Mountain Wolf Woman Essay - Critical Essays

Mountain Wolf Woman


Mountain Wolf Woman 1884–1960

(Also known as Little Fifth Daughter, Xehaciwinga, and Haksigaxunuminka) American autobiographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Mountain Wolf Woman's life and career.

A member of the Winnebago tribe, Mountain Wolf Woman is the author of the critically acclaimed Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder (1961). An evocative recounting of the author's life, the autobiography is highly regarded as an authoritative document of Winnebago history and customs. Written in collaboration with a white author, the book, with its copious notes and fidelity to Mountain Wolf Woman's voice, is also lauded for successfully avoiding the loss of tribal identity often arising from Native-White literary collaborations.

Biographical Information

Born in East Fork River, Wisconsin, Mountain Wolf Woman was a member of the Thunder Clan of the Winnebago tribe. Initially raised in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, she frequently moved with her family in accordance with hunting and growing cycles. She did, however, receive two years of formal education while living in Tomah, Wisconsin. At a later date, she resumed her studies; these, however, were again interrupted when her older brother forced her into an arranged marriage. She eventually divorced her first husband and remarried Bad Soldier, also a member of the Winnebago tribe; between her two marriages, she had eleven children and several grandchildren. Mountain Wolf Woman first met her adopted niece, anthropologist Nancy Oestreich Lurie, in 1945, and she was eventually asked by Lurie to record her life story. She traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1958 and stayed with Lurie while they worked on the book. Mountain Wolf Woman died of complications from pneumonia and pleurisy at her home in Black River Falls in late 1960, never seeing her autobiography published.

Major Works

Mountain Wolf Woman and Lurie began to seriously work on what would become Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder in the late 1950s. Unsatisfied with the initial results, which resulted in a few pages of text, Lurie asked Mountain Wolf Woman to elaborate and expand on her memories. Using a tape recorder, Mountain Wolf Woman dictated her story in Winnebago and then in English. The tapes were later replayed to Mountain Wolf Woman, at which time a list of additional topics upon which Mountain Wolf Woman wanted to ruminate was compiled. After additional tapes were made, Lurie began translating the tales into conventional English; to accomplish this, Lurie worked with Frances Thundercloud Wentz, a grandniece to Mountain Wolf Woman, who compared the English and Winnebago versions. The result yielded Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder. The book relates Mountain Wolf Woman's girl-hood, education, and marriages; her contributions to her family; and her role in Winnebago society as a daughter, wife, and mother. Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder is further recognized as an evocative and insightful account of Winnebago history and culture, relating the Winnebagos' numerous relocations, tribal customs and rituals, and views on gender.

Critical Reception

Scholars assert that Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder is exceptional in terms of its focus on Winnebago life, the events surrounding its composition, and its intended audience. Because Lurie kept such detailed accounts of her attempts to render Mountain Wolf Woman's tale into "good English" and reprinted them in appendices, critics note that the subject's voice is not lost and that the problems normally precipitated by Native-White collaboration are not an issue. They additionally note that since the work was originally told in Mountain Wolf Woman's native tongue and to a family member, her intended audience was—first and foremost—other Native Americans.

Principal Works

Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (autobiography) 1961

∗This work was edited by Nancy Oestreich Lurie, translated by Frances Thundercloud Wentz, and contains a foreword by Ruth Underhill.


Nancy Oestreich Lurie (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: A preface and appendix to Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian, edited by Nancy Oestreich Lurie, The University of Michigan Press, 1961, pp. xi-xx, 92-108.

[An American educator, editor, and critic, Lurie was adopted into the Winnebago tribe as an adult and was considered a niece of Mountain Wolf Woman. At Lurie's urging, Mountain Wolf Woman began the process of telling her life story. In the first part of the following excerpt, taken from the preface to Mountain Wolf Woman, Lurie discusses the composition of the autobiography, her relationship with and impressions of Mountain Wolf Woman, and Mountain Wolf Woman's adherence to Winnebago customs. In the second part of the excerpt, which is taken from one of Lurie's appendices to the book, she relates the events surrounding Mountain Wolf Woman's death.]

