Wenona Little Heart, who died on May 10, had family ties in the business, with a stepfather who wrestled, and later, her stepsister, Peggy Lee Leather, followed her into wrestling.
She was born Winfred “Winnie” Childree on September 5, 1955, in Reynolds, Georgia, to Franklin Childree and Martha Jean Taunton.
In a 2018 interview with Matt Riggins, Childree said her parents split when she was in the second grade, her mother would later marry former professional wrestler Dick Barkley, whose surname she adopted during part of her life. Barkley also promoted in Thomasville, Georgia, as a part of Fred Ward’s Atlanta promotion.
Childree attended school in Thomasville until the 11th grade.
At the time Childree had moved away from home and lived with an aunt. She explained the timing: “I wasn’t satisfied with how my life had turned out. I wanted something more for myself… I wanted an adventure.”
It was Dick Barkley who believed his stepdaughter could excel in the profession that he had once made a career, so he called a former acquaintance of his Lillian Ellison, who entertained fans for decades as The Fabulous Moolah. Ellison had an all-girl women’s wrestling school in Columbia, SC.
In 1975, Childree made her way to Moolah’s.
Terri Shane, who started training at Moolah’s a few months earlier, recalled their initial meeting. “The first time I saw Winnie was at Moolah’s Hideaway,” Shane said, referencing the small bar in Columbia, SC owned by Moolah, where many of the lady wrestlers still in training worked part time. “She was sitting at a booth alone drinking a beer through a straw.”
Childree trained for several months before her first match on January 1, 1976, in a 10-girl battle royal in front of her home state crowd at the Atlanta Omni.
“I was taught all the holds, the moves, and how to fall without injuring myself. I stayed sore for quite a while. In fact, some mornings my body ached so much that it was difficult to even get out of bed,” Childree once said.
One of Childree’s many trainers during that time was women’s wrestling Hall of Famer Joyce Grable. “We worked out every day. She listened good. We had good matches, but she couldn’t put it together with others — she was used to me. She got it together and was a very good wrestler.” Grable and Childree roomed together at Moolah’s compound, and then years later in California.
The Wenona Little Heart name came from The Fabulous Moolah, and with it Childree joined a long list of female wrestlers who portrayed Native Americans in the ring, not all of them with true Native blood: Princess Little Cloud (Dixie Jordan), Bonita White Dove (Irene Francisco), Princess Tona Tomah, Princess White Dove (Myrtle Alice Rabbit) and Princess Little Dove, to name just a few.
Wenona, in a fringe vest, with a feather atop her long jet black hair, would enter the ring as a fan favorite. Her popularity upon her debut year was so great she was awarded the Girl’s Wrestling Rookie of Year in 1976, the same year fellow wrestler Sue Green won Girl Wrestler of the year.
Green was an occasional tag partner of Wenona (also spelled Winona), and was also instrumental in helping to train Childree. The pairing of cowgirl and Indian made for a striking pair.
Wenona would travel around the world during her wrestling career to locales including Japan, Mexico, Europe, and Malaysia.
In an interview with The Times and Democrat, of Orangeburg, South Carolina, in 1982, Childree said, “Women wrestlers have to travel a lot more than the men because there just aren’t as many of us to go around.”
Linda Gonzales was her tag team partner during a tour of Malaysia. “I went on tour to Malaysia with Winnie and she was really fun to be around, work with, and travel with. I remember practicing before we went and she showed me a lot in the ring. Malaysia was my first long overseas tour and she would talk to me and calm my nerves because it was scary going to another country for the first time. I remember when we got off the plane in Malaysia; the cameras, news reporters, and a lot of fans were there to greet us. She looked at me and said, ‘Are you ready?’ I said, ‘No,’ and she laughed. She said, ‘Look at everyone like they are in their underwear so you don’t get nervous. I will be right next to you if you need me. You will do fine.’ She was right. That did help my nerves and the three weeks that we were there, she stayed close to me wherever we went.”
Terri Shane noted a preference in Japan that affected Childree. “In Japan, they liked the American girls to have blonde hair.” During one tour Childree dyed her hair blonde and competed under her real name Winnie Barkley, often fighting against Lucy Kayama. The tour also included Leilani Kai, Judy Martin, Vicki Williams, Joyce Grable and The Fabulous Moolah.
Japan wasn’t Childree’s thing. “I didn’t really like Japan. I didn’t understand the language and I didn’t care for the food or their style of wrestling,” she said in 1982.
