Turi and Mountain Wolf Woman


Part of the challenge for me in developing a seminar that would speak to both Americanist folklorists and to rising scholars of Scandinavian Studies was the pairing of works. In the seminar, students read one or the other of pairs of texts, depending on their interests and career goals. In Week 6 of the course, entitled “The Other Talks” they could read either my translation of Johan Turi’s immensely important Muitalus Sámiid birra (An Account of the Sámi) from 1910, or the equally mesmerizing, collaboratively produced autobiography of Ho-Chunk elder Mountain Wolf Woman, published by fellow Wisconsinite Nancy Oestreich Lurie in 1961.


Even in its title—Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indianthe latter text makes reference to yet another work, the very problematic collaborative autobiography of a prominent Ho-Chunk man produced by the anthropologist Paul Radin in his Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of an American Indian, first published in 1926. Oestreich’s introduction to her work describes this intertextual, interpersonal relation in great detail, and much of the initial criticism about her publication tends to reduce her remarkable and valuable presentation of Mountain Wolf Woman’s life to a kind of footnote to the Radin text.

But looking at Mountain Wolf Woman’s account of her life and culture alongside Johan Turi’s account brings out different elements. For one thing, both narrators emphasize not cultural stasis and continuity so much as the immense amount of cultural change and destruction they are facing in their respective contexts. We see the devastating effects of forced relocations, of border closures, of state regulations that hinder and hamper traditional livelihoods. We see indigenous communities figuring out innovative ways to earn a living in the face of colonialism–selling natural products they have harvested, engaging in a cash economy alongside one of subsistence. And we see their negotiation of complex processes of religious change, as new forms of Christianity, particularly the North Nordic Sámi-influenced Laestadianism and the Native American Church rise in prominence in their personal lives and communities alongside continuities of older supernatural traditions which neither narrator completely abandons.  At times both narrators are vehement in their expressions of frustration or anger at the colonial processes unfolding around them. But also, both narrators emphasize a sense of agency and autonomy for themselves and their communities: despite everything that is happening, people are working out viable strategies for living life and making it worthwhile.

What also comes out in both texts is the interesting, very personal aspects of the relationships that underlie the creation of these two texts. In Turi, an intensely engaged and frustrated Sámi intellectual is struggling to convey to Swedish authorities the beauty and validity of Sámi culture so as to stave off the state’s assimilative policies. He is aided in this work by a young and idealistic Emilie Demant (later Demant Hatt), who helps him produce his text in various ways, creates the first translation of it into a language of state power (Danish), and then helps facilitate its publication, a process chronicled in detail by Kristin Kuutma. In all sorts of ways, one gets the feeling when reading Turi closely (as I got to do when translating it into American English), that Turi is speaking directly to Emilie for her personal benefit, explaining the details of childbirth so that she can know what may eventually face her, intimating the nature of people who tend to see or hear the subterreanean spirit beings known as the  Ulddat (as Emilie had), etc. These textual elements take on new meaning when one reads them in relation to yet another text, Emilie Demant Hatt’s own account of Sámi life, With the Lapps in the High Mountainsnow ably translated from Danish by Barbara Sjoholm. The same thing holds true for elements of Mountain Wolf Woman’s stories: we see her speaking patiently and yet pointedly to her adopted niece Nancy, explaining what Ho-Chunk women traditionally did when first getting their period, something that Nancy wouldn’t have experienced given that she was adopted only in adulthood. Like the good-natured aunt and elder she is at this point in her life, Mountain Wolf Woman describes for Nancy effective food gathering and cooking traditions, while detailing with candor and humor her different views of the men she married.

Perhaps these personal aspects of both Turi and Mountain Wolf Woman are best glimpsed by looking at the photograph that long served as the cover image of Mountain Wolf Woman’s autobiography, as you can note above.  Compare that cropped facial image with the original photograph preserved in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society and viewable here. In the original 1907 photograph, you can see  a Mountain Wolf Woman, Stella Blowsnake Whitepine Stacy (HayAhChoWinKah) seated and holding her two daughters, Josephine Whitepine Mike (AhHooGeNaWinKah) and Lena Whitepine Shegonee (HaCheDayWinKah). The seeming exoticism of her attire and adornment is evident around the face, but when you get down to her lap and to her two daughters seated there, one’s attention is drawn more to her motherhood and kinship relationships than to her seeming representativeness of something past or primitive.  It is encouraging to note that the most recent editions of this text published by the University of Michigan Press replace this youthful image of Mountain Wolf Woman’s face with a photograph taken at the time when the text was written, at the outset of the 1960s. There we see a confident Ho-Chunk elder, her hair cropped short and her smile broad. She is smiling for her adopted niece at the end of a long process of building a book.


These are aspects that link these texts in marvelously interesting ways, and that transform them into products much different from the supposedly objective outsider-dominated ethnographic texts of male Lappologists and anthropologists of the twentieth century.


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