Denig's "Biography of Woman Chief," 1855-56

Edwin T Denig Biography of Woman Chief

Denig's Biography of Woman Chief," written in 1855-56, is one of the rare documents of female role reversal, excluding cross-dressing but including taking to herself four wives. The Crow "Woman Chief" is the most famous female war leader in the history of the upper Missouri tribes.

Perhaps the only instance known of a woman attaining the rank of chief among any of the tribes whose histories we attempt has happened among the Crows. It has ever been the custom with these wandering people to regard females in an inferior light in every way. They have no voice in council, or anything to say at assemblies formed by men for camp regulations. Even the privilege of intimate conversation with their husbands is denied them when men are present. They have their own sphere of action in their domestic department, from which they are never allowed to depart, being considered by their husbands more as a part of their property than as companions. This being the case, they seldom accompany parties to war. Those who do are of the lowest possible description of character, belong to the public generally, have no home or protection. Sometimes females of this stamp are taken along to make and mend shoes, dry meat, cook, etc., but they are never allowed to take part in battle. Even if they were, their inexperience in the use of weapons would soon cause their death. For such as these there is no opportunity to distinguish themselves. They must be content with the station of servant and that of the very lowest kind of drudgery.

The case we are about to relate is that of a Gros Ventre of the Prairie woman taken prisoner by the Crows when about 10 years of age. From a personal acquaintance of 12 years with this woman we can lay her true history before the reader. Shortly after her capture the warrior to whom she belonged perceived a disposition in her to assume masculine habits and employments. As in the case of the Berdeche who, being male inclined to female pursuits, so this child, reversing the position, desired to acquire manly accomplishments. Partly to humor her, and partly for his own convenience, her foster father encouraged the inclination. She was in time placed to guard horses, furnished with bow and arrows, employing her idle time in shooting at the birds around and learning to ride fearlessly. When further advanced in years she carried a gun, learned to shoot, and when yet a young woman was equal if not superior to any of the men in hunting both on horseback and on foot.

During her whole life no change took place in her dress, being clad like the rest of the females with the exception of hunting arms and accouterments. It also happened that she was taller and stronger than most women-her pursuits no doubt tending to develop strength of nerve and muscle. Long before she had ventured on the warpath she could rival any of the young men in all their amusements and occupations, was a capital shot with the rifle, and would spend most of her time in killing deer and bighorn, which she butchered and carried home on her back when hunting on foot. At other times she joined in the surround on horse, could kill four or five buffalo at a race, cut up the animals without assistance, and bring the meat and hides home.

Although tolerably good looking she did not, it seems, strike the fancy of the young men, and her protector having been killed in battle, she assumed the charge of his lodge and family, performing the double duty of father and mother to his children. In the course of time it happened that the Blackfeet made a charge on a few lodges of Crows encamped near the trading fort in their country-our heroine being with the lodges ... Several men were killed and the rest took refuge within the fort. ... The [Blackfeet] made a stand beyond the reach of guns and by signs exhibited a desire to speak to someone in the fort.

Neither Whites nor Crows could be found to venture out. But this woman, understanding their language, saddled her horse and set forth to meet them. Everyone sought to detain her, but she would not be persuaded. The fort gates were opened and she went on her dangerous errand ... Several Blackfeet came to meet her, rejoicing in the occasion of securing an easy prize. When within pistol shot, she called on them to stop, but they paid no attention to her words. One of the enemies then fired at her and the rest charged. She immediately shot down one with her gun, and shot arrows into two more without receiving a wound. The remaining two then rode back to the main body, who came at full speed to murder the woman. They fired showers of balls and pursued her as near to the fort as they could with safety approach. But she escaped unharmed and entered the gates amid the shouts and praises of the Whites and her own people.

This daring act stamped her character as a brave. It was sung by the rest of the camp, and in time was made known to the whole nation. About a year after, she collected a number of young men and headed her first war excursion against the Blackfeet. Fortune again favored her. She approached their camp in the night, stole 70 horses and drove them with great speed toward her home. But the enemies followed, overtook them, and a sharp skirmish ensued, which resulted in the Crows getting off with most of the animals and two Blackfeet scalps. One of the two Blackfeet the woman chieftain killed and scalped with her own hand. The other, although shot down by one of her followers, she was the first to strike and take from him his gun while he was yet alive 'tho severely wounded. It may reasonably be supposed that coups such as these aided to raise her fame as a warrior, and according to their own usages, from the fact of striking first the bodies of two enemies, she could no more be prevented from having a voice in their deliberations. Other expeditions of a still more hazardous nature were undertaken and successfully carried through by this singular and resolute woman. In every battle around their own camp or those of their enemies some gallant act distinguished her. Old men began to believe she bore a charmed life which, with her daring feats, elevated her to a point of honor and respect not often reached by male warriors, certainly never before conferred upon a female of the Crow Nation.

