Woman, Mountain Wolf

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Mountain Wolf Woman

Winnebago autobiographer Mountain Wolf Woman (1884–1960) committed to posterity an autobiographical account—Mountain Wolf Woman: Sister of Crashing Thunder—that captured the complex challenge of blending traditional and contemporary cultural experiences. A full-blooded member of the Winnebago Tribe, Mountain Wolf Woman was revered by many as a woman who lived from the age of horses to the age of airplanes. Her vivid personal account lent value to the genre of female autobiographies in general, and inspired other significant Native American women to share their own stories.

Mountain Wolf Woman was born in April of 1884 at her maternal grandfather's home in East Fork River, Wisconsin. She was the youngest of seven children born to Charles Blowsnake and Lucy Goodvillage. Although Mountain Wolf Woman was born a member of her father's Thunder clan, she was later given a name that included her in the Wolf clan—considered to be holy due to its wealth of healers. The sketch on Mountain Wolf Woman in Liz Sonneborn's A to Z of Native American Women (1998) tells of how she contracted a "mysterious illness" as an infant, and "in desperation, her mother took her to see a wise elder, known as Wolf Woman, and begged her for a cure."

According to Winnebago tradition, Mountain Wolf Woman's mother figuratively "gave" her daughter to the old woman despite the fact that the child would physically remain with her immediate family. The healer chose to give her life-force to the sick girl, believing that someone who did not live a full one hundred years could bestow future health, longevity and the strength of their personal power on someone they felt worthy of receiving such a gift. Mountain Wolf Woman was healed and added the protection of the Wolf Clan spirit to that of the Thunder Clan that she had been born into.

Drawn to Healing

From early on, Mountain Wolf Woman felt drawn to the world of medicines and the art of healing. Her maternal grandfather, Naqisaneinghinigra (Naqiwankwaxopiniga) or "Spirit Man", taught the young Mountain Wolf Woman about tribal medicine. She had two years of formal education at an Indian school in Tomah, Wisconsin, from age nine to age eleven, but was pulled out—despite liking it very much—in order to travel and work with her family. From the 1830s through the 1900s, members of the Winnebago Nation were driven out of their native Wisconsin by government interests in the state's lead mines, and relocated time and time again in other U.S. states such as Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, South Dakota and Nebraska—Mountain Wolf Woman's family was at odds regarding the U.S. government's offer of "resettlement". Although both parents belonged to clans that were not, by nature, tied to the Earth—her father was of the Thunder clan, and her mother a member of the Eagle clan—they disagreed regarding the U.S. government's offer of forty acres. Her father was openly critical of the buy-out, and refused to be a part of the program, but her mother chose to accept the land and oversaw the building of a log cabin on the property. Mountain Wolf Woman attended the Lutheran Mission School in Wittenberg for a short period of time as a teenager, but was taken out once again—this time to be married.

Marital Misery

Mountain Wolf Woman's early life was characteristic of the majority of Native American women at the time. In her book Sending My Heart Back Across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography, Hertha Dawn Wong relates that Mountain Wolf Woman's older brother, Sam Blowsnake (Crashing Thunder), awoke from a drunken sleep to find a good Samaritan keeping the mosquitoes from biting his face. In an effort to repay this thoughtfulness, Sam promised Mountain Wolf Woman to the man. Wong explains that Mountain Wolf Woman could not protest the marriage because "… she could not embarrass her brother or violate the taboo that might end in suffering for him."

Mountain Wolf Woman recalled in her autobiography that her mother stated, "this matter cannot be helped. When you are older … you can marry whomever you yourself think that you want to marry." Notable Native Americans explained that marriages within the Winnebago culture were considered "economic arrangements" rather than love matches. Although Mountain Wolf Woman was bitter about the union—she refused to call her first husband by name, referring to him instead only as "that man"—she stayed with him until her brother's debt was released. They were divorced soon after her second child was born.

Mountain Wolf Woman lead a fairly transient lifestyle, moving frequently to find better jobs or living conditions. She devoted years of her remarkable life to healing people. She served as a midwife until the 1930s, when Winnebago women started to choose hospital births over home births. In the 1940s she acted as the Black River Falls mission health officer, where she recorded illnesses among her people for the county's Public Health department. Mountain Wolf Woman wed her second husband, Bad Soldier—a member of the Bear or Soldier clan—and remained happily married to him until his death in 1936. It was during the delivery of her third child that Mountain Wolf Woman tried peyote, medicinally, for the first time.

Peyote Pupil

Peyote, Lophophora williamsii,—a cactus plant with hallucinogenic properties native to Texas and Mexico—prompted those who ingested a "button" of it to experience intense, spiritual visions. Mountain Wolf Woman and her family were living in Nebraska when they became devout members of the Native American Church—faithfully attending Saturday peyote gatherings in their communities and participating in a variety of spiritual peyote ceremonies, including the Half-Moon and Cross Fire rituals. Mountain Wolf Woman's experiences with peyote were positively spiritual, and their integrity assured her that the peyote church was a true and legitimate extension of the Christian God. In one of her personal mystical visions while on peyote, she was transformed into an angel and communicated with Christ directly. Mountain Wolf Woman and her family were also active members of the peyote religious community in Martin, South Dakota. Whenever they moved, they always chose to settle among other "peyote eaters" due to the intolerance expressed by those outside the Church. In 1958, Mountain Wolf Woman also financed a 50th Anniversary meeting in honor of peyote's arrival in Wisconsin.