Autobiographies are published for a variety of reasons. Authors often disclaim any personal importance but justify making their memoirs public because of close association with the great people and stirring events of their time. Individuals whose roles are of obvious historical significance frequently explain that a sense of social responsibility requires that they make known the underlying influences and motivations of their actions. Mountain Wolf Woman has told her story for a reason that is at once simpler and more complex than those usually adduced. Her niece asked for the story. Among the Winnebago Indians, a strong sense of obligation to relatives prevails, as well as the reciprocal sense of right to call upon them as the need or desire for favors may arise. The fact that the kinship in this case is one of adoption and not of blood makes it no less binding from a Winnebago point of view.

Our relationship stems from my adoption by Mountain Wolf Woman's parallel cousin, Mitchell Redcloud, Sr. According to Winnebago reckoning, they are classified as brother and sister because their fathers were brothers. Thus, Mountain Wolf Woman is my aunt. I had met Redcloud during the summer of 1944 in the course of my first field work among the Winnebago. When I began my senior year at the University of Wisconsin the following fall, I learned that Redcloud was a cancer patient at the Wisconsin General Hospital on the university campus. I visited him frequently and my questions about Winnebago culture helped relieve the tedium of existence in a hospital ward. In time he came to believe that our association had been preordained. Despite frequent and intense periods of pain, Redcloud forced himself to instruct me as fully as possible about his people, even writing long accounts of Winnebago customs to present to me when I appeared during hospital visiting hours. He was eventually scheduled for surgery, and fearing that he might not survive the operation, presented me with a cherished and valuable legacy—adoption as his daughter. I thus acquired a Winnebago name, a clan affiliation, and a host of relatives upon whom I could rely in continuing the task Redcloud and I had begun. Redcloud's condition precluded the traditional announcement of such an adoption at a public feast, but he did write of it to Mountain Wolf Woman and evidently told other Winnebago during the year he lived following the operation.

Thus, when I met Mountain Wolf Woman in the summer of 1945 while working at the Winnebago community of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, she greeted me as her niece. My aunt soon proved to be not only a valuable informant, but a good friend as well. Her personality and her own experiences as an individual became as interesting to me as the ethnographic data about the Winnebago which she could provide. I felt that her autobiography would be of great interest both as a literary document and as a source of insights for anthropological purposes. I was inspired, naturally, by the fact that the first full-length autobiography of an American Indian edited and published by an anthropologist, Paul Radin, had been that of a Winnebago, Crashing Thunder. The example set by Radin in 1920 has been followed by the publication of a number of autobiographies of American Indians and other native peoples. However, few such life histories have been collected from women. Therefore, Mountain Wolf Woman's story takes on particular significance in scholarly terms, since it is the account of a woman from the same tribe as Crashing Thunder. However, I knew Mountain Wolf Woman almost a year before I learned that she is the sister of Crashing Thunder. Thus, a unique opportunity was presented to obtain an autobiography which would be valuable not only for its own sake but also for its comparative importance in regard to Radin's work.

Mountain Wolf Woman readily agreed to my request for her story, but a great deal of time elapsed before we could actually begin work on the project. In the first place, I realized that a request of such magnitude would require a commensurate gift as a matter of reciprocal kin obligations. I was obliged for many years to use any field funds I received for more general research on the Winnebago. Then there were technical problems. Mountain Wolf Woman's household was crowded with small grandchildren she was rearing and she did not have the leisure or quiet to write her story in the Winnebago syllabary script, let alone in English which she would find even more difficult. Furthermore, I was fully occupied for several years with teaching and other research.

It was not until 1957 that I could begin to give serious thought to the long-delayed work with Mountain Wolf Woman. By that time she was able to put her household in the temporary charge of an adult granddaughter in order to stay with me. Thanks to the Rackham Fund for Faculty Research of The University of Michigan and to the Bollingen Foundation, grants-in-aid were provided to finance the project.

I notified Mountain Wolf Woman that work could begin and she traveled from her home at Black River Falls to Milwaukee where I met her and accompanied her on the rest of her journey to Ann Arbor, Michigan. This incident is duly noted in her autobiography as it was her first airplane flight. We worked together at my home for almost five weeks during January and February of 1958.

