As a youngster, Winema was called Nonooktowa, "the strange child", because she had no fear of man or beast. She was strong and athletic, and her early life was adventurous. She successfully hunted grizzly bears, she fought beside the men in battle, she had no fear of Native sacred places and taboos, and she was expert in the handling of canoes - even in white water rapids. She was greatly admired and respected by her own people, and by white settlers in the area.
As a young adult, Winema married a Kentucky miner named Frank Riddle, and was given the white name of Toby Riddle. Tension was high as more and more miners and settlers moved into Modoc land, and Winema worked tirelessly as interpreter, negotiator and peacemaker to avoid war. However, the Modoc were soon forcibly removed from California onto reservation land in Oregon; a move which was never accepted by most of the Natives. Many Modoc fled the reservation in a continuing stream, and government forces who actively pursued them were met with fierce resistance. Winema tried to act as peacemaker to avoid war, and a peace commission was sent from Washington, D.C. to get the Modoc back on their reservation. However, too much treachery had taken place, and there was too much hatred and mistrust. Plans were made to kill the 3 members of the peace commission in defiance of the white government.
When Winema learned of the plot, she rode to the peace camp to warn the commissioners. However, the Army General who headed the delegation brushed her off as a foolish woman. He was killed, as was the second peace commissioner. Though the third commissioner, Albert Meacham, was badly wounded, Winema was able to get him out of the camp and save his life. The conflict which followed is known in history as the Modoc War, and it lasted for many, many months before the Modoc were finally defeated, and the leaders executed.
In spite of the attack and close call on his life, Albert Meacham remained a champion for Native rights and he was determined to tell the full story of the events which led to the Modoc War. He created a lecture-play entitled "Winema", and formed a troupe made up of Winema, her husband, her son and a number of other Modoc. This group had a highly successful tour in the East for 7 years.
Following the successful tour, Winema returned to the Modoc reservation in Oregon where she died at age 84. The Winema National Forest in South Central Oregon is named for her.