She reigned at the Fort Union trading post on the upper Missouri.
“Fort marriages” were often temporary—and tragic for the Indian girls who thought they were permanently married to white men. A few horses changed hands, the Indian girl thought she’d found a provider for life, and the white man thought he was buying a short-term concubine. There were exceptions. Some white men and Indian women remained married until death did them part, often for decades, though in many cases the women contracted tuberculosis or pneumonia and died while still young. Pocahontas was the archetype—married as a teenager, dead of either pneumonia or smallpox before she was 25.
One Indian girl reversed the usual pattern. She married well, left her husband of her own accord when things weren’t working to her satisfaction and lived to a ripe old age, bequeathing to mainstream society a number of respectable mixed-blood children. Her name was Natawista Iksana (“Medicine Snake Woman”). Following is her story, with the romanticism and reality in equilibrium.
Major Alexander Culbertson first saw Natawista Iksana in 1840 when she came down from Canada with her Blackfoot people to trade at Fort Union, at the mouth of the Yellowstone River in what is now Montana. It was lust at first sight. Natawista was 15, and Culbertson, at 31, had already married a Piegan woman and sent the two children he had had by her to the East for schooling. Economics was a factor on both sides: The Blackfeet, once the terror of trappers, could see the future clearly enough to know that whites were around for good, and Culbertson knew that being married to the daughter of a Blackfoot chief could be good for business. He had one of his French retainers drop off nine horses outside the chief’s lodge, and Natawista returned as his bride with nine other horses, apparently to show that this was a real marriage. They lived happily ever after for the next 30 years.
Culbertson had replaced Kenneth McKenzie as chief factor of the American Fur Company at Fort Union. Natawista, even as a teenager, reigned like a queen over the trading post. John James Audubon met Natawista in 1843 and remarked on her beauty, riding prowess and sense of humor when, seconded by her husband, she convinced the French-Creole naturalist to dress up as a Blackfoot warrior, with results Audubon cheerfully described as “awful.”
“Mrs. Culbertson and her maid rode astride like men, and all rode a furious race, under the whip the whole way, for more than a mile across the prairie,” Audubon wrote. “How amazed would have been any European lady, or some of our modern belles who boast their equestrian skill, at seeing the magnificent riding of this Indian princess, for that is Mrs. Culbertson’s rank. Mr. Culbertson rode with…these extraordinary Indian riders, Mrs. Culbertson’s magnificent black hair floating like a banner behind her.”
There was, strictly speaking, no such title as “princess” among Plains tribes, where a woman acquired status by her looks, her chastity before marriage and fidelity afterward and her craft skills. But Natawista, with Culbertson’s encouragement, tried to live up to the image as she understood it. On trips to the home office at St. Louis, she disdained diamonds as boring but adored rubies and emeralds. She dressed, most of the time, like a white woman of the upper crust. A passenger on a steamboat toward the end of Natawista’s reign described her as “dressed as a white lady and said to be a very fine woman.…I have been introduced to her, but she cannot speak English, so I can say nothing to her.” (Actually, she appears to have understood English perfectly well but didn’t speak, perhaps due to reticence or fear of making mistakes that might prompt ridicule. Natawista spoke rudimentary French to perfection.)
Audubon, in particular, was utterly charmed by Natawista’s good looks and by her lack of pretension. Knowing of Audubon’s fascination with all sorts of birds, Natawista once presented him with six mallards she had dispatched in the Missouri River in the traditional Indian manner: She dove under the muddy water and, breathing through a hollow reed, grabbed the ducks by the feet and held them under until they drowned. Audubon was impressed—though he was less happy with her treatment of his first buffalo carcass. “I lost the head of my first buffalo bull,” he wrote, “because I forgot to tell Mrs. Culbertson that I wished to save it, and the princess had its skull broken open to enjoy its brains. [Though she is] handsome and really courteous and refined in many ways, I cannot reconcile myself to the fact that she partakes of raw animal food with such relish.”
Dietary habits notwithstanding, she made a great impression on visiting Europeans. Swiss artist Rudolf Friedrich Kurz described her as “one of the most beautiful Indian women.…She would be an excellent model for a Venus.”
In 1853 Natawista volunteered to be a goodwill ambassador to the Blackfeet, saying, “I am afraid that they and the whites will not understand each other, but if I go, I may be able to explain things to them and soothe them if they become irritated.” Partly through her efforts, the whites and the Blackfeet maintained peaceful relations for another dozen years.
By 1858 the couple had made $300,000 (add two zeros in modern terms) and Culbertson settled down with Natawista in Peoria, Ill., in a manner befitting frontier royalty. A daughter, Nancy, had already drowned in the Missouri River. The Culbertsons would send their other four children—Jack, Julia, Fannie and Joe— back East to attend convent schools or military schools. In Peoria, Natawista surprised neighbors by pitching a tepee on the front lawn of their estate, set on 300 acres stocked with antelope, elk and buffalo. Passersby would stop their carriages and gawk at the Indian woman, who wore a one-piece Plains dress and camped in a tepee in what was by then affluent suburbs. (The tepee—designed to cycle flowing air from the rolled-up sides through the living quarters and out the open flaps, or “ears,” turned to catch the breeze— was actually an intelligent adaptation to summer heat, but most people didn’t know that. Indians who lived in tepees were generally healthy but quickly developed respiratory troubles when they shifted to log cabins.) The family cook reported that the Culbertsons kept wooden barrels full of gold coins in the basement and that Mrs. Culbertson was fond of firewater—an all-toocommon vice among Plains Indians, who mistook the momentary euphoria of intoxication for what the Lakota call wakan, a state of peace traditionally achieved by fasting and sensory deprivation. One reported incident in particular lends credence to the cook’s account: Natawista once had the coachman harness two half-broken colts to a carriage worth $300, then laughed and slapped her hands when the horses smashed the carriage to bits trying to escape. It was an omen.
In 1868 Culbertson lost his fortune through bad investments. Romantics claim Natawista stuck by him through thick and thin. The paper trail, however, suggests that in 1870 she left Culbertson and soon became one of several Indian wives of Henry Albert Kanouse, an American whiskey trader from Peoria. The sequence of events remains unclear—whether she met Kanouse before Culbertson’s financial crash or simply tired of her unmarried sister-in-law’s incessant orders and the neighbors gawking at her tepee on the front lawn. In 1875 North-West Mounted Police surgeon Richard Barrington Nevitt spotted Natawista in Alberta, Canada, expressing amazement at seeing an Indian woman clad in “a Dolly Varden– style dress and Balmoral petticoat over beaded leggings and moccasins.” In 1877 she accepted treaty status as a Blood Indian—one of the three Blackfoot tribes. By 1880 Kanouse, too, was history, and Natawista was living with her Blackfoot relatives as, in the words of journalist George Henry Ham, “a neatly dressed squaw attired after the custom of some white ladies,” who preferred “the wild freedom of the plains to the conventionalities of society.”
Natawista died in 1893, still among her people in Canada. Given the sad fates of so many other Indian women married to white trappers, traders and soldiers, Natawista had achieved the ultimate distinction—against the odds, she had become her own woman.
John Koster is a frequent contributor to Wild West and the author of Custer Survivor: The End of a Myth, the Beginning of a Legend. Suzie Koster and Minjae Kim assisted with this article.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.