In 1980, Little Heart traded the NWA United States Women’s Title with Judy Martin, which would be the only singles title of Childree’s career. “When you’re the champion, you make more money. So that was a really enjoyable time in my career.”
In the interview with Matt Riggins, Childree noted that she challenged for the Women’s World title, but never won. “Moolah was the Women’s World Champion and was the best in the business. We went head-to-head many times, but she always seemed to come out on top.”
Around 1985, Winnie left Moolah’s troupe and ventured out on her own, eventually find success teaming with fellow Moolah trainee Luna Vachon, where she was known as Lock — they were the Daughters of Darkness — as members of Kevin Sullivan’s Army of Darkness in Florida.
All Japan Women’s Wrestling Federation sought out the pair for a tour, and Paul “Butcher” Vachon was their manager, and more.
In one of his memoirs, Butcher Vachon talked about acting as the agent for Luna and Lock, bringing him out of his own semi-retirement. “Two weeks later I was in Japan, leading Luna and the Lock by a chain tied to an iron collar they had around their necks, down the main street of the Ginza shopping area with at least 30 or 40 newspaper men, cameramen and photographers snapping away at us,” wrote Vachon. “It had become a great photo opportunity that had us plastered all over that night’s television news and the next morning’s newspaper, also in magazines.”
The run as Lock was Childree’s last real time as a professional wrestler, and she drifted out of the wrestling business.
She married Mark Morrell and they had one son, Mark Morrell, Jr.
After a 14-year career Childree made many friends in the wrestling business.
It had been decades since Childree and Terri Shane had spoken, but hearing that her friend was ailing, Shane reached out. “I spoke to her for the first time in 30 years two months ago, but it felt like it was yesterday. As if no time passed at all, we said we loved each other before hanging up as we always did. It’s really hard, she was larger than life, my precious friend. She had a good heart, too.”
Besides constantly traveling together, Childree was the maid of honor at Shane’s wedding to her husband on April 1, 1977, a wedding and reception that was given at Moolah’s home in Columbia.
Selina Majors, known in the wrestling ring more commonly as Bambi, wrestled against Childree in some of her last matches.
“She should have been called Wenona ‘big heart’ because she was a great person with a huge heart. Never heard one bad thing about her. When I was a kid, I saw her in a battle royal in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Omni. She was awesome and when she would do her Indian dance the crowd would go crazy. She was an awesome tag team with Luna Vachon. They did not get the recognition or push that they deserved. Maybe they were way ahead of their time. Can you imagine a team like them today? She was a true angel in this business.”
To Linda Gonzales, Childree brought happiness. “She always had a smile on her face and it was contagious because you would find yourself smiling with her. She always looked at the bright side of things. Winnie will be missed by so many, especially me.”
Younger than Childree, Velvet McIntyre says the two didn’t know each other well, and only competed against each other a couple of times. The former WWF Women’s champion said that Childree was “a little speed-ball in the ring.”
Peggy Fowler, better known as Peggy Lee Leather, was the stepsister of Winnie. In the 1970s, her mother, Pauline, married Winnie’s birth father, Frank Childree. Winnie quickly became a role model for the young Peggy Lee.
In 1984, Peggy was watching her stepsister wrestle a match in Savannah, Georgia, when her sister’s opponents decided to use some heel antics. “One of her eyes done got gouged,” Peggy recalled. So she leaped from her seat at ringside and ran into the ring to defend her sister. “Three cops grabbed me and threw me out in the rain,” she would recall in a 1995 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
After that, the local promoter told her she had what it took to be a wrestler. Fowler headed to Camp Moolah in 1985.
As her stepsister got progressively sicker, Fowler updated family, friends, and wrestling fans on the progress of her sister’s kidney disease on Facebook.
On April 28th she shared, “I just talked to Winnie’s nurse! She’s doing better today. She’s awake, I could talk to her, but she couldn’t answer. She’s off of sedation, and breathing better on her own. I let her know her dogs are OK, people that know her know how she loves her dogs! I let her know of all the people that are praying for her! The nurse said she was just smiling. Thank you all. Y’all have been awesome! I’ll update in a few days.”
On May 10th however, Fowler shared the sad news with the world: “My heart is breaking, just got the news! Winnie just passed away.”
Winnie was survived by her husband, son, two sisters, and one brother, she was 64 years old.
The final word goes to Childree’s stepsister: “Winnie was a hard worker, when she stepped in the ring, she gave it her all.”