Tatidutawin – A True Dakota Soul Sister – Part I

The women I’ve talked about so far in Dakota Soul Sisters were white women who came to the Dakota mission, starting in 1835. I’ve offered their stories chronologically in terms of when they arrived in Minnesota. It was always my intention to also tell the stories of the Dakota women whom they came to know in these earliest years of the Dakota Mission.

Catherine Tatidutawin was the first Dakota woman baptized ino Christianity at the Lac Qui Parle Mission in 1837. She is pictured here perhaps 50 years later. (Photo Courtesy Marlin Peterson)

Catherine Tatidutawin was the first Dakota woman baptized ino Christianity at the Lac Qui Parle Mission in 1837. She is pictured here perhaps 50 years later. (Photo Courtesy Marlin Peterson)

The most well-known of those Dakota women is Tatidutawin or Her Scarlet House, most commonly known by her Christian name of Catherine Tatidutawin. Catherine was born into the Wahpeton Dakota community at Lac Qui Parle in west central Minnesota in 1801, according to Dr. Thomas S. Williamson.[1] Her parents were Dawamanyici and Kagiwin and she had at least one sister, Yahpah, who married a trader named St. Morris.[2]

Catherine was known as a Medicine Woman among her people when Williamson and Huggins families arrived at Lac Qui Parle in 1835. Her training had perhaps begun as a young girl. Rev. Stan Maudlin described the position as follows:

This Dakota Medicine Bag may resemble the one that Catherine used to hold the herbs and medicines she used. When she became a Christian in 1837, she reportedly asked Joseph Renville to burn her medicine bag.

This Dakota Medicine Bag may resemble the one that Catherine used to hold the herbs and medicines she used. When she became a Christian in 1837, she reportedly asked Joseph Renville to burn her medicine bag.

“Women learned the art of doctoring with herbs from their mothers and grandmothers. In general, if a woman inherited the right to become a medicine woman, her powers still had to be validated by a dream in which a spirit, in the form of a human, an animal, or perhaps just a voice, gave her personal knowledge. Women who had the gift for curing spent considerable time wandering around the areas surrounding their encampment, gathering herbs and other natural ingredients to prepare their medicines. In most Plains tribes, a medicine woman was not allowed to practice by herself until she reached middle age and older. The power to heal usually remained with a woman until her death.

“Like her male counterpart, a medicine woman was considered by early Plains Indians to have a special connection to the spirit world and that link is what empowered her to heal. Emotional afflictions required supernatural remedies to recapture the soul. Generally all healers called upon the aid of an ally from the spirit world to guide them in curing illness. Plains Indians believed that both physical and emotional illness reflect an imbalance between the natural world and the spirit world. A healer’s task was to restore harmony and balance using herbs, poultices or spoken formulas.

“In some tribes, women who acquired supernatural abilities became shamans. Shamans were believed to possess the power to influence the good and evil beings in the spirit world. A woman who wished to become a shaman usually sought training from an established shaman in her community. If the old shaman chose her as successor, the younger woman took over the shaman’s position when she passed away. The new shaman used the songs and the formulas she inherited, as well as her own creations, to cure disease, predict the future or control the weather. Plains Indian women gained respect and prestige by practicing medicine in their communities. The realm of medicine women in the culture of early Plains Indians was probably one of the women’s most powerful roles.”[3]

In about 1821, Catherine married Chatka or Left Hand, a Mdewakanton Dakota man of the Kaposia band whose mother was a sister of Wakantanka or Big Thunder, the father of Taoyateduta, who was the leader of the Dakota in the U.S. Dakota War of 1862.  Chatka held an important place in the Lac Qui Parle community. His sister, known as Mary Little Crow, was the first wife of the Lac Qui Parle trader, Joseph Renville. Mary and Joseph were legally married in the Catholic parish at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1804, settling at Lac Qui Parle in the early 1820s. Chatka joined his sister there and became a member of Joseph Renville’s Tokadantee, a lodge of twenty to thirty men who served as Renville’s soldiers.

