Native Village Youth and Education News

March 1, 2009 Issue 195 Volume 1


Homecoming to explore roles of American Indian women
(Part 1 of Series) By Cynthya Porter
Condensed by Native Village

Winona MN: The upcoming Dakotah Homecoming will recognize several Native women. This series of articles explores the roles American Indian women played in both in their own cultures and those of white settlers.

There is perhaps no one more enamored with the legend of Princess Wenonah than the town of Winona, Minnesota where her image is immortalized in bronze.

Wenonah translates in the Dakotah language to "firstborn daughter." It's been said her father was Chief Wapasha, the area's Dakotah bandleader when white settlers first stepped off boats in the 1850s.

Many legends tell of her life and death. All those stories carry a central theme: Wenonah’s father planned to force her to marry someone she didn’t love. So, some claim, she leaped to her death from Maidens Rock, hundreds of feet above the Mississippi River.

According to research by Winonan Monica DeGrazia, some stories say Wenonah is to marry within her own tribe, but she loves someone from an enemy tribe. Some claim her father wants her to marry a brave from a neighboring tribe to build good relations. One version claims the arranged marriage was to a French trapper in exchange for blankets and food.

DeGrazia found more than 40 versions published over the past 200 years. The first was penned by Zebulon Pike in 1805 as he traveled up the Mississippi.  Pike didn’t say where he heard the story, but he wrote a sketchy story in his journal about an Indian maiden who dashed herself on the rocks rather than marry one she didn’t love.

DeGrazia says that through the years, details were added to Wenonah's story as it was retold. The maiden eventually became Princess Wenonah and her home, Keoxa, was later known as Winona.

Historians, however, have some doubts:
Research suggests that in the Dakotah language,  “Wenonah” is more a designation than a personal name, such as “grandma.”  It refers to a family's first-born daughter; only in modern times would it likely have been a first name
Dakotah Indians do not have "princesses." In fact, there is not even a word for princess in the Dakotah language. The term was given by white people who have been intrigued by Native women since Pocahontas stories emerged in 1607.
Many Princess Wenonah legends are found across the Midwest, and “Indian princess” legends exist from coast to coast. These stories usually portray Native people and relationships through Caucasian eyes.

In truth:
Many Native cultures revered their women as powerful and spiritual people. 
Most held a great deal of influence over whom they married.
Women also controlled property and were among the only ones who could hold certain sacred items.
Native women's influence and importance continues today. Many tribes are now being led by women.


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