Way back in they day I did a series of “Badass Women” posts about understudied nineteenth-century hellions, including Isabella Bird, Mary Fields, Mother Jones, Mary Kingsley, Belle Starr, Belle Boyd, Si Mahoud, Mrs. Cheng, and others. I’ve decided that since I’m going to be cutting way back on my weekly posts, I might as well make an effort to blog about something I enjoy! So for the next few weeks, I’ll do a few of these. A new one out every Friday.
Today let’s talk about indigenous American warrior-queen known as “Woman Chief”, who may or may not also have been the warrior known as “Pine Leaf”. Part of the confusion comes from the fact that–although Woman Chief was absolutely a real person–Pine Leaf may not have been. The American fur trader and explorer James Beckwourth wrote of his experiences living with the Crow Nation in his autobiography–the same tribe as Woman Chief.
This book, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation (the content of which Beckwourth narrated to Thomas D. Bonner, who actually wrote the text) gives several details about “Pine Leaf” that overlap with what we know of Woman Chief. The problem is that Beckwourth’s account has been heavily challenged as being (at best) largely exaggerated or (at worst) entirely fictional.
He even claims to have had a relationship with Pine Leaf–who had initially refused to marry anyone until she had killed one hundred enemies–which resulted in their marriage. The marriage apparently didn’t last long; five weeks later they parted ways, he left the Crow Nation, and he never saw his wife again. Because people noticed a tendency to exaggerate his own importance in the book, many critics have had a difficult time knowing how much, if any, of it is true.
He could also be referencing a different warrior woman of the Crow Nation, since there were at least a couple more during his time with them: Akkeekaahuush (Comes Toward The Near Bank, c. 1810 – 1880) and Biliíche Héeleelash (Among The Willows, c. 1837 – 1912).
Pine Leaf appears in quite a large section of his memoirs and what he does say about Pine Leaf is exceptionally positive. He writes that she was ‘the bravest woman that ever lived …. she possessed great intellectual powers. She was endowed with extraordinary muscular strength, wit the activity of the cat and the speed of the antelope. Her features were pleasing, and her form symmetrical. She had lost a brother in the attack on our village before mentioned – a great brave, and her twin brother. He was a fine specimen of the race of red men, and bade fair to rise to distinction; but he was struck down in his strength, and Pine Leaf was left to avenge his death. She was at that time twelve years of age, and she solemnly vowed that she would never marry until she had killed a hundred of the enemy with her own hand. Whenever a war-party started, Pine Leaf was the first to volunteer to accompany them …. She seemed incapable of fear‘ (100).
In addition to being given a lot of space in Beckwourth’s story, she is rather remarkably portrayed at the time for being attractive without ever being sexualized, and for having a strong personality and opinions that are recounted even at Beckwourth’s expense. Though he already has several indigenous wives in their village (one of whom is Pine Leaf’s best friend), he eventually asks her to marry him.
She tells him he has too many wives already, and that she will remain true to her vow. He lies to her and says that he’s had his fortune told–if he marries her, he will be invincible in battle. She laughs and says, ‘Okay, we’ll get married as soon as the pine leaves turn yellow and fall from the trees.’ It takes him a little while to realize that pine leaves never turn yellow and fall from the trees. He presses her again, and she says she’ll marry him the day he finds a red-headed Indian, which, of course, he never does.
They do eventually get married in the text, but it takes several years and many adventures, during which time she clearly leads a full and independent life and fulfills her vow.
Is Pine Leaf a real person? If so, is she the same person as Woman Chief? Did Beckwourth know her and/or marry her? We just don’t know.
What we DO know is who Woman Chief was. She was born in 1806 to the Gros Ventres tribe in what is now Montana. We don’t know her Gros Ventres birth name, but when she was ten years old she was captured by the Crow tribe after a raid and was adopted by one of their warriors. She was very tomboyish and was interested only in traditionally male pursuits. Her adoptive father, who had lost his sons, encouraged her.
She was referred to as a “Two-Spirit“, which is an indigenous umbrella term that has come to include LGBTQ identities, but originally (and still) includes a much more spiritual element. It’s not particularly helpful to classify Woman Chief as gay or trans, because firstly we have no idea if she was actually either of those things, and secondly because many indigenous tribes don’t have the same rigid gender structures that white western culture has. As far as I know, it’s fairly common for there to be four genders: feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, masculine man.
If I have any Crow Nation readers out there, I would love any clarity you could give about historical gender dynamics and how Chief Woman may have been categorized in the early nineteenth century!
Anyway, when Woman Chief’s father died, she took control of his lodge and became a celebrated warrior after a Blackfoot raid. In fact, she even raised her own band of warriors and retaliated on the Blackfoot tribe in retaliation, taking a TON of horses and scalps. Her deeds were so impressive that she was asked to represent her lodge in the Council of Chiefs.
It was at this point she was given the name Bíawacheeitchish, or Woman Chief. She eventually took four wives and made her lodge quite wealthy and important in diplomacy of the area. She negotiated several peace negotiations with other tribes, including the Gros Ventres, the tribe of her birth.
She met with many white westerners who were extremely impressed with her and helped to record her story by writing about her. These meetings included Edwin Denig, the fur trader and ethnographer, and Rudolph Kurz, the Swiss painter and explorer. Of course, they were not immune to exoticizing her and compared her (a woman in a high leadership position in a fairly patriarchal tribe) to an Amazon. Their accounts, which do provide a valuable record of her life, are unsurprisingly considered to be biased, sexist, and racist.
Despite the peace treaty she arranged with the Gros Ventres (I’m not sure if it had broken down before this point), she was eventually ambushed and killed by a party of their raiders in either 1854 or 1858.