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Dakota and Ojibwe renew vows of peace

MILLE LACS, Minn. – Santee Dakota spiritual leaders presented a horse to Ojibwe spiritual leaders from the Mille Lacs Tribe in northern Minnesota April 18 at the conclusion of a lengthy Ojibwe drum ceremony held to commemorate an armistice arranged between them more than 130 years earlier.

The historic meeting was the first gathering between the old warring tribes since the 19th century. Arvol Looking Horse and Chris Leith, Lakota and Dakota Oyate leaders, led the young pony, accompanied by a Dakota honor song to assembled Ojibwe drum keepers in the parking lot of the Mille Lacs ceremonial center and spoke eloquently in Dakota about the significance of the gift; it’s the highest honor given by their tribe.

“It is the custom of our people that we bless this occasion with this pipe and that we look upon this time as one in which we bring our people back together,” Looking Horse said.

Leith offered the pipe to the four directions and then to Ojibwe drum keepers Joyce Shingobe and Lynda Mitchell. Amik Smallwood, drum keeper and spokesman for the Ojibwe ceremonial drum societies, took the Dakota pipe and presented it to all of the Mille Lacs drum keepers. Smallwood addressed them in Ojibwe.

“This is a most important day for us; a day that we have long awaited. We welcome our relatives from the West, who came to us over 100 years ago with a sacred drum. We must honor the forgotten woman, the one who brought (this drum) over here.”


Photo by Rick St. Germaine Amik Smallwood (right with pipe) smokes the Dakota pipe of peace just presented to him by Chris Leith (left in headdress). Ojibwe drum keepers Joyce Shingobe and Lynda Mitchell (to Smallwood’s left) were handed the halter of the horse as a spiritual gift from the Dakota.

Smallwood and Looking Horse spoke glowingly of the forgotten woman – Tail Feather Woman – a young Dakota, who in the mid-1870s, created a spiritual drum from a vision she experienced when her hunting camp came under attack by U.S. soldiers.

The spiritual drum was delivered by Tail Feather Woman’s relatives to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe with instructions for its ceremonial use as an instrument of peace and friendship, according to Obisanigeeshik Staples, a Mille Lacs drum keeper.

In 1878, the Mille Lacs Ojibwe passed duplicate drums to Ojibwe relatives at other reservations with instructions for ceremonial use. Before long, the ceremonial drum society was established throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin Ojibwe villages, and among the Wisconsin Menominee and Potowatomi villages, as described by Staples.

Ceremonial drum services progressed into multi-day gatherings of tribal societies, each devoted to spiritual ritual, sermons and celebration, all conducted in the Ojibwe language, with a focus on the example set by Tail Feather Woman.

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

“The old people used to tell us the Tail Feather Woman story at every ceremony, so we know it well,” Shingobe said. “Lynda (Mitchell) and I were deeply honored that the womens’ drum was selected for this exchange between the tribes.”

Shingobe described the tears she and Mitchell felt as the Dakota people, wearing feather bonnets and singing an honor song, walked the horse to them. “It is difficult to explain the emotion.”

“We were aware of the Tail Feather Woman story and the (Ojibwe) big drum,” said Looking Horse, following the ceremony. “But a lot of people at Sisseton have never heard of her.

“Chris Leith, our elder, grew up in Minnesota knowing about the big drum and he signaled that it is time that this story about this woman be told.”

Paula Horne, Dakota, said not many Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota know the story of Tail Feather Woman, who is known as Wiyaka Sinte Win. Looking Horse, Leith and Horne are leading a South Dakota effort to honor her memory near the site where her camp was attacked by soldiers more than 130 years ago and set off the Anishinaabe ceremonial drum movement.

The Mille Lacs Ojibwe are heartened by the possibilities of strengthening the spiritual link between the old foes.

Rick St. Germaine can be contacted at