Honoring Wiyaka Sinte Win/ Tail Feather Woman and her vision

<–by Bruce White>
Wiyaka Sinte Win or Tail Feather Woman, a Dakota woman who had a vision about the construction of a great drum, designed “to bring unity and healing” among peoples, is to be honored this year by Dakota people. Sometime after 1862, Tail Feather Woman, who is usually described as being Santee, or simply Dakota, was living in a particular village when it was attacked by “blue coats”–American soldiers. She took refuge in a swamp, hiding there for days, sometimes under the water so as not to be seen, breathing through a hollow reed. During that time she prayed for deliverance and she received a vision about the construction of a drum the beat of which had a transformative power that would lead the blue coats to lay down their arms.

Tail Feather Woman’s vision led to the construction of many drums in the late 19th century, made by Dakota people then passed on along with the vision and its teachings to Ojibwe communities in Minnesota, who later gave drums to other tribes farther east, such as the Menominee. Today these drums continue to be used in ceremonies and in celebrations. A number of Ojibwe communities today tell the story of “when the Sioux brought the drum.” An 1878  newspaper, as I wrote in my book We Are at Home: Pictures of the Ojibwe People, told of a gathering of people at Pine City, where one such drum was given. Although the article implied that those gathered were massing for an attack on white communities, it also recounted Tail Feather Woman’s vision in detail, making plain that her teachings were designed to bring people together in a time of hostility and distrust.

A Dakota woman held captive at the Fort Snelling concentration camp during the witner of 1862-63. The events of that time led to several decades of conflict between Dakota peoples and the U.S. government, during which time the experience and vision of Tail Feather Woman took place.

A Dakota woman held captive at the Fort Snelling concentration camp during the winter of 1862-63. The tragic events of that time led to several decades of conflict between Dakota peoples and the U.S. government, during which time the experience and vision of Tail Feather Woman took place. This photograph is in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, which has many photographs of Dakota people taken at the Fort Snelling concentration camp.

In recent years Tail Feather Woman’s vision has been less well known among Dakota people than among the Ojibwe. In some cases Dakota people have heard her story from Ojibwe people. In a recent email announcing the intention to honor Tail Feather Woman, Paula Horne-Mullen:

While attending Red School House [in St. Paul] in the late 70’s and belonging to the Three Fires Drum Group, we – as Young People from various tribes, were invited to a Big Drum Ceremony at a Long House at Round Lake in Wisconsin. The People at the ceremony were made up of mostly Anishinabe Elders, all fluent, with a Huge Drum in the Center.  The long house had a light coming from the hole in the roof, which was shining and moved with sun movement on the Drum.  This particular Big Drum was Huge, with four staffs in the four directions, hanging from the staffs were painted hands in different colors representing the direction. The ceremony consisted of various songs, as the light moved in a certain area across the drum, which seemed to indicate a certain song to be song.  This ceremony is very private, a healing ceremony, with Societies that exist today with the mentioned Nations.

The ceremony came from Tail Feather Woman.  There are many versions of her story, but the basic story is what I would like to share from the Anishinabe Elders who had an interpreter to relay the origination of the ceremony. I was asked to stand and dance through some of their songs with the Elderly woman on each side; they wanted to honor a Dakota representative and told me the story as follows:

Tail Feather Woman was by her camp gathering food, when the Blue Coats invaded her village, there are some versions that say she told the Anishinabe that her four sons died in the invasion, some do not mention this, in any case, she ran for her life from the Blue Coats who were on horse back.  She dove in the lake and thought quickly enough to grab a reed to breath through and began to hide under the water for a long period of time, some say over night, some say for four days, in which case, it was very long for hours on end…  While under the water, she prayed and was visited by the Creator, who gave her a vision of the Big Drum.  It is said she told that the pounding of the drum is to bring healing for the People and bring them together in unity.  The Big Drum ceremony that is carried on with the Anishinabe, say it is a great Healing ceremony for their People. After the Blue Coats camped and waited for her to come up. Tail Feather Woman arose from the water by the calling of the spirit and the crying of her family, where upon she was able to walk through the camp of the blue coat soldiers, unseen. Tail Feather Woman was invisible to them, she walked through their camp and was able to take some of their food and walked across the plains to find her family. Exhausted and ill, she looked for her family, until she found them, they nursed her back to health and she told of her experience and vision. As directed by the Creator she headed east in gratitude with her family she passed on the vision, along with the songs and protocols for the ceremony to the Anishinabe.  This ceremony still exists today with many Societies.  She later died while living with the Anishinabe Nations.

So we remember Tail Feather Woman, a unique name, as it is the part of the eagle that is used for any of our ceremonial rites, you need that eagle tail feather to participate in most of our seven sacred rites, a powerful name.  She was one of our Nation’s women that survived a tremendous feat, through strength and endurance, earning a powerful vision of healing.  We should not allow her memory to die with her own people or rather; this story should be reborn to her People that she lived in honor of our people.  Her memory lives on with the Anishinabe Nation; there is even a Tail Feather Woman’s Society.  It is said that throughout History there are great Leaders that are men, but seldom do we remember a woman.  All women are sacred and remembered as a whole for what they gave as the ‘back bone’ for the People, but her remarkable feat deserves this honor; she had to be a very strong woman to have survived under water that long and be sincere enough in prayers to be gifted a great vision of healing that is being done to this day.  We need to remember her and honor her.

