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Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Jun 11, 2017

Toby “Winema” Riddle was born in 1846 on a Modoc Reservation near Klamath Lake. These were troubled times. The U.S. government was pressuring the Modoc and Klamath people to leave their land and move to a reservation near Klamath Lake. Whites seeking gold were demanding land to mine in northern California and southern Oregon.

Toby’s birth name was Kaichkona, but her childhood name was soon changed to Nannooktowa, which means “Strange Child,” reflecting the strange red hair she is said to have had. As a teen, she rescued several children whose canoe became caught in rapids. The children most certainly would have died without her intervention. After this, her name was changed to Winema, which means “Woman Chief.”

She was daring enough as a teen to ride with Indian raiders to steal horses from their enemies. No other women were known as being as brave as Winema. She even led her people to victory when they were attacked by a rival tribe.

Her next courageous act was to defy her father when he selected an Indian husband for her. She chose instead to marry a paleface named Frank Riddle, who had come to California from Kentucky to make his fortune in gold. Winema adopted the English name “Toby” after her marriage.

Frank and Toby were initially shunned by the tribe for this decision, until Frank gifted several horses to her father. Toby studied English and served as an interpreter between the U.S. Army and the Modoc and Klamath native communities.

During the 1872-73 Modoc War, aka the Lava Beds War, she warned several white commissioners that if they attended Modoc Peace Talks, they would be killed. They did not listen to her, and they were killed.

The chairman, Alfred Meacham, was saved by Toby from being killed and scalped. He had been wounded and was lying on the ground. A warrior leaned over him to scalp him, and brave Toby yelled that soldiers were coming. The warriors quickly retreated, and Toby tended to Meacham.

Following this heroic act by Toby, Meacham wrote a play about the tragedy of the Lava Beds War. The play starred Toby, who toured around the country for two years with Meacham, along with her husband Frank and their son Jeff. Meacham also wrote a book about Toby and dedicated it to her:

“This book is written with the avowed purpose of doing honor to the heroic Wi-ne-ma who at the peril of her life sought to save the ill-fated peace commission to the Modoc Indians in 1873. The woman to whom the writer is indebted, under God, for saving his life.”

The traveling play ended in New York. Thereafter, the Riddle family returned to Oregon to settle on the Klamath Reservation. Meacham petitioned Congress to award Toby a military pension for her service to the country as a peace maker, and for her translating services during the Modoc War. In 1891, her military pension was honored, and she received $25 monthly until her death in 1920 from influenza.

Toby is remembered for her courageous actions during her entire life: for rescuing her playmates in the raging river; for marrying a white man; for her language skills; for her role as an interpreter, mediator and peacemaker; as being the first woman honored by a congressional act during war; and the first to receive a military pension.

Toby Winema Riddle is considered one of the greatest Native American women of all time and takes her place in history alongside Sara Winnimucca and Sacajawea.

 

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.

 

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Melissa says:

    Thank you for the information on this amazing and heroic woman. She had true courage.

  2. jim says:

    How interesting. This article paints a picture of a strong woman who did her best to both survive, and to prevent the worst that could have happened to her and her immediate family. I an sure she did her best back then.

    And yet it leaves so very much out of the story. I suggest anyone interested in stories of Native American treatment in the last half of the 19th Century and into the 20th look beyond this nice story.

    Chief Joseph and his people the Nez Perce is a good start. Another source to seek out information on the treatment of Native Americans in our Democratic Republic is the book “Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann.

    Mostly, things don’t turn out so nice as they do for Winema. And they haven’t gotten better since then.

    Unless you really like going to Indian Casinos.

  3. Nadiya Littlewarrior says:

    Well done….thank you

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