How Tail Feather Woman brought her vision of peace and harmony to Minnesota
April 25th, 2009 by Bruce White
According to a traditional account, recorded from Anishinaabe informants at Mille Lacs and other nearby reservations, Tail Feather Woman, 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 other 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 Maingans 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.
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 joing 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, 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” 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 Maingan 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 which is what was done. According to Blessing, the Sisseton camped at Mazomanie’s village from 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 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 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.
It is a tribute to Tail Feather Woman that despite the suspicion engendered by the gatherings when she brought her vision, that vision was recounted again and again in newspapers and books with remarkable consistency. These 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.