On March 12 a gathering was held to organize an event on July 15 to honor Tail Feather Woman. Plans included inviting “the Big Drum Societies of the Anishinabe Nation with possibly the Muskogee and Menominee Nation who carry on the Big Drum Ceremony and bring attention to the life of Tail Feather Woman with our own People. We will ask them to share their stories and songs of Tail Feather Woman.” One plan called for creating a “memorial monument” at the North end of Pickerel Lake in South Dakota. According to Horne-Mullen: ” The monument would memorialize the story of her feat and to bring awareness of the lake, recognizing it as a Sacred Site, a place where the great vision occurred.  Our People and our future generations need to know who she was.”

Another plan is to build a drum to honor Tail Feather Woman’s legacy. Horne-Mullen wrote: “The Big Drum can only move in the eastern direction, so the thoughts are we would gift a Big Drum in her honor. . . . We will consult some Elders of the proper protocol of creating a Big Drum. . . . I once heard from a Tribe in the South, that we as humans should carry on our life in honor of our family and People, we should never suffer the 3rd death.  The first is when our spirit leaves our body, the second is when our body goes in the ground, the third death (that one should never suffer); is to suffer the death in the memory of your family and relatives.”

Horne-Mullen concluded saying: “This endeavor belongs to all Dakota Oyate, ‘everyone’ should be included in this feat, with a hand in making this happen, what her vision taught, to bring Unity and Healing. Pidamaye for taking time to read this, Paula Horne.”

For further questions, ideas or contributions to this effort, email Paula Horne-Mullen at  [email protected]

How Tail Feather Woman brought her vision of peace and harmony to Minnesota

According to a traditional account, recorded from Anishinaabe informants at Mille Lacs and other reservations, Tail Feather Woman (Tailfeather Woman) or Wiyaka Sinte Win, the visionary Dakota woman who originated the big drum, went to Mille Lacs Lake around 1880 to teach Ojibwe people about the construction of the drum and the vision and the songs that went with it. According to this account and written records, this was just the beginning of the spread of Tail Feather Woman’s vision across the Midwest. As described here in March, it is this vision that Dakota people plan to commemorate this year at Pickerel Lake in South Dakota.

One of the most misleading myths about Minnesota is the idea that Dakota and Ojibwe people were implacable enemies for generations. The history of shared beliefs, shared territory, and intermarriage among the two groups belies the importance given to that myth. Among the Ojibwe, particularly those who lived at Mille Lacs and along the St. Croix River, the Ma’iingan or Wolf clan owes its existence to marriages between Dakota men and Ojibwe women hundreds of years ago. The story of how Dakota people brought the drum to the Mille Lacs people is yet another example of the shared history of Ojibwe and Dakota people in Minnesota.

In the early 1950s, Fred K. Blessing, a collector of Ojibwe handiwork and technology, recorded the accounts of what happened when Tail Feather Woman brought the drum to Mille Lacs Lake. According to summaries of the information supplied to Blessing by several informants, Tail Feather Woman was Sisseton. She was part of a band of Sisseton Dakota who were being attacked by the U.S. Cavalry. She was cut off from her people. To escape she jumped into some water and hid among some bullrushes. The soldiers camped nearby and she was forced to hide out for four days. During her experience, without food, she had a vision in which the Creator spoke to her and instructed her to build a big drum. The Creator told her that small drums were too faint to hear, so a big drum was called for. It would be a peace drum. Tail Feather Woman was instructed on how to build the drum and how to conduct the drum ceremony.

A  Dakota woman sitting in a tepee in the 1870s; Charles Zimmerman photo; Minnesota Historical Society photograph.

A Dakota woman sitting in a tepee in the 1870s. Charles Zimmerman photo, Minnesota Historical Society.

When the soldiers left, Tail Feather Woman found the remnants of her people and told them of her vision. They made camp and began to build the drum. She taught them the sacred songs. According to Blessing’s notes:

When all was ready, the first Sioux Drum ceremony was held, including the preparation of a feast. A group of Cavalrymen happened along and heard the singing. They thought a war party was being organized and so approached the group carefullly. They saw only a peaceful gathering. Some of the warriors motioned for the soldiers to join them as the feast was about to be served. The soldiers came in and ate. When the ceremony resumed, the soldiers joined in the dances. When the soldiers were ready to leave, they all shook hands in friendship. As near as can be determined, this was in the spring of 1879.

