anticipation of the upcoming Dakotah Homecoming during which several
women will be recognized, this is the first in a series exploring
the roles American Indian women have played both in their cultures
and that of the white settlers.
is perhaps no one more enamored with the legend of Princess Wenonah,
said to be Winonas namesake, than the town itself, with her
image immortalized in bronze, advertising pieces and our imaginations
for at least a century.
which literally translated from the Dakotah language means firstborn
daughter, is said to have been the child of Chief Wapasha, leader
of the band of Dakotah that called this region home when white settlers
first stepped off boats in the 1850s.
legends that have surrounded her life and death since days when
the Dakotah lived here are many, though all carry a central theme:
Princess Wenonahs father was going to force her to marry someone
she didnt love, so she leaped to her death from hundreds of
feet above the Mississippi River at a place called Maiden Rock.
to research compiled by Winonan Monica DeGrazia, sometimes the story
is that she is to marry within her own tribe though she loves someone
from an enemy tribe, sometimes it is that her father wants to wed
her to a brave from a neighboring tribe to build relations. There
is even a version that the supposed arranged marriage was to be
to a French trapper in exchange for blankets and food. DeGrazia
found more than 40 versions published over the past 200 years, the
undisputed first a few sentences penned by Zebulon Pike in 1805.
didnt say exactly who shared the story with him during his
trip up the Mississippi, but he noted in his journal a sketchy story
about an Indian maiden who dashed herself on the rocks rather than
marry one she didnt love.
the years, according to DeGrazia and encyclopedia entries on the
matter, the story began to take on more detail as other visitors
to the area retold it, with the maiden becoming Princess Wenonah
and her home Keoxa, later known as Winona. Some versions, however,
say Wenonah was from the Fort Snelling area, only visiting the bluffs
around Lake Pepin to hunt for porcupines. But all have her as a
lovely princess maiden, burdened by unrequited love and her powerlessness
against the wishes of her family.
at the risk of being spoilsports to a romantic tale, historians
say there are a few problems with the story that many have argued
as truth over the years.
suggests that in the Dakotah language, the word Wenonah
is more a designation than a personal name, much like the words
grandma, great-grandma or uncle
are to us today. It refers to the first-born daughter of any family,
tribal chief or not, and it is only in modern times that it would
likely be used as an actual first name. Few dispute that any of
the generations of Chief Wapashas may have had a daughter, but what
their tribal names were and whether any of them actually dashed
herself on the rocks is another matter.
Dakotah Indians do not have a designation of princess,
that is a fabrication by white people, researchers say. In fact,
there is not even an equivalent word to princess in the Dakotah
truth of the matter is that settlers of European descent have been
infatuated with the mystique of American Indian women since Pocahontas
supposedly saved John Smith in 1607. There are many, many Princess
Wenonah legends that can be found all across the Midwest, as well
as other kinds of Indian princess legends from one coast
to the other.
storytellers universally appear apt to translate Native American
relationships through Caucasian eyes, assigning roles and power
within an Indian family that do not traditionally exist, author
and American Indian expert Rayna Green has written over and over.
In Native American families, women are powerful, revered even for
their spirituality. They control property; they are the only people
who can hold certain sacred items, and today many tribes are being
led by them. They also, she says, had a great deal of influence
over who they married.
a series of books that seek to set the record straight, Green, who
is a Cherokee Indian and director of the American Indian Program
for the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution,
explains that many of these legends, while romantic and exotic,
are a product of fanciful imaginations rather than the helpless
plight of a country full of American Indian princesses.