The arrival of fur traders into the remote western valleys of the Canadian Rockies was the catalyst for the transformation of a big boned gangly Kootenai Indian girl, Ququnok Patke (One-Standing-Lodge-Pole-Woman), into the most famous and influential seer in the Pacific Northwest.
During the winter of 1808, Quqonok would have attained marriageable status, but none of the young men had sought her out, given her remarkable stature. Had this been any other Indian lass, her story might have succumbed to the miserable fate of an awkward second wife. But Ququnok was about to step into what can only be described as a “cultural singularity” that arose from the collision of two utterly different worlds. And with her strong personality this narrative would take an entirely unexpected turn.
Ququnok undoubtedly participated in the startling encounter when the first North Western Company brigade managed to cross the Continental Divide and stumbled down the deep drifts that coated the western slopes of the Canadian Rockies. It is unclear who was more astonished; the Kootenai Indians who inhabited this remote fastness nestled among the silvery peaks of the Continental Divide, or the voyageurs that had hauled their sleds through country so remote and primeval that they actually feared attack by woolly mammoths. But for Ququnok this January morning in 1808 was a life altering experience, because we know that when the fur traders left a few days later, Ququnok went with them.
From the Northwest Company trader, David Thompson we hear that she subsequently married his servant, Boisvert, but that her “conduct had become so loose” that Thompson was forced to expel her from his base at Kalispell House. After that she returned home to her own people in the Lower Kootenai country, but when she arrived she announced that she had been transformed into a male!
She told her astonished band,
“I’m a man now. We Indians did not believe the white people possessed such power from the supernaturals. I can tell you that they do – greater power than we have. They changed my sex while I was with them. No Indian is able to do that.”
With that she announced that henceforth she would be called Kauxuma nupika, (Gone-to-the-spirits). Instead of dresses she had worn in the past, she now sported men’s shirts, leggings, breech cloths and she began to carry a gun. Her tribe remained skeptical, but she was undeterred and soon announced her intention to take a “wife”. But all the girls she approached refused her. Furious, Kauxuma let it be known that she would have her revenge using newfound supernatural powers. Understandably, people began to avoid her.
Eventually, she took up with another Kootenai women who had been abandoned by her husband. The two were inseparable, and the new “wife” was constantly pestered for details about the relationship. It was even rumored that Kauxuma had fashioned an artificial phallus of leather. But this buffalo dildo did not fool her lover and soon the relationship soured. Things went from bad to worse in a hurry, and the two had to be separated after Kauxuma became so jealous she pierced her partner’s arm with an arrow.
In keeping with her unrestrained lifestyle Kauxuma now set out to fulfill the ideals of a Kutenai warrior, including raiding, horse theft and fighting. Eventually, she was able to join a raiding party, but the sortie was unsuccessful in locating horses to steal. During their return Kauxuma’s brother noticed that she refused to strip with the other warriors as they crossed several rivers that lay athwart their route, but instead she lingered to cross after the others had continued onwards. Suspicious, her brother decided to hang back and watch her when she stripped off her pants. Apparently, he was able to confirm that she had not actually acquired the appurtenances of the male gender, and remained physically a women. Upon Seeing her brother spying on her, Kauxuma had quickly crouched in the rushing mountain waters, claiming that her foot had been caught between two rocks. Thus it came as no surprise that Kauxuma now assumed the name, Sitting-in-the-water-Grizzly (qanqon kdmek klatda). Most of the warriors cheered her decision being unaware that it implied a very self-serving interpretation of the events. But her brother, knowing the truth of it, refused to acknowledge her new name and instead insisted on calling her ‘Qanqon’, a sardonic twist on her newly assumed name.
But all that didn’t really matter, because Kauxuma had realized a much larger vision, one that wasn’t defined by Kootenai custom, or influenced by fur traders’ motives. She saw the raw chaos of two worlds colliding and she had begun to prophesy a vision that despite its gloomy predictions turned out to be remarkably close to the truth.
Her prophecy narrative was incendiary and alarming in the extreme. The white traders were bringing small pox to kill the Indians she warned. Two giants would follow turning over the earth as they came and burying the Indians and their lodges as it rolled across the country. All the Indians would die she insisted!
