Share |
Josephine Waggoner began collecting Indian stories in the late 1800s.
Josephine Waggoner began collecting Indian stories in the late 1800s.

A Fresh Look at Lakota History

Nov 10, 2014

Yes, I can write a short sketch of my life, but there would not be very much, just a continual chain of duties day in and day out, always on a ranch, lonely and far from other habitations... Took care of ten children that came to me. I studied history of our own people to keep my mind occupied.

Josephine Waggoner wrote those words in 1932 to Frank Herriott, a professor who was trying to help her publish her writings of Native American history and life. Despite the work, the “chain of duties” she endured, she never stopped collecting the stories of her people. She wrote at night after her family members were asleep, and the cabin on the Standing Rock Reservation was quiet.

She began writing in the 1920s because she worried the history and culture of the Lakota were being lost as elders passed away without handing down their knowledge in the traditional way. She also wanted to correct untruths written by white journalists and scholars. Waggoner started to interview chiefs, elders, tribal historians and, unlike other white or Indian writers, she also interviewed women.

Although she never saw her work printed during her lifetime, it was finally published in 2013 thanks to Emily Levine, an independent scholar, author and editor in Lincoln, Neb., who took on the messy job of compiling Waggoner’s writings into one book, Witness: A Hunkpapa Historian’s Strong-Heart Song of the Lakotas.

Waggoner was born in 1871 at Grand River Agency, at the confluence of the Grand and Lakota rivers. Her father, Charles McCarthy, owned a trading store on the east side of the Missouri. When she was 10, Waggoner volunteered to be a part of a group of Indian children who went east to finish their education. She attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. She returned home after her schooling to work at St. Elizabeth Mission at Wakpala. Waggoner met her husband while working at another mission a mile south of Fort Yates. She married Frank Waggoner on Thanksgiving Day in 1889. Her husband was in the Army, stationed at Fort Yates. It was during her time at Fort Yates that Waggoner began to document what was happening around her, as well as conducting interviews and recording tribal stories.

Levine organized the documents into two parts. The first part contains stories of Lakota/Dakota history and culture and Josephine’s own story. The second part contains 60 biographies of chiefs and other Indians. The book starts with the oldest of the Sioux legends. “The oldest stories refer back to the stars; then stories of kingdoms; then next in line come stories of the ocean, water, animals, and tropical animals.”

She writes that the North American Indians once lived in Central America, before Aztecs. The Aztecs came from the north and conquered the people in the south. “Stories are told of tropical animals that never existed here in North America. The work with feathers and quills, the pottery and basket weaving were arts that were first learned in the south country, where civilization once reached a high standard,” she wrote. “Whether our people are of Mayan or Toltec descent can still be found out someday, perhaps, by someone who can make a deeper study of customs and languages. In the meantime, every true Indian that dies believes that his spirit will journey to the land of his forefathers by the same route that brought them north, the starry pathway called the Spirit Trail. The Milky Way is called the Spirit Road. The Sioux believe that that trail will take them back to where they came from.”

Unfortunately, she never had a chance to understand her contribution to preserving her people's history. She once wrote to an editor, George Will: “You know Mr. Will I didn’t do much for my race after receiving an education at their expense. I got married and lived on isolated ranches living only for myself and family.” If only she could see Witness, a new, fresh look at the history of Native Americans during the tumultuous early 1920s and long before.

Witness (824 pp, hardcover) was published by the University of Nebraska Press in Lincoln. To order call (800) 848-6224.


08:58 am - Thu, November 13 2014
Shirley M Hanson said:
What a treasure she compiled for us. I am so grateful to her. I am looking forward to reading her book. My parents grew up near Standing Rock in the very early 1900s, so I have a special interest in learning more about that time and the people who lived there.
07:59 am - Fri, November 14 2014
Katie said:
Shirley - the book is really amazing - so many great stories. I think it has over 800 pages, so it seems daunting but is actually pretty easy to read!
03:36 pm - Mon, November 9 2015
Joyce Baer said:
I am the editor of the Gary Interstate newsletter. It is a monthly periodical with a nation wide readership. Back in the early days before SD became a state, the buffalo and the Indians roamed free and proud. I have been trying to do my part in finding GOOD TRUTHFUL information on the Lakota/Dakota people to share with those who have been mislead or ill-informed. I grew up on the Ft. Peck Reservation in Wolf Point, MT, and have a real love for the Sioux.