The exact date of these events is not known. Thomas Vennum in his book The Ojibwa Dance Drum (available in book form and online as a pdf) suggests that Tail Feather Woman was part of a group attacked by the forces of General Custer prior to his death in 1876. Blessing’s notes state that it was in 1880 that Tail Feather Woman and a group of Dakota came to Mille Lacs Lake bringing the drum and the teachings to be shared with the Ojibwe there. However, newspaper accounts from Minnesota and Wisconsin suggest that this may have occurred earlier, in the spring of 1878.

The precise date, however, is not important. What is important is the story of Tail Feather Woman and her vision and how it was shared by Dakota people with Ojibwe in Minnesota and elsewhere. According to Blessing’s notes, some Sisseton “warriors” arrived in Minnesota with Tail Feather Woman leading the way “in the manner of a missionary.” The Ojibwe called her Wah nah skit (as spelled by Fred Blessing), meaning “tail feathers.” The leading warrior was said to have been called by an Ojibwe name that meant “Crooked Leg Sioux,” because he had been crippled by a wound in the knee.

News was received by the Mille Lacs Ojibwe that the Dakota were bringing a “bwan day way ee gun” (bwaanidewe’igan) or “Sioux drum.” The leader of the Mille Lacs group who met them was Mazomanie (also spelled Mo-zo-ma-na, and a number of other ways), whose village was located on the south shore of the lake, north of Onamia, near a point which still bears his name. Like many Ojibwe at Mille Lacs he was a member of the Ma’iingan or Wolf clan and therefore was part Dakota. Some sources suggest that his name was actually a Dakota word (perhaps similar to the name of the Wahpeton chief Mazamani or Iron Walker).

The Sisseton first offered the drum to Mazomanie, but he suggested that it be given to someone younger. As a result two younger men received drums. According to Blessing, the Sisseton camped at Mazomanie’s village for most of the summer, “teaching the songs and ceremonies that went with the Sioux drum. The two tribes also joined in the social drum ceremonies,” which are the basis of present-day powwows. The Sisseton also presented a woman’s drum to the daughter of Wadena, another Mille Lacs leader. Blessing stated that when the Sisseton left Mille Lacs they traveled on into Wisconsin, as far as Lac du Flambeau. Some of the Mille Lacs people traveled with them “to act as interpreters.”

There are many other written accounts of the spread of the drum and Tail Feather Woman’s teachings. Newspaper articles from the spring and summer of 1878 stated that “Sioux runners” were traveling across Wisconsin and Minnesota bring the new dance, to places such as Chengwatana (near Pine City), Minnesota, and Ashland, Wisconsin. In white communities there were suspicions that an “uprising” was about to occur. Many settlers left their homes and sought protection from the state and federal governments. When the meaning of the dance was explained after a few weeks, whites realized they had nothing to fear. Benjamin Armstrong, a white man who was married to the daughter of Chief Buffalo of Lapointe recalled, in his reminiscences, meeting Tail Feather Woman at Ashland in the spring of 1878. He described her as “a young Sioux girl.” He said that she was part of a band almost completely destroyed by Custer’s forces in May 1876. Armstrong himself had the strange suspicion that the dance was being pushed by ex-Confederatess who wanted to foment a new rebellion. Even he, however, gave a fairly complete account of Tail Feather Woman’s vision and story.

Although the traditions at Mille Lacs said that Tail Feather Woman was Sisseton, Thomas Vennum refers to other accounts that identify her simply as Santee, a term used by many, including the western Dakota and Lakota to refer to the Eastern Dakota, which could have included the Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Sisseton, and Wahpeton. Some of the Menominee accounts of Tail Feather Woman, in particular, use the term Santee. Given what happened to the Dakota throughout the 1860s and 1870s, the story of an attack by the U.S. Cavalry is entirely believable.

It is a tribute to Tail Feather Woman that despite the suspicion engendered by the gatherings when she brought her vision, and the differing ways she has been identified, her vision has been recounted again and again with remarkable consistency, in newspapers, books, and in the oral tradition. The various accounts tell of her taking refuge in the water, the details of the vision, and the construction of the drum. They also make clear that the purpose of her teachings was to bring peace and harmony to warring peoples.


Honoring Wiyaka Sinte Win/ Tail Feather Woman and her vision — 5 Comments

  1. I’m a Kickapoo Indian from Kansas .My Great Grandpa received a drum like that from the Sauk and Fox tribe of oklahoma in 1987 I went up to the Sundance to return my respect for Tail Feather Womans blessing to our people in kansas I’m a 5th generation of followers of the dream dance .my family still has the drum and we were all raised around it and understand the importants of it .when we put our tobacco offerings out we we allways mention wahnaniquah tail feather woman” ahoe mishomsinon wahnoniquah cosnon megwich”we of the drum faith all appreciate what this websight is doing with this story (megwich)

  2. Thank you for this posting. As a student of Native American music and southern Minnesota history, I’ve been long fascinated by this account. I believe that Tailfeather Woman’s contribution to Native American culture and Minnesota history (especially as a result of the events of 1862) has been long overdue in getting the recognition it deserves.

  3. Many thanks for telling the many generations of Tailfeather Woman and the great drum. The old stories are the future of all our peoples and I pray many more will be told, shared and honored.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.