Native American Legends
Winona, the Child-Woman
A Sioux Legend
The sky is blue overhead, peeping through window-like openings
in a roof of green leaves. Right between a great pine and a birch
tree their soft doeskin shawls are spread, and there sit two Sioux
maidens amid their fineries -- variously colored porcupine quills
for embroidery laid upon sheets of thin birch-bark, and moccasin
tops worked in colors like autumn leaves. It is Winona and her friend
They have arrived at the period during which the young girl is
carefully secluded from her brothers and cousins and future lovers,
and retires, as it were, into the nunnery of the woods, behind a
veil of thick foliage. Thus she is expected to develop fully her
In meditation and solitude, entirely alone or with a chosen companion
of her own sex and age, she gains a secret strength, as she studies
the art of womanhood from nature herself.
Winona has the robust beauty of the wild lily of the prairie, pure
and strong in her deep colors of yellow and scarlet against the
savage plain and horizon, basking in the open sun like a child,
yet soft and woman-like, with drooping head when observed. Both
girls are beautifully robed in loose gowns of soft doeskin, girded
about the waist with the usual very wide leather belt.
"Come, let us practice our sacred dance," says one to
the other. Each crowns her glossy head with a wreath of wild flowers,
and they dance with slow steps around the white birch, singing meanwhile
the sacred songs.
Now upon the lake that stretches blue to the eastward there appears
a distant canoe, a mere speck, no bigger than a bird far off against
the shining sky.
"See the lifting of the paddles!" exclaims Winona.
"Like the leaping of a trout upon the water!" suggests
"I hope they will not discover us, yet I would like to know
who they are," remarks the other, innocently.
The birch canoe approaches swiftly, with two young men plying the
light cedar paddles. The girls now settle down to their needlework,
quite as if they had never laughed or danced or woven garlands,
bending over their embroidery in perfect silence. Surely they would
not wish to attract attention, for the two sturdy young warriors
have already landed.
They pick up the canoe and lay it well up on the bank, out of sight.
Then one procures a strong pole. They lift a buck deer from the
canoe -- not a mark upon it, save for the bullet wound; the deer
looks as if it were sleeping! They tie the hind legs together and
the forelegs also and carry it between them on the pole.
Quickly and cleverly they do all this; and now they start forward
and come unexpectedly upon the maidens' retreat! They pause for
an instant in mute apology, but the girls smile their forgiveness,
and the youths hurry on toward the village.
Winona has attended her first maidens' feast and is considered
eligible to marriage. She may receive young men, but not in public
or in a social way, for such was not the custom of the Sioux. When
he speaks, she need not answer him unless she chooses.
The Indian woman in her quiet way preserves the dignity of the
home. From our standpoint the white man is a law-breaker! The "Great
Mystery," we say, does not adorn the woman above the man. His
law is spreading horns, or flowing mane, or gorgeous plumage for
the male; the female he made plain, but comely, modest and gentle.
She is the foundation of man's dignity and honor. Upon her rests
the life of the home and of the family. I have often thought that
there is much in this philosophy of an untutored people. Had her
husband remained long enough in one place, the Indian woman, I believe,
would have developed no mean civilization and culture of her own.
It was no disgrace to the chief's daughter in the old days to work
with her hands. Indeed, their standard of worth was the willingness
to work, but not for the sake of accumulation, only in order to
Winona has learned to prepare skins, to remove the hair and tan
the skin of a deer so that it may be made into moccasins within
three days. She has a bone tool for each stage of the conversion
of the stiff raw-hide into velvety leather. She has been taught
the art of painting tents and raw-hide cases, and the manufacture
of garments of all kinds.
Generosity is a trait that is highly developed in the Sioux woman.
She makes many moccasins and other articles of clothing for her
male relatives, or for any who are not well provided. She loves
to see her brother the best dressed among the young men, and the
moccasins especially of a young brave are the pride of his woman-kind.
Her own person is neatly attired, but ordinarily with great simplicity.
Her doeskin gown has wide, flowing sleeves; the neck is low, but
not so low as is the evening dress of society.