I read your article and would like to share it with our readers, in hopes that they will want to learn more. You will be given full credit.
05:40 pm - Tue, May 5 2020
My name is Bertrand Feuvray and I was born and raised in France. During my lifetime in three countries: France 24 years, Britain 10 years and the USA 32 years, I met my wife Pauline Azure in Utah while we were both students. I quickly found out that she has genealogical treasures on both sides of her parents. Her mother's maiden name is Bruguier and Pauline had pictures and history about Johnny Bruguier and also on Theophile Bruguier and War Eagle. Several of her relatives are involved in that same genealogy research. So my wife and I are very happy to have found this great book that has a chapter on Johnny Bruguier nicknamed Big Leggings.
I am a historian and I studied at Brigham Young University.
10:56 am - Sat, November 14 2020
Zonya (Ankle) Tantype said:
Josephine Waggoner was half-sister to Marcella Arnold, my great-grandmother. Their father was Ben Arnold who was born Ben Conner and later changed his vbn last name.. Marcella Arnold married Daniel Ankle. Ankle is my maiden name
11:08 am - Wed, November 25 2020
Katie Lund said:
I am the great granddaughter to Josephine McCarthy Waggoner. I was adopted at birth, the daughter of Stanley Quay—the granddaughter of Daphne Quay. When I found my half-siblings, I found my history. This book has been my godsend. I am so grateful to my great grandmother and to Emily Levine for editing her manuscript for publication. The narration places you—the reader—in Josephine’s time at Standing Rock, as if you are walking along the path she took as a child to adulthood. The Lakota language and the linguistics is in this book, as well.
10:46 pm - Fri, August 20 2021
Dawn Marie Jacobson said:
I am Josephine Waggoner's great- great-granddaughter. My mother is Constance (Iorns), her father Ernist (Bud) Irons, his mother Luzetta Iorns, her mother Josephine.
04:14 pm - Sun, September 19 2021
Patricia said:
Dawn did the irons race thoroughbred horses.?
07:25 pm - Fri, February 25 2022
Cindy Arias said:

I am so happy to see that other relatives of Josephine are on here. Josephine Waggoner is my great great great grandmother, mother of Lester Waggoner who was the father of my grandmother and Josephine's granddaughter named Marcella Waggoner. I think Marcella was named after Josephine's sister. My grandfather is Patric Serbanic who is the son of Marcella Waggoner and her second husband Mike Serbanic.

I wouldn't be surprised to see that there are many more who can find a link to this wonderful woman.
06:03 pm - Sun, July 17 2022
Cynthia Sander Boyer said:
Josephine Waggoner is my great Grandmother. My Mother is Odelia Waggoner- Sander daughter of Ernest Waggoner Josephine’s son.
I wish all Josephine’s descendants could identify themselves and we could start a count of us all.
I never met Josephine she died before I was born but I did know well Ernie and Ettie (Luzetta. The best was when they talked about their adventures together as children.
08:14 am - Sat, January 21 2023
Constance (Iorns) Mayer said:
I am the great grand daughter of Josephine Waggoner. Granddaughter of Luzetta Waggoner, daughter of Ernest Iorns. Patricia, horses were a big part of my grandparents life but I don't think racing was. Grandpa raised Appalusa horses, (I think I spelled that wrong) I had no idea my family had so many branches on their tree. I have all three books that my great grandmother got recognized for, I know there must be more
01:48 pm - Mon, February 13 2023
Katherine Twilley nee Curtis said:
I am the Great Great Granddaughter of Josephine Waggoner nee McCarthy, Great Granddaughter of Luzetta Iorns nee Waggoner, Granddaughter of Benetta June Curtis nee Iorns. I was able to meet my Great Uncil William "Bill" Iorns, and Great Aunt Iris, and my Great Grandmother Luzetta. I'm really proud of the work Emily did on the book. I was able to meet with her and my cousin during the research process. Its a beautiful book.
08:09 pm - Wed, February 21 2024
anonymous said:
My beautiful Great, Great, Grandmother.
03:43 am - Mon, May 6 2024
Marceau McPherson said:
I am one of Josephines great great grandsons on Daphne's side. Its soo amazing seeing all these relatives leaving comments. Would love to one day have an amazing reunion! Wouldnt that be cool. Shouldnt be hard with Facebook.

Share your thoughts, post a comment to this story:

Your Name:
Your Email Address:  
Your Website:
2000 characters remaining
Web Design by Buildable