In July of 1809, David Thompson encountered her on Rainy Lake, near the Upper Columbia River reporting that,
“She had set herself up for a prophetess and gradually had gained, by her shrewdness, some influence among the natives as a dreamer, and expounder of dreams. She recollected me before I did her, and gave a haughty look of defiance, as much to say, I am now out of your power.”
At the time he wrote this in his journal, Thompson had no inkling of the influence that this prophetess’ visions would have, even to the distant shores of the Pacific. To Thompson, this recalcitrant prophetess must have seemed like an enterprising provocateur that parlayed her exposure to the white traders into cunning deceits designed to enrich her. Like an annoying gadfly, she would turn up wherever the traders built their forts and preach her anti-colonial views to the indigenous tribes. At Fort Chipewyan in the far north, her insidious rhetoric nearly launched a revolt against the vulnerable fort.
Undoubtedly, Kauxuma was an “odd duck”, but these were very unusual circumstances. During her time with Boisvert and later as she visited the outposts of the fur traders she undoubtedly spent considerable time listening to the Cree, the Chipewyan’s and the Catholic Iroquois as they shared their indigenous interpretations of the agrarian colonization that was sweeping across the lands to the east of the Rockies. As Thompson may have done, one could see Kauxuma as a skilled charlatan who could turn a tale to her benefit. From the anthropologists’ perspective, Kauxama’s prophesies fit into the greater narrative about the indigenous cultural revival that included the contemporaneous Prophesy Dance and the reassertion of an Indian identity in the face of a massive colonial onslaught. From the traditional perspective of the male-dominated Indian elders, her warrior aspirations made a mockery of the Indians’ value systems. Her anti-colonial and hopeless prophesies undermined the motivations that sustained the far-flung Northwest trading culture. There were many that would gladly silence her to still the growing panicamong the Indians.
From the perspective of an historian of lesbianism, Kauxuma stands out as a lonely example of an inspired individual that tried not just to compete in a male dominated culture, but also to speak “truth to power” as the modern expression goes. As an individual, Kauxuma seems to have had an intense and uncompromising character, with a significant “anger management problem” and a predilection for resorting to violence – not someone you might want to spend much time with. And yet all that met her noted her intelligence, and persuasiveness. She was, no doubt, an extraordinary person!
Until now, Kauxuma had been an isolated oddity whose influence hardly extended beyond the reaches of her home tribe’s peregrinations in the Lower Kootenai country. But on June 15th, 1811 that would change dramatically.
On that sunny day, Kauxuma was escorted into Astoria by a phalanx of local Chinooks, who were as mystified by the tall Algonquin-speaking Indian and his “wife” as the American were that soon debriefed them. It appeared from what they learned that this couple had managed the perilous journey from the verge of the Continental Divide all the way down the Columbia River, through the territories of countless feisty Indian tribes – all the way to the solitary outpost of the Americans at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River. Apparently, Kauxuma’s guise was successful in fooling the local Indians and the Americans. Alexander Ross describes their reception,
“Among the many visitors who every now and then presented themselves, were two strange Indians, in the character of man and wife, from the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains…. The husband was a very shrewd and intelligent Indian, who addressed us in the Algonquin and gave us much information respecting the interior of the country.”
Significantly, Kauxuma was also carrying a letter to John Stuart, an HBC trader thought to be traveling with Simon Fraser. This was critical intelligence for the Americans because it revealed that the Hudson Bay Company had begun to operate in the areas west of the continental divide.
The Astorians were still trying to sort out how to respond to this news, when they spotted a canoe rounding Tongue Point. Seated in the stern was what appeared to be an English officer and at his back fluttered the Union Jack. David Thompson had arrived just as the Americans were about to dispatch canoes upriver to explore the interior of the country. The Nor’Westers were warmly welcomed and Thompson had the run of the fort during his brief sojourn there. During that stay the Astorians shared the story of the two strange Indians that had arrived just prior to Thompson. Taken to meet the “odd couple”, Thompson immediately recognized Kauxuma and exposed her gender – much to the consternation of local Chinook and the Astorians who had been successfully deceived.
