“You have forced me to leave you. I was always a good daughter, and never disobeyed you; and could I have married the man I love, I should have been happy, and would never have left you”
The Dakotah maiden Wenona*
In the oral legends of the Dakotah of our region comes one of the most tragic love stories of the Dakotah maiden Wenona. Mary Henderson Eastman recorded the story while residing at Fort Snelling with her husband during his command of the fort in the 1840s. She retells the story as an old Dakotah medicine woman told it to her.
Wenona as the loveliest of the young women within the band was object of desire of Chaske, the fiercest warrior and most accomplished hunter. Unfortunately, Wenona despised Chaske, and her heartfelt affections were for another young man. She would not tie her affections to her true love for fear that there would be reprisal upon her beloved from Chaske and from her family. Her family very much wanted her to marry Chaske, for her father and mother desired the comfort and protection that Chaske would provide them in their old age. This was because Wenona was their only child and her marriage was their only hope for subsistence as they aged in the fierce wilderness.
While her band was hunting porcupines for their precious quills amongst the bluffs of Lake Pepin, Wenona was forced to finally consent to the marriage after her family was provided with over twice of what was required in furs and food by Chaske for the engagement. It was after this, while the men hunted, that Wenona slipped out of camp and climbed to the high precipice now known as Maiden Rock, a beautiful and sheer outcropping that rises high above Lake Pepin. It was there she sang a mournful dirge that caught the attention of her family and band members. Just as they reached her at the edge of the cliff, she turned to them and told her parents the above quote and with a scornful smile she leapt from the precipice to her death.
It’s often hard to understand how the twist in circumstances can lead to such a sad tragedy and the loss of a beautiful Dakotah maiden. In our modern-day world, Minnesotans are also experiencing a tragic loss of one of our true loves-the love of our lakes, rivers and streams. Our once beautiful and pristine lakes are sadly becoming stagnant and devoid of life. Darby Nelson eloquently portrays this sad tragedy in his new book entitled “For Love of Lakes”. Jonathan Higgins describes the book best in stating, “Darby gracefully describes the beauty and ecology of lakes through rich personal and natural histories. This book engagingly challenges us to consider our relationship with nature and how our choices affect its future.”
If you’re looking for a perfect gift for that loved one this Christmas season, they will enjoy being given the opportunity to read “For Love of Lakes”. Hopefully it will challenge those of us who make up the new band of inhabitants to this beautifully rich territory of lakes and rivers to treat one of our true loves better before she is tragically too far gone over the edge.
*Mary Henderson Eastman, Dahcotah, or, Life and Legends of the Sioux Around Fort Snelling (1849), (chapter “The Maiden’s Rock, or, Wenona’s Leap”)