February 02, 2009

The myth of Princess Wenonah

Homecoming to explore roles of American Indian womenThere is perhaps no one more enamored with the legend of Princess Wenonah, said to be Winona’s namesake, than the town itself, with her image immortalized in bronze, advertising pieces and our imaginations for at least a century.

Wenonah, which literally translated from the Dakotah language means firstborn daughter, is said to have been the child of Chief Wapasha, leader of the band of Dakotah that called this region home when white settlers first stepped off boats in the 1850s.

The legends that have surrounded her life and death since days when the Dakotah lived here are many, though all carry a central theme: Princess Wenonah’s father was going to force her to marry someone she didn’t love, so she leaped to her death from hundreds of feet above the Mississippi River at a place called Maiden Rock.
That's the myth. Now here are the facts:Research suggests that in the Dakotah language, the word “Wenonah” is more a designation than a personal name, much like the words “grandma,” “great-grandma” or “uncle” are to us today. It refers to the first-born daughter of any family, tribal chief or not, and it is only in modern times that it would likely be used as an actual first name. Few dispute that any of the generations of Chief Wapashas may have had a daughter, but what their tribal names were and whether any of them actually dashed herself on the rocks is another matter.

Also, Dakotah Indians do not have a designation of “princess,” that is a fabrication by white people, researchers say. In fact, there is not even an equivalent word to princess in the Dakotah language.

The truth of the matter is that settlers of European descent have been infatuated with the mystique of American Indian women since Pocahontas supposedly saved John Smith in 1607. There are many, many Princess Wenonah legends that can be found all across the Midwest, as well as other kinds of “Indian princess” legends from one coast to the other.
Comment:  From Pocahontas to the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls to various doomed maidens in old Westerns and romance novels, stories of Indian princesses who sacrifice themselves are common. I'd guess that almost none of these stories are true.

Rather, I'd guess these cases were psychosexual fictions based on Christian feelings of shame. The white man was attracted to the exotic Indian maiden, who was wild and free and "hungry as a wolf" for sex. But puritanical Americans were raised to repress or deny their sinful feelings of lust.

The solution? These Americans invented or exaggerated stories about self-sacrificing Indian maidens. The maidens sacrificed themselves for the greater good, thus redeeming their devilish souls and freeing the white man from temptation.

P.S. I await correspondent DMarks's comments on this subject with bated breath. He's our resident expert on all things related to Winona.

Below:  "I see a white man who wants me. To save myself, I must throw myself off a cliff."


Anonymous said...

"But puritanical Americans were raised to repress or deny their sinful feelings of lust."

This applies to the English puritans but not to Whites in general at that time. For example the Scots-Irish - who came to America in the 18th century to escape oppression - were not allowed to settle near the English because they were seen as too hedonistic (while a great deal of them were devout Presbyterians they seemed to have had no problems with sex and having a general good time). So this little generalization is historically inaccurate.

dmarks said...

I'm pretty sure I'd sent you a link on the Dakota Homecoming before, but not about this statue.

And yes, I have several old postcards of it, along with close-up photos.

Rob said...

America is widely considered a puritanical country. You can disagree with this characterization, but that doesn't make it historically inaccurate.

Some sources on Puritanism and its ongoing role in American culture:


Some have suggested that it is a "Puritan spirit" in the United States' political culture that creates a tendency to oppose things such as alcohol and open sexuality.

Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in Democracy in America that the Pilgrims' Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for American democracy, and in his view, these Puritans were hard-working, egalitarian, and studious.


During the whole colonial period Puritanism had direct impact on both religious thought and cultural patterns in America. In the 19th century its influence was indirect, but it can still be seen at work stressing the importance of education in religious leadership and demanding that religious motivations be tested by applying them to practical situations.


From the Revolution to the Civil War, to the period following World War I, both Pilgrims and Puritans have served as part of a rationale for national progress and cultural identity.


Since its first issue in 1953, Playboy magazine has been trumpeting the triumph of the sexual revolution. Still, no matter how many times Editor Hugh Hefner interred American puritanism in innumerable installments of the Playboy Philosophy, he could never prove that the national libido has been unshackled.