Dakota, Ojibwe renewal pledges of peace 132 years after gifting of original drum

By Rick St. Germaine
Mille Lacs, Minnesota (NFIC) 5-09

It’s generally known among Minnesota and Wisconsin tribal communities that the ceremonial drum society is a significant religious practice of the Ojibwe, Menominee, and Potowatomi tribes. Little, however, is known about this by the Dakota people in South Dakota who first brought the ceremonial drum to the Ojibwe nearly 132 years ago.

When Dakota spiritual leaders traveled to Mille Lacs to present a horse to Ojibwe drum keepers during an April  ceremonial drum service, the event had profound historic meaning.

Orval Looking Horse, Lakota Oyate (headdress left), and Chris Leith, Dakota Oyate (headdress right) presented the horse, “Ox” to Joyce Shingobe (left) and Lynda Mitchell (right), both Mille Lacs drum keepers of the Mille Lacs womens drum.      
Photo by Mark St. Germain
This meeting between 19th century opponents was an acknowledgement of the spiritual gift – the drum – that was given by Dakota people to Mille Lacs Ojibwe to create a permanent peace. 

Orval Looking Horse and Chris Leith, Lakota and Dakota Oyate leaders, led the young pony to awaiting Ojibwe drum keepers in the parking lot of the Mille Lacs ceremonial center and spoke powerfully in Dakota about the significance of this gift. Horse-giving is among the highest honors bestowed by their tribe.

Leith, Dakota-Ojibwe from Prairie Island, conducted a pipe ceremony as Looking Horse explained the custom of blessing the event.  Amik Smallwood, drum keeper and spokesperson for the Mille Lacs group, smoked and passed the Dakota pipe around to all the Mille Lacs drum keepers present. The two tribes renewed their pledge of peace with one another.

“This is a most important day for us; a day that we have long awaited,” he stated, and continued, “We welcome our relatives from the west, who came to us before over one hundred years ago with a sacred drum.”

Smallwood reminded the assembly of hundreds about the forgotten woman, “the one who brought (this drum) over here.”

Tail Feather Woman was a young Dakota girl whose hunting camp came under sudden attack by U.S. soldiers, possibly in late 1876. During the calamity she hid among the weeds of a pond and was visited by the Creator who instructed her to create a large spiritual drum which should be passed on to the Ojibwe people as an instrument of peace, according to Obisanigeeshik Staples, an Aazhoomog drum keeper.

Her relatives delivered the crafted drum to the Mille Lacs Ojibwe and taught them the ritual for its ceremonial use.   The Mille Lacs band, once they mastered the drum ritual, passed it on to other Ojibwe tribes, teaching new drum societies the songs, practices, prayers, and ethics associated with it.

Following its 1878 establishment in western Wisconsin, the ceremonial drum society was shared with the Wisconsin Menominee and Potowatomi villages, and eventually reached other Anishinaabe tribes.

Ceremonial drum services progressed into multi-day gatherings of tribal societies, each devoted to spirit ritual, sermons, and celebration, all conducted in the Anishinaabe language, with attention to the example set by Tail Feather Woman, the Dakota who began it all with her visionary instrument of peace.

Today there are over three dozen Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Menominee, Potowatomi, Meskwaki, and Kickapoo) ceremonial drum societies with ritual services regularly conducted throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Kansas, according to Staples.

Joyce Shingobe, Mille Lacs drum keeper, remembered the telling of the Tail Feather Woman story at nearly every ceremony.  “We used to give tobacco to Jim Clark and he’d tell it to us in Ojibwe,” she recalled.


Shingobe and Lynda Mitchell are the keepers of the women’s drum, which have become scarce.  The women’s drum ceremony was selected for the meeting with the Dakota. Paula Horne, Dakota from Sisseton, S.D., believes that women are key to the story of peace that was brokered over a century ago between the two tribes.

“Women are prone to be compassionate,” noted Horne, “and it’s about energy, the women’s energy.”

Details of the Tail Feather Woman story have changed over the years and from reservation to reservation, across Minnesota and Wisconsin. Told in Ojibwe, growing numbers of younger, non-speakers have complicated its telling. Dakota know Tail Feather Woman as Wiyaka Sinte Win, while Ojibwe refer to her as Wanikwe or Winanikwe.

It is believed that she accompanied the ceremonial drum in 1878 to Ojibwe communities east of Mille Lacs, escorted by Mille Lacs people. Apparently, she provided instruction to new drum groups on ritual and songs.

A St. Paul newspaper reported a “Sioux drum scare” and alarm by white settlers in northeastern Wisconsin that spring. A Wisconsin BIA Indian agent called out federal marshals in May, 1878 when the “Sioux drum” group from Mille Lacs arrived to Lac Courte Oreilles in Wisconsin.

Questions remain about her demise.  Some stories noted that she remained in Wisconsin for a year, then left. Another reported that she journeyed as far east as Lac du Flambeau and spent the remainder of her life among Wisconsin Ojibwe. It appears that her life may have been in danger had she remained near Sisseton, South Dakota because of the military persecution of the Dakota during that time.

Horne mentioned that not many Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota know the story of Tail Feather Woman. Looking Horse, Leith, and Horne are leading a South Dakota effort to honor the memory of Tail Feather Woman near the site where her camp was attacked by soldiers over 130 years ago and set off the Anishinaabe ceremonial drum movement.

Arvol Looking Horse saw tears in the eyes of the women drum keepers as his Dakota delegation led the horse to them.  One of them, Joyce Shingobe, said that words could not describe her feelings at that moment the horse was being led to them.

“Once before, a Dakota group brought a pipe of peace to us in the 1990s just when we were preparing to present our treaty rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court,” Shingobe stated.

Shingobe mentioned that everyone is interested in the horse.

“This is a special horse,” she stated, “because he was in their memorial ride to those who were hanged 1862 for protecting their land and he was the first horse to come back across a river flood.”

Shingobe stated that Ox (name of the horse) is boarded at McCoy’s with sixteen other horses and has a wonderful home where he is well taken care of, fed, and groomed. He will be ridden in the tribal parade in August, according to Shingobe.