Spiritual Synthesis

Mountain Wolf Woman maintained a devout interest in the traditional spiritual practices of the Winnebago, and sang and danced in tribal ceremonies and celebrations—performing both the Scalp Dance, and the Medicine Dance. She was also a practicing Christian. Mountain Wolf Woman adopted what she found useful from all three spiritual landscapes: Winnebago traditions, Christianity and the Native American Church's peyote sacraments. Her commitment to her tribal roots went a long way towards preserving the Winnebago culture in a time of growing dissolution. She, like so many of her people, underwent a transformation as an adult when she and her people were forced into reservation life and barred from the nomadic traditions that had defined them.

Landmark Autobiographer

Ethnologist Nancy Oestreich Lurie had both a professional and personal relationship with Mountain Wolf Woman prior to their professional collaboration. Lurie is described in Helen Jaskoski's American Indian Biographies entry as Mountain Wolf Woman's "adopted kinswoman," and in other sources as her "adopted niece." Lurie had been immersed in Winnebago history and tradition specifically, and Native American history in general long before connecting with Mountain Wolf Woman. She had been doing fieldwork in 1944 when she met Mountain Wolf Woman's blood relative, Mitchell Redcloud, Sr., who happened to be ill at the time of their meeting. Lurie visited Redcloud repeatedly to learn about the Winnebago culture. Concerned that he would not survive an impending surgery, Redcloud adopted Lurie. She was given a Winnebago name and clan affiliation, as well as a list of relatives to call on in her efforts to understand the Winnebago culture. Redcloud wrote to Mountain Wolf Woman to inform her of Lurie's new status, and Mountain Wolf Woman accepted the ethnologist as her niece.

In 1958, Mountain Wolf Woman flew to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and spent five weeks relating the story of her life to Lurie's tape recorder. She spoke first in Winnebago, then again in English while Lurie made an audio recording. The finished autobiography was published in 1958, and Notable Native Americans noted that it was praised by critics and scholars alike as a significant contribution to "the literature of cultural crisis and change." Mountain Wolf Woman's grandniece, Frances Thundercloud Wentz, helped Lurie with the translations and Lurie included cultural notes for non-Winnebago readers. The autobiography covered mundane childhood activities as well as life-altering events, and is usually treated as a companion volume to anthropologist Paul Radin's biography of her brother, Crashing Thunder. Mountain Wolf Woman's brother also contributed to the "Trickster" myth cycle (1956) and material for Radin's ethnology The Winnebago Tribe (1923).

Because autobiographies at the time tended to focus almost exclusively on male subjects, Mountain Wolf Woman's story provided vital information that was missing from her brother's cultural account—presenting, in collaboration, a more complete perspective on Winnebago history. Sonneborn explained, "Characteristic of the role Winnebago men played in their society, [Crashing Thunder]'s story was full of adventure and bluster. In contrast, Mountain Wolf Woman's book represents in style and content the concerns of traditional Winnebago women … modest and often self-mocking … [tales] of ordinary occurrences, of small triumphs and failures, of relatives and friends."

Gretchen M. Bataille and Kathleen Mullen Sands (American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives) praised the autobiography for its literary merits which, they felt, made its ethnographic content uniquely accessible to readers. Mountain Wolf Woman was no stranger to the forgotten art of oral storytelling. Some of her fondest memories were of the mythic and sacred tales that her father recited for her and her siblings. Both she and her brother's histories have contributed to studies of Native American culture and are sometimes used simultaneously as study materials in academic programs. Her autobiography is considered particularly valuable because it has remained in print and serves as a fundamental text in Native American and Women's Studies courses. Mountain Wolf Woman's autobiography was released in film format in 1990 by producer Jocelyn Riley, and won a certificate of recognition from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction's American Indian History and Culture Program. The video uses still photography as a backdrop for segments of Mountain Wolf Woman's autobiography spoken in voice-over by Mountain Wolf Woman's granddaughter, Naomi Russell.

Not Forgotten

Mountain Wolf Woman prophesied her death, fulfilling the Winnebago belief that some elders were capable of such a feat. She died in her sleep at the age of 76 on November 9, 1960, in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, of pleurisy resulting from chronic pneumonia. Family and friends respected her eclectic collection of beliefs with a traditional Winnebago wake, a peyote meeting held in her honor and a Christian burial in the Black River Falls mission cemetery in Wisconsin.

Mountain Wolf Woman had eleven children—three of which died early—and cared for a number of her 38 grandchildren of sons and daughters who fell prey to alcoholism and transient lifestyles. Notable Native Americans notes that Mountain Wolf Woman was one of the first women in her tribe to own and drive a car, to travel by train, and that she took her first airplane flight at the age of 74 to work with Lurie in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sonneborn identified Mountain Wolf Woman's greatest strength as "an ability to adapt easily to new circumstances … to cope with cultural change by combining the best of both old and new ways." She became a skilled negotiator between herself and other members of her tribe and government representatives—recognizing that to succeed and receive what was due to them, Native Americans had to learn how to communicate with officials and bureaucrats and insist on fair treatment. Words used to describe Mountain Wolf Woman include "autonomous," "witty," "independent," "empathic," "assertive," "intelligent," "forthright" and "fearless" and her autobiography stands as both a testament and an inspiration to Native Peoples and women of all generations.


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