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.)