The Wolverene Woman

Here is a story from the Blackfeet (also known as the Blackfoot, Piegan, Blood, and/or Pikuni, depending on where and during what time period they are being referred to) of northern Montana and southern Alberta. The current Blackfeet Reservation lies just to the east of Glacier National Park, which was originally the heart of Blackfeet territory. For wolverines, too, Glacier is the heart of home in the US. This short tale is taken from Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians, by Clark Wissler and D.C. Duvall, first published in 1908 by the American Museum of Natural History, and republished in 1995 by the University of Nebraska Press. The story is found on page 162:

The Wolverene-Woman

These Indians have a belief that there are animals with power to change into human beings. Of these the wolverene is one. It often happens that when a man is out hunting, or sitting alone by his campfire, a very handsome woman will come up. Now if he offers her some of the entrails from his butchering, she will take them daintily between the thumb and the forefinger and then throw them away. This is the sign by which she may be known. Should the man take up his gun, the woman will run away as a wolverene. On the other hand, should he allow her to come into camp and engage in familiarities, evil will follow. As soon as he gets home and smells the fire of the lodges, he will fall down dead. Sometimes he will only faint when he smells the fire of the lodges; but even then he will never be the same person again. When men go out to hunt, they are often reminded to keep a lookout for the Wolverene-Woman. When a woman is out alone, the Wolverene-Woman will appear as a fine young man. If the woman permits herself to be seduced, it will be bad for her. As a rule, her people will never hear of her again; but, should she start back to camp and smell the fire of the lodges, she will surely die.

Footnote: ….This is not a formal narrative. While the wolverene is a well-known mythical character, there are no specific myths in which it appears. The Deer-woman of the Dakota and the Wolf Woman of the Pawnee, described by Bush Otter, seem to embody the same conception as is expressed in the above….

Wissler was an anthropologist, and Duvall was half-Piegan and was Wissler’s agent in the field; together, they spent many years collecting and analyzing stories from Montana and Alberta. This is the only mention of the Wolverene Woman, however, and it is tantalizingly brief, with no explanation aside from the footnote. Why wolverines? Among the numerous stories of men or women who fall in love with and marry non-humans (star people, bison, bears), why are wolverines uniquely dangerous creatures with whom to – in the polite Victorian idiom – “engage in familiarities?” How is it that the Wolverene Woman may also become a man? (And as an aside, Blackfeet women must have been admirably adventurous if they were hanging out alone in high mountainous regions where they might have been in danger of seduction-by-gender-bending-shape-shifting-wolverine. Wissler does mention the egalitarian nature of Blackfeet society, but it would be nice to know more about this, too.)

To apply my own biased, acontextual lens, perhaps it simply speaks to the fascination that the species can evoke. I’m struck by the assertion that once a person associates with a wolverine – never mind the precise nature of the familiarities; these days, photographing or collaring or even just seeing one in the wild probably counts – s/he “will never be the same person again.” I know too many people for whom this has proven true. The lesson of the Blackfeet story stands: be wary of the wolverine. One way or another, the animal can change your life.



6 thoughts on “The Wolverene Woman

  1. Thanks for posting this. Really “North Asian perspectivism” stuff right? Reminds me of a story that Rane Willerslev collected about Bear people. The question of “why wolverines” is fascinating…

    And Clark Wissler! 🙂 This makes me want to look at Ruth Benedict’s unpublished Blackfeet material soooo bad…

    • Yeah, I am definitely drawn to anything with perspectivist overtones. Maybe it just means that the wolverine will reveal to you your desires, according to the perspective (the body, the social position, etc) that you inhabit – whether it’s a desire for an attractive mate or a desire for some massive quest that can keep you entertained across two continents….

      I need to talk to Rane. Which bear people story? Is it published?

      Where is Ruth Benedict’s material? Is it accessible?

      Good thing we’ll be able to hang out in a week or so, that way we can cease communicating via my blog 😉

  2. Heh for sure… I like writing on your blog!

    Her dissertation and stuff about vision quests would be interesting I bet, and also her papers are at Vassar:

    I’ll ask my committee too… haven’t written them for like 2 months at least. I’ll pop in this to the Benedict nut and some questions about the supposed Higgs Boson discovery for Rena who studies high-particle physicists liker her dad after doing Papua New Guinea…

  3. Also, Bear story is in Soul Hunters. Basically, I think what happens is a guy keeps hanging out with bears in their village and becomes one, and then ends up killing his human son.

  4. As we watched great black BEARs fight over a deer,the skunk cabbage before us rustled,a line of of leaves moved towards the bears.Grass on the mountain meadow rustled towards the great Bears.
    From underneath the feeding Bears,a great fury threw both Great Bears into back flips,with them never hesitating to look back.
    They left the mountain,as the tribes,others did.
    The WOLVERINE does not tolerate pretenders.

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