Punished Woman's Lake & Highway Marker
While the highway marker indicating the narrative behind this small lake in South Dakota was erected in 1973, the tale it relates is far older than that, taking place in 1773. Dedicated to the Legend of Punished Woman's Lake, the title of the lake itself is derived from a Native American tale that denotes the importance of oral tradition to the Native American people and the role of the female in common narrative.
Backstory and Context
Erected in 1973 by the South Shore Commercial Club, South Dakora Department of Highways and the S.D. State Historical Society, the highway marker itself was issued as part of the SDSH’s marker program that began in 1950. This program was created by State Historian Doane Robinson, who headed the SDSH as a public organization and was not at the time an official part of the state government.
According to the Legend of Punished Woman’s Lake, our story begins in 1773 during the Moon of the Harvest, where a group of Sioux was camped on the shore. The daughter of the chief of this tribe and the most beautiful girl among their number, We-Wa-Ke, had fallen in love with brave, young warrior, Big Eagle, whose bravery and prowess outweighed all others. Big Eagle wished to marry We-Wa-Ke and he approached her father laden with gifts and his love. These things were not enough for her father, who instead accepted the gifts and offers from another chief, 60-year-old White Tail Wolf.
We-Wa-Ke and Big Eagle were distraught by the declaration, choosing to run away with each other into the night. Pursued by the other warriors of the tribe who quickly noticed their absence, the young lovers were returned to the hill overlooking the lake and brought before We-Wa-Ke’s father. They were unrepentant in their antics, proudly declaring their love for one another and their intention to be together. We-Wa-Ke’s father, in his anger, killed Big Eagle with his knife.
We-Wa-Ke’s fate was no less merciful. Tied to a tree on the shore of the lake, her father shot an arrow through her heart before ordering that the lovers be buried side by side on the hill overlooking the lake and that stones be placed in their forms as a shameful reminder to all others that would dare to act against him. The chief then called for the Evil Spirits to take the spirits of Big Eagle and We-Wa-Ke to the Land of Ever-Lasting Sorrow. The Great Spirit heard this, punishing his actions by sending out a lightning bolt from the sky to kill the chief. It was then that the remaining members of the tribe piled stones on his body to mark his shame as a murderer and an outcast.
The lake has been known ever since as “Punished Woman’s Lake”.
Stories such as these are important to commemorate because of their importance to the cultural heritage of those who originally told them. While they say that history is written by the victors, it is often spoken by the groups who are overlooked by the pages. Oral tradition is an integral part of Native American culture, shared among the tribes despite their many different languages and background. In a world that attempted to stifle their voice and kill their culture, the stories that they shared with one another and the adamant continuation of their traditions kept their truths alive. It also allows us to further examine a marginalized and wrongly vilified people, seeing the world from their perspective.
Tales like this one also point out the problematic view of women both during the time period and in the realm of storytelling as a whole. Though it is the chief, We-Wa-Ke’s father, who is ultimately the punished man in the narrative, it is the woman who is forever immortalized by the name of the lake. Was she still deserving of punishment because she defied her father and chose her own path? Why did the Great Spirit wait until after the death of the daughter to take action against the father?
Jason Baird Jackson. Oral Tradition, American Indian. The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Accessed October 27, 2017. http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=OR002.
South Dakota State Historical Society Markers (REVISED 2017). South Dakota State Historical Society. Accessed October 27, 2017. http://history.sd.gov/Preservation/OtherServices/MarkersMasterNumerical.pdf.