Her moccasins are plain; her leggings close-fitting and not as
high as her brother's. She parts her smooth, jet-black hair in the
middle and plaits it in two. In the old days she used to do it in
one plait wound around with wampum. Her ornaments, sparingly worn,
are beads, elks' teeth, and a touch of red paint. No feathers are
worn by the woman, unless in a sacred dance. She is supposed to
be always occupied with some feminine pursuit or engaged in some
social affair, which also is strictly feminine as a rule.
Even her language is peculiar to her sex, some words being used
by women only, while others have a feminine termination. There is
an etiquette of sitting and standing, which is strictly observed.
The woman must never raise her knees or cross her feet when seated.
She seats herself on the ground side-wise, with both feet under
Notwithstanding her modesty and undemonstrative ways, there is
no lack of mirth and relaxation for Winona among her girl companions.
In summer, swimming and playing in the water is a favorite amusement.
She even imitates with the soles of her feet the peculiar, resonant
sound that the beaver makes with her large, flat tail upon the surface
of the water. She is a graceful swimmer, keeping the feet together
and waving them backward and forward like the tail of a fish.
Nearly all her games are different from those of the men. She has
a sport of wand-throwing which develops fine muscles of the shoulder
and back. The wands are about eight feet long, and taper gradually
from an inch and a half to half an inch in diameter. Some of them
are artistically made, with heads of bone and horn, so that it is
remarkable to what a distance they may be made to slide over the
ground. In the feminine game of ball, which is something like "shinny,"
the ball is driven with curved sticks between two goals. It is played
with from two or three to a hundred on a side, and a game between
two bands or villages is a picturesque event.
A common indoor diversion is the "deer's foot" game,
played with six deer hoofs on a string, ending in a bone or steel
awl. The object is to throw it in such a way as to catch one or
more hoofs on the point of the awl, a feat which requires no little
dexterity. Another is played with marked plum-stones in a bowl,
which are thrown like dice and count according to the side that
is turned uppermost.
Winona's wooing is a typical one. As with any other people, love-making
is more or less in vogue at all times of the year, but more especially
at midsummer, during the characteristic reunions and festivities
of that season. The young men go about usually in pairs, and the
maidens do likewise. They may meet by chance at any time of day,
in the woods or at the spring, but often seek to do so after dark,
just outside the teepee. The girl has her companion, and he has
his, for the sake of propriety or protection. The conversation is
carried on in a whisper, so that even these chaperone's do not hear.
At the sound of the drum on summer evenings, dances are begun within
the circular rows of teepees, but without the circle the young men
promenade in pairs. Each provides himself with the plaintive flute
and plays the simple cadences of his people, while his person is
completely covered with his fine robe, so that he cannot be recognized
by the passerby. At every pause in the melody he gives his yodel-like
love-call, to which the girls respond with their musical, sing-song
Matosapa has loved Winona since the time he saw her at the lake-side
in her parlor among the pines. But he has not had much opportunity
to speak until on such a night, after the dances are over. There
is no outside fire; but a dim light from within the skin teepees
sheds a mellow glow over the camp, mingling with the light of a
young moon. Thus these lovers go about like ghosts. Matosapa has
already circled the teepees with his inseparable brother-friend,
"Friend, do me an honor to-night!" he exclaims, at last.
"Open this first door for me, since this will be the first
time I shall speak to a woman!"
"Ah," suggests Brave Elk, "I hope you have selected
a girl whose grandmother has no cross dogs!"
"The prize that is won at great risk is usually valued most,"
"Ho, kola! I shall touch the door-flap as softly as the swallow
alights upon her nest. But I warn you, do not let your heart beat
too loudly, for the old woman's ears are still good!"
So, joking and laughing, they proceed toward a large buffalo tent
with a horse's tail suspended from the highest pole to indicate
the rank of the owner. They have ceased to blow the flute some paces
back, and walk noiselessly as a panther in quest of a doe.
Brave Elk opens the door. Matosapa enters the tent. As was the
wont of the Sioux, the well-born maid has a little teepee within
a teepee -- a private apartment of her own. He passes the sleeping
family to this inner shrine. There he gently wakens Winona with
proper apologies. This is not unusual or strange to her innocence,
for it was the custom of the people. He sits at the door, while
his friend waits outside, and tells his love in a whisper.
