (Wendat), Wendake, CANADA, 1995.
Wyandot Roll, 1867.
Records from the Oklahoma Historical Society on the life of Joel A. Cotter, 1987.
“History of Wyandotte, Oklahoma” by Nadine Grant and Della Vineyard, 1987.
Oklahoma Department of Transportation website and BIA.gov website, 2015.
Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma Roll, 1956.
Notes from Vi Cotter Smith, Tulsa, OK, 2015.
Notes from Sallie Cotter Andrews, Decatur, TX, 2015.
“Moccasin Trails to the Cross – A History of Mission to the Wyandott Indians on the Sandusky Plains,” by Thelma R. Marsh, 1974.
Interviews with Juanita McQuistion, Miami, OK, 2014 and 2015.
Notes from Ronnie Fisk, Nevada, MO, 2014 and 2015.