In general, political organization was relatively flexible among the Woodland Indians. The duties of the chief were purely civil, although he had the power to intercede in the event that a war leader wanted to engage in a war that the chief felt was unnecessary. His major role was one of maintaining peace and order in the community, making decisions, and determining a course of action with regard to the welfare of the tribe. During the treaty-making period with Whites, he represented the tribe and signed the treaties. In any significant decisions the chief was aided by clan councils, band councils, or the tribal council. Many chiefs were known for their powers of oratory and persuasive ability with words.
Since there was little need for strong civil leadership, and it was not unusual for a shaman or priest to exert greater influence and possess greater prestige than the chief. Among the Woodland chiefs of historical importance, a primary role of chiefs seemed to be that of providing leadership in the wars against Whites. Black Hawk, a subordinate chief of the Sauk and Fox, led his people in the Black Hawk war of 1832; Tecumseh, the son of a Shawnee chief, organized a series of tribes in the Indiana Territory against the American forces in the early nineteenth century; Pontiac, an Ottawa leader during the mid-eighteenth century, organized a number of tribes against the British forts, including the famous six-month siege at Fort Detroit in 1763.
Chieftainship often followed hereditary lines, but not in a strict sense. The Ho-chunk selected their chiefs from certain families within the Thunderbird clan, the Menominee from the principal family of the Great Mythical Bear clan. Among the Ojibwa and Potawatomi, a son of a deceased chief replaced his father. In some cases, a chief was selected by the council from a number of hereditary candidates on the basis of personal qualities and abilities. Traditionally, some chiefs were known by the name of their clan or kinship group.