To this she does not reply at once; even if she loves him, it is
proper that she should be silent. The lover does not know whether
he is favorably received or not, upon this his first visit. He must
now seek her outside upon every favorable occasion. No gifts are
offered at this stage of the affair; the trafficking in ponies and
"buying" a wife is entirely a modern custom.
Matosapa has improved every opportunity, until Winona has at last
shyly admitted her willingness to listen. For a whole year he has
been compelled at intervals to repeat the story of his love. Through
the autumn hunting of the buffalo and the long, cold winter he often
presents her kinsfolk with his game.
At the next midsummer the parents on both sides are made acquainted
with the betrothal, and they at once begin preparations for the
coming wedding. Provisions and delicacies of all kinds are laid
aside for a feast. Matosapa's sisters and his girl cousins are told
of the approaching event, and they too prepare for it, since it
is their duty to dress or adorn the bride with garments made by
their own hands.
With the Sioux of the old days, the great natural crises of human
life, marriage and birth, were considered sacred and hedged about
with great privacy. Therefore the union is publicly celebrated after
and not before its consummation. Suddenly the young couple disappear.
They go out into the wilderness together, and spend some days or
weeks away from the camp. This is their honeymoon, away from all
curious or prying eyes. In due time they quietly return, he to his
home and she to hers, and now at last the marriage is announced
and invitations are given to the feast.
The bride is ceremoniously delivered to her husband's people, together
with presents of rich clothing collected from all her clan, which
she afterward distributes among her new relations. Winona is carried
in a travois handsomely decorated, and is received with equal ceremony.
For several days following she is dressed and painted by the female
relatives of the groom, each in her turn, while in both clans the
wedding feast is celebrated.
To illustrate womanly nobility of nature, let me tell the story
of Dowanhotaninwin, Her-Singing-Heard. The maiden was deprived of
both father and mother when scarcely ten years old, by an attack
of the Sacs and Foxes while they were on a hunting expedition. Left
alone with her grandmother, she was carefully reared and trained
by this sage of the wild life.
Nature had given her more than her share of attractiveness, and
she was womanly and winning as she was handsome. Yet she remained
unmarried for nearly thirty years -- a most unusual thing among
us; and although she had worthy suitors in every branch of the Sioux
nation, she quietly refused every offer.
Certain warriors who had distinguished themselves against the particular
tribe who had made her an orphan, persistently sought her hand in
marriage, but failed utterly. One summer the Sioux and the Sacs
and Foxes were brought together under a flag of truce by the Commissioners
of the Great White Father, for the purpose of making a treaty with
them. During the short period of friendly intercourse and social
dance and feast, a noble warrior of the enemy's tribe courted Dowanhotaninwin.
Several of her old lovers were vying with one another to win her
at the same time, that she might have inter-tribal celebration of
her wedding. Behold! the maiden accepted the foe of her childhood
-- one of those who had cruelly deprived her of her parents! By
night she fled to the Sac and Fox camp with her lover. It seemed
at first an insult to the Sioux, and there was almost an outbreak
among the young men of the tribe, who were barely restrained by
their respect for the Commissioners of the Great Father. But her
aged grandfather explained the matter publicly in this fashion:
"Young men, hear ye! Your hearts are strong; let them not be
troubled by the act of a young woman of your tribe! This has been
her secret wish since she became a woman. She deprecates all tribal
warfare. Her young heart never forgot its early sorrow; yet she
has never blamed the Sacs and Foxes or held them responsible for
the deed. She blames rather the customs of war among us. She believes
in the formation of a blood brotherhood strong enough to prevent
all this cruel and useless enmity. This was her high purpose, and
to this end she reserved her hand. Forgive her, forgive her, I pray!"
In the morning there was a great commotion. The herald of the Sacs
and Foxes entered the Sioux camp, attired in ceremonial garb and
bearing in one hand an American flag and in the other a peace-pipe.
He made the rounds singing a peace song, and delivering to all an
invitation to attend the wedding feast of Dowanhotaninwin and their
chief's son. Thus all was well. The simplicity, high purpose, and
bravery of the girl won the hearts of the two tribes, and as long
as she lived she was able to keep the peace between them.
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