We began our task by discussing the best manner of procedure. She soon became accustomed to using a tape recorder and decided she preferred it to writing her story in the Winnebago syllabary script that her brother had employed. She also chose to speak Winnebago rather than English as it allowed for easier recall and discussion of events. However, to aid me in the task of translation, she repeated the entire story on tape in English using the Winnebago recordings as a guide. Since the account was told directly to me, it was natural for Mountain Wolf Woman to gloss over details of Winnebago culture and history. I have therefore made notes for each chapter providing more extensive data on matters which may be of further interest to the reader. The first day's work proved highly disconcerting to me. Mountain Wolf Woman told her entire story on less than half a reel of tape. Although I endeavored to hide my feelings, my disappointment must have been evident since she observed that the story could be made much longer on the basis of the many notes I had made in conversations with her during earlier periods of field work. I said that I would really like to hear all the stories again to be sure that I had understood them correctly. A knowing smile crossed her face and she said, "This is just a start to show where we will go, like beginning of a book."

She began her story again, eliminating what she recognized as meaningless details, expanding and adding events more pertinent to her own experiences. She recounted episodes already familiar to me and many new ones.

The completed autobiography thus consists of the second or long account of Mountain Wolf Woman's life, supplemented where necessary from the shorter account or from other data such as the English version of the narrative or comments made in the course of our work but not transcribed on the tapes….

The transcription of Mountain Wolf Woman's story was doubtless one of the most pleasant ways imaginable of doing "field work." Mountain Wolf Woman...

(The entire section is 3420 words.)

Gretchen M. Bataille and Kathleen Mullen Sands (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Culture Change and Continuity: A Winnebago Life," in their American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives, University of Nebraska Press, 1984, pp. 69-82.

[Bataille and Sands are both American critics, educators, and editors who specialize in Native studies. In the following excerpt, they survey Mountain Wolf Woman's life, work, and heritage.]

The purpose for the writing of Mountain Wolf Woman is different from almost all other ethnographic autobiographies. Where other recorder-editors often recorded women's stories as an incidental part of fieldwork, Nancy Lurie specifically requested the story and did so as an adopted niece of Mountain Wolf Woman [whom she...

(The entire section is 4576 words.)

Melissa Hearn (essay date Fall 1992)

SOURCE: "Iterative Score from a Singulative Motif: Mountain Wolf Woman's Song of Herself," in A/B: Autobiography Studies, Fall, 1992, pp. 254-72.

[In the essay below, Hearn discusses the existence of rhetorical devices, particularly the use of an iterative narrative style, in Mountain Wolf Woman, which she describes as "a series of teaching stories" about Winnebago history, customs, and beliefs.]

Scholars have concluded that anthropologists often have imposed their Euro-centric biases on Native American life stories and that educated Native people have often followed certain European narrative forms. However, anthropologist Nancy Lurie, who recorded and...

(The entire section is 7389 words.)

Susan Gardner (essay date October 1992 & February 1993)

Susan Gardner (essay date October 1992 & February 1993)

SOURCE: "'And Here I Am, Telling in Winnebago How I Lived My Life': Teaching Mountain Wolf Woman," in College Literature, Vol. 19, No. 3 & Vol. 20, No. 1, October, 1992 & February, 1993, pp. 233-36.

[In the excerpt below, Gardner discusses the literary aspects of Mountain Wolf Woman.]

[Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder] enjoys an unusual popularity for academic texts; it has been continuously in print for 31 years. Reasons for its enduring reputation include the upsurge of interest in American Indian literature and women's studies. Originally its editor,...

(The entire section is 1134 words.)

Hertha Dawn Wong (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Literary Boundary Cultures: The Life Histories of Plenty-Coups, Pretty-Shield, Sam Blowsnake, and Mountain Wolf Woman," in Sending My Heart Back across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 88-116.

[In the excerpt below, Wong discusses the creation of Mountain Wolf Woman's autobiography and the volume's focus on family, education, and marriage.]

In 1958, thirty-eight years after Sam Blowsnake wrote his autobiography [Crashing Thunder] in the Winnebago syllabary, his sister Mountain Wolf Woman narrated her life story to her friend, adopted niece, and amanuensis, Nancy O. Lurie. Traveling...

(The entire section is 2156 words.)