Catherine’s skills as a medicine woman and Chatka’s position as Joseph Renville’s brother-in-law secured them a prominent position in the Lac Qui Parle community. The eldest son in the family, Towanetatan, was born about 1822, followed by another boy, Kawanke, in 1827, and then by a daughter, Wawiyohiyawin, in about 1837.  Another daughter, known only as Elizabeth, may have been the youngest of the family. Church records indicate that Catherine was baptized as a Christian in December 1837, the first Dakota woman to join the church. Her daughter Wawiyohiyawin, then about eleven years old, was baptized at the same time. This was when Catherine was given her English name and her daughter was given the name of Sarah. [4]

According to Fanny Huggins Pettijohn, who joined the work at the Lac Qui Parle mission in the fall of 1839, Catherine was influenced in her decision to adopt the Christian faith by Joseph Renville’s wife, Mary Little Crow, who was a professed Christian before the Presbyterians ever arrived. She and Joseph were married in a Catholic ceremony at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1804. Fanny wrote: “She told me she felt that what Mrs. R. told her was very desirable, to have a friend in Heaven that would care for her all her life, and take her to a good place when she died. She concluded to give up her wakan thing…”[5]

Perhaps Catherine’s own closeness to the spiritual world through her practice of medicine made her more open to Christianity. In any case, she remained a faithful believer and church-goer all of her life, encouraging her children to also serve the church and remain steadfast in their faith. Catherine also influenced her husband Chatka’s own quest for Christianity. Riggs writes that Chatka desired to join the church at Lac Qui Parle in 1841 but there was a problem. Chatka had two wives – Catherine and another  Dakota Christian woman named Rachel.

Riggs wrote: “Left Hand had for some time been a hearer of the word of the Great Spirit. He professed also a desire to be a doer of the same. It was near the close of 1841 when he presented himself as a candidate for the sealing ordinances of God’s house. During his examination his connection with more than one woman was made the subject of inquiry. He was asked whether he was now ready to put away one of his wives, and be married to the other according to the Christian mode. His reply was substantially that as yet he we not able to do this, but, if received into the church, he hoped to have assistance to enable him to forsake by and by not only that, but all other sins.”[6]

Riggs and Williamson didn’t always agree about how the church should handle such situations. Williamson struggled with accepting that the church could ever be the cause of such a destructive impact on family life since the wife who was “put away” was basically abandoned along with her children. For Riggs, it was a simply black and white issue and he would not permit any man in Chaska’s position to join the church. Ironically, there was no problem accepting a woman into the church whose husband had more than one wife. The key being that she had only one husband so she wasn’t living in polygamy; only her husband was guilty of that infraction. In Catherine and Chatka’s case, the end result was that Chatka was not baptized and did not join the church. He refused to abandon either Catherine or Rachel even though, according to Riggs, Catherine was willing and desirous to be put away.[7]

Catherine was not only a new Christian, she was an active leader in the church at Lac Qui Parle. Stephen Riggs recalled a letter than she wrote (or dictated) in about 1842. Riggs wrote: “In the summer of 1841, we built at Lac Qui Parle a church of unburnt brick. In digging for the foundation, the women, as well as some of the men, rendered assistance. In regard to this, she [Catherine] says: ‘Now we are going to have a holy house, and for that we rejoice greatly. In this house we will pray to the Great Spirit. We have dug ground for it two days already, and we have worked having the Great Spirit in our thoughts. When this house is built, we shall be glad. In it we will pray; He will have mercy on us. He will hear what we say and make us rejoice…’ ”

Riggs continued: “Catherine was once a member of the Dakota Sacred Dance. But in this letter she says, ‘I have no fellowship with Dakota customs. Since I have heard the word of the Great Spirit, I seek that alone.’ And this she has continued to do, although for years she was hated, defamed, and threatened with death by members of that secret society.”[8]

Dakota women at Lac Qui Parle sewed porcupline-quill decorated moccasins like these and donated them to help raise funds to purchase a bell for the chapel at Lac Qui Parle in 1841.

Dakota women at Lac Qui Parle sewed porcupline-quill decorated moccasins like these and donated them to help raise funds to purchase a bell for the chapel at Lac Qui Parle in 1842.

Catherine was one of the Dakota women who sewed moccasins adorned with porcupine quills in order to raise funds to purchase a church bell of the little chapel at Lac Qui Parle in 1842. Stephen Riggs recalled that Catherine’s work was very fine both in quilting, beading and making pipe stems. He also wrote about the bell: “That bell was persecuted and shot at by the heathen part of the village, but it did good service for many years, calling the children to school on week days, and the older people to meeting on the Sabbath. But it was cracked by ringing it one morning when the thermometer was thirty degrees below zero.”[9]

Along with her work in the church, Catherine was an avid student and learned to read and write in the Dakota language. Fanny Huggins recalled: “I taught her to read after she was 40 years old. It took her nearly two years to be able to read without spelling. When she could read right along she was the gladdest woman. She wanted to read all the time, said she could scarcely stop to do her housework.”[10]

Catherine’s children were also students at the Lac Qui Parle Mission School, and all learned to read and write in both Dakota and English. The eldest boy, Towanetaton, known in English as Lorenzo Lawrence, does not appear on any of the baptism lists but Kawanke, identified as Joseph, was baptized by Dr. Williamson in 1838. (See footnote #4 below.)