The Indians seemed to be proud of her, sung forth her praise in songs composed by them after each of her brave deeds. When council was held and all the chiefs and warriors assembled, she took her place among the former, ranking third person in the band of 160 lodges. On stated occasions, when the ceremony of striking a post and publicly repeating daring acts was performed, she took precedence of many a brave man whose career had not been so fortunate. In the meantime she continued her masculine course of life, hunting and war. Heretofore her attention had been but little attracted to personal gain in the way of barter. Whatever hides she brought home from the hunt were given to her friends, 'tho the meat was cured and dried by herself and the children under her charge.

When horses were wanting she drew upon her enemies for a supply and had been heretofore uniformly successful. She had numbers of animals in her possession, with which she could at any time command other necessaries. But with Indians it is the same as with civilized persons. The richer they become the more desirous they are to acquiring more. As yet no offer of marriage had been made her by anyone. Her habits did not suit their taste. Perhaps they thought she would be rather difficult to manage as a wife. Whatever the reason was, they certainly rather feared than loved her as a conjugal companion, and she continued to lead a single life. With the view of turning her hides to some account by dressing them and fitting them for trading purposes, she took to herself a wife. Ranking as a warrior and hunter, she could not be brought to think of female work. It was derogatory to her standing, unsuited to her taste. She therefore went through the usual formula of Indian marriage to obtain an authority over the woman thus bought. Strange country this, where males assume the dress and perform the duties of females, while women turn men and mate with their own sex!

Finding that employing hands advanced her affairs in the lodge, in a few years her establishment was further increased by taking three more wives. This plurality of women added also to her standing and dignity as a chief; for after success at war, riches either in horses or women mark the distinction of rank with all the Prairie tribes. Nothing more was now in her power to gain. She had fame, standing, honor, riches, and as much influence over the band as anyone except two or three leading chiefs. To either of their offices she could in no wise expect to succeed; for to be a leader required having strong family connection, extensive kindredship, and a popularity of a different description from that allotted to partisans. This being the case she wisely concluded to maintain her present great name instead of interfering with the claims of others to public notice. For 20 years she conducted herself well in all things appertaining to war and a hunter's life.

In the summer of 1854 she determined to visit in a friendly way the Gros Ventres of the Prairie ... [In 1851 the Gros Ventres and Blackfeet had] evinced a willingness to abstain from war excursions, and sent friendly messages to the Crows and Assiniboines containing invitations to visit them. The Assiniboines did so, were well received, hospitably entertained by the Gros Ventres, and dismissed with horses as presents ... With the view of ascertaining how far their hostile spirit had been quelled, and perhaps of gaining a goodly number of horses, Ihis Woman Chief undertook a visit there, presuming that, as she was in fact one of their nation, could speak their language, and a general peace was desired, she could associate with them without being harmed. Many old and experienced fur traders endeavored to dissuade her from this journey, as her feats against them [the Gros Ventres] were too notorious to be easily overlooked. But contrary to the advice of her friends she proceeded.

When near the camp, however, she encountered a large party of the Gros Ventres of the Prairie who had been to Fort Union and were returning home. These she boldly met, spoke to, and smoked with. But on their discovering who she was, they took the advantage while traveling with her to their camp to shoot her down together with the four Crows who had so far borne her company. This closed the earthly career of this singular woman and effectually placed a bar to any hopes of peace between the Crows and her murderers. Neither has there since appeared another of her sex who preferred the warrior's life to that of domestic duties.[1]


Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (NY: Crowell, 1976) pg. 308-311.

  1. Edward Thompson Denig, "Of the Crow Nation," in John C. Ewers, ed., Anthropological Papers No. 33, U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 151 (Washington, D.C.: Govt. Ptg. Ofc., 1953), p. 64-68. Reprinted in Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri ..., ed. John C. Ewers (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1961), p. 195-200. A note refers to other documents concerning "Woman Chief." She is mentioned in R. F. Kurz's "Journal ... 1846-1852" (trans. Myrtis Jarrel, ed. J. N. B. Hewitt, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 115 [Washington, D.C.: Govt. Ptg. Ofc., 1937], p. 213- 14; and in Denig's "Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri" (ed. J. N. B. Hewitt, Forty-sixth Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology, 1928-29 [Washington, D.C.: Govt. Ptg. Ofc., 1930J, p. 433-34). Denig says here that the success of the Crow Woman Chief "induced an imitation a few years since by an Assiniboine woman, but she was killed by the enemy on her first war excursion ..." J. Willard Schultz is cited as having written a fictionalized biography, Running Eagle, The Warrior Girl, about a famous Piegan woman warrior of a later period who may have been inspired by the story of the Crow Woman Chief. Derrig's Five Indian Tribes, written in 1855-56, also contains a section on "Crow [male] Hermaphrodites" (p. 187-88). First published in London in 1875 (by Longmans, Green), Hubert Howe Bancroft's five volumes on The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America was one of the first large compilations of original source materials which presents, and openly discusses, "sodomy" among Native Americans. Bancroft's is a major work for the historical study of homosexuality among Native Americans.