Tarrying only a week in Astoria, David Thompson set out out to retrace his considerable return trip all the way to the Continental Divide and from thence back to Montreal, where he would ultimately take up residence. Before leaving, he agreed to guide the Astorian, David Stuart and eight of his men to where they planned to build a fort at the foot of the “Falls of the Columbia”. But they weren’t the only fellow travellers.
Hearing that Thompson was bound to retrace his steps up the river, Kauxuma and his wife decided to follow suite. But it wasn’t long before it became apparent that the Kauxuma’s prophesies on the downward journey had so scared the Lower Columbia River Indians that the local Indians were intent upon killing Kauxuma. And so it was that the haughty dissembler now approached David Thompson to seek his protection during the journey upriver. Despite his misgivings, Thompson agreed to shelter Kauxuma and his ‘wife’ during the trip back up the Columbia River – a decision that made Nor’Westers’ own passage considerably more dangerous.
No sooner had he agreed to shelter the doomsday prophetess than Thompson came across the following scene, as he describes it in his journal:
“Having proceeded half a mile up a Rapid, we came to four men who were waiting for us … the four men addressed me, saying, when you passed going down to the sea, we were all strong in life, and your return to us finds us strong to live, but what is this we hear, casting their eyes with a stern look on her [the ‘man woman’], is it true that the white men … have brought with them the Small Pox to destroy us; and two men of enormous size, who are on their way to us, overturning the Ground, and burying all the Villages and Lodges underneath it; is this true, and are we all soon to die. I told them not [to] be alarmed, for the white Men who had arrived had not brought the Small Pox, and the Natives were strong to live, and every evening were dancing and singing… At all which they appeared much pleased, and thanked me for the good words I had told them; but I saw plainly that if the ‘man woman’ had not been sitting behind us they would have plunged a dagger in her…”
All along the journey up the Columbia River the two “bold adventurous amazons” would alternately canoe ahead of the main party, or at other times linger behind the Nor’Westers. Kauxuma’s four years of exposure to the white fur traders had not just given her an “insight” into what was coming, but it also imprinted on her the opportunistic culture of the French Canadian trappers that helped manipulate the credulous natives to her advantage. Concocting visions that were designed to astonish, Kauxuma and his wife now announced that the great white chief was about to inundate them with everything they wanted. In their gratitude for these glad tidings the local Indians showered the couple with gifts. By the time the expedition parted ways with “Two-Spirit Woman”, she and her consort disappeared into the long shadows of history leading 26 horses laden with all manner of Indian wealth.
Over the next 26 years we hear little of our “man-like woman”. Mostly she remains a background figure, accompanying several trading sorties into the region. Finally reports circulate of how she had mediated between a group of Flat Heads and a marauding party of Blackfoot Indians. Apparently during the negotiations, she tricked the Blackfoot into waiting long enough for the Flat Heads to make their escape. For nearly thirty years she had sown fear with her disturbing visions and reckless deceits, but on that fateful day in 1837 her legendary dissimulation was her final undoing.
In the end it wasn’t the small pox, or her supernatural juggernauts that buried her, or even the Indians that wanted to silence her doomsday diatribes. Trying to find meaning in the chaotic changes affecting her world, Kauxuma ultimately lost her life for one of the most traditional reasons: tribal warfare.
1. Kauxama Nupika, or also known as Gone to the Spirits. Robert Clark, River of the West, 1995, Harper Collins Publishers, NY. Pg 69
2. Epic Wanderer, David Thompson – The Mapping of the Canadian West, 2003 D’Arcy Jenish, Doubleday Canada, Toronto, Canada, Pg. 181
3. Schaeffer’s “Kutenai Female Berdache”, 1811 http://www.outhistory.org/wiki/Schaeffer%27s_%22Kutenai_Female_Berdache%22,_1811
4. Oregon and the Collapse of Illahee by Gray H. Whaley 2010, University of North Carolina Press
2. Castaways in Clatsop – see prior writing
3. Chief Concomely
4. David Thompson