When Lorenzo was about 20 years old, in 1842, Stephen Riggs approached him and Catherine with an interesting offer. He would take Lorenzo with him to Ohio where he was going to work on publishing some of the first Dakota translations of the Bible. Lorenzo would have the opportunity to live in white culture, attend school and church, and see what life was like on a real farm. Two other boys, Lorenzo’s friends, were also invited. Riggs reportedly told their families that they’d be back in about three months.

All of the families gave permission, although Riggs notes that the boys had all received letters ordering them to return home even before they reached the borders of the Dakota country; if they did not return, their mothers would die of grief.[11]

They did not return and in fact, Riggs didn’t get them back home until a year later. One can only imagine the stress and worry this caused their families, especially since communication via mail from Ohio was sporadic to say the least. We don’t know very much about the boys’ experiences in Ohio, except that they lived in the homes of two of Alexander Huggins’ brothers near Sardinia, Ohio. They reportedly attended school, worked on the farm and went to church with the Huggins family.

Catherine and Chatka welcomed Lorenzo home after his adventure and a few years later, in 1846, life at Lac Qui Parle changed significantly when Joseph Renville died. The old French fur trader had been the guiding force behind the Christian work at the mission and with his death, the Williamsons found it very difficult to continue their ministry. The Riggs and Huggins families had both transferred to a new mission at Traverse des Sioux (now St. Peter, Minnesota) by 1845 and Robert and Agnes Hopkins had arrived at Lac Qui Parle to continue the work there. Williamson and his family accepted the invitation of Taoyateduta to move to his Kaposia village on the west side of the Mississippi River a few miles south of St. Paul. They established a new mission and school there in October 1846.

Catherine was now 45 years old; her children were grown and she perhaps anticipated a continued peaceful life at Lac Qui Parle, living out her days with Chatka and her fellow wife Rachel. In 1847, however, Chatka traveled to Kaposia to connect with his family there and see how the Williamsons were doing at their new post. He contracted bilious fever and died there in the summer of 1847. Stephen Riggs returned to Lac Qui Parle when the Williamsons left and he continued to minister to Catherine and her family but the days were coming quickly when life would change for everyone at Lac Qui Parle and across the region.


[1] Minnesota Historical Society, Thomas S. Williamson to Greene, June 1845. Williamson spells her name as Katrin Totidutawin but throughout history, her name is most commonly spelled Catherine.

[2] National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) RG75, Entry 529. Miscellaneous Sioux Papers, April 1860

[3] Rev. Stan Maudlin, OSB, “Wambdi Wicasa” Eagle Man, American Indian Culture Research Center, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA

[4] Most historic sources indicate that Towanetatan, later known as Lorenzo Lawrence, was the son of Chatka with Catherine. The same sources, however, often mention that Lorenzo was a full-blood Wahpeton. Chatka was Mdewakanton which has led Lorenzo’s great-grandson, Dr. Elden Lawrence, to question whether Catherine may have been married to another man and given birth to Lorenzo before marrying Chatka. In a letter (with an initial date of January 18, 1838) a February 18, 1838, entry from Alexander Huggins to one of his brothers reported that Catherine, Joseph, Elizabeth and Sarah were baptized by Dr. Williamson. He also said that Catherine’s eldest son, Lorenzo Lawrence, was named after Dr. Lawrence of Cinncinatti and that his father was dead. (No location or collection for this letter was provided when I received the information from Jeff Williamson.) This would indicate that Catherine did have a husband before Chatka. Whoever his father was, however,Lorenzo clearly recognized Chatka’s cousin Taoyateduta as his cousin as well.

[5] Pettijohn, Frances Huggins, “Family History of the Huggins Family,” 1886, Huggins Papers, manuscript collection, Minnesota Historical Society

[6] Riggs, Stephen R., “Dakota Portraits – Lac Qui Parle,” www.lilb.sdstate.edu, p. 111 (hereafter “Dakota Portraits.)

[7] Dakota Portraits., p. 112

[8] Dakota Portraits., p. 111

[9] Dakota Portraits., p. 111

[10] Pettijohn, Frances Huggins, “Family History of the Huggins Family,” 1886, Huggins Papers, manuscript collection, Minnesota Historical Society

[11] Dakota Portraits., p. 112

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