Home  

Potawatomi Oral Tradition


  Navigate this page...
     The Creation of the World
     The Origin of Corn and Other Crops
     The Men Who Visited the Sun
     The Story of a Poor Man
     How the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Ottawa Became One People
     Waoniska: The Making of a Great Warrior
     The Origin of Tobacco
     The Story of Winter Snow
     Turtle Goes to War
     The Adventures of Raccoon
     Related Topics and Resources
 
Culture
History
Nations
Community
 

The Creation of the World

In the beginning of things, there was nothing but water everywhere and no land could be seen. On the waves a canoe floated, and a man sat in it and wept because he had no idea what would happen. After a while, a muskrat climbed up on the canoe and said: "Greetings, grandfather! Why are you crying?" The man answered "I have been here a long time, and I cannot find any land." The muskrat replied, "But there is earth under all this water!" The man asked the muskrat to get him some land, and the muskrat dove down and came up again with both paws full of mud. He dived again and brought up a ball of earth in his mouth. The man did not think this was enough land to live on.

The man asked the muskrat if he was all alone, and the muskrat answered no. The muskrat gave out a call and the animals chiefs of the water swam up to the canoe. The first to come was a white muskrat. "I hear that you want to see us," he said to the man.

"Yes,” answered the man, “I want you to bring me some earth so I can make the world. I will make it a good world where we can all live." The animals agreed and they all began to dive. They all brought up earth, and the man they called Grandfather kneaded the mud that they brought, and molded it into a long column that reached from the surface of the water to the earth beneath it. It showed above the waves, and he kept adding to it. They kept on day after day until it was finally solid and there was a lot of land there. Then the man planted a great tree there. He kept adding to the island.

As the man worked on the north end of the island, he noticed that the ground grew dry and dusty. He asked his animal helpers how they liked what he had made, and they told him that it was a good place to sun themselves. He told them to keep on bringing him earth, and he would make it better. Thus he kept on until the world was completed. Then he told his animal friends that it would be covered with green grass and trees. He took a stick and marked out where he wanted the rivers to run, and then he had the muskrats dig out the channels.

At last the man built a wigwam. When he had it ready the muskrats were close by in a lake, so he went over and planted rushes along the shore for them. Then he got into his canoe and paddled out into the ocean, and called on the muskrats to help him again while he built another world. He built it up until it met the first one. "Now," he said, "I have it the way that I want it."

One day he walked up to the north end of his island and found some people there. He approached them and asked them where they came from. They were the Potawatomi, and they asked who he was.

"I am Wi'saka," he replied. The Potawatomi replied, "Well, we have heard of you, you must have come from above, as we did."

"No," answered Wi'saka, "I have always been here, and I made this earth and all that you can see on it." "Well then," said one, "You must be the Great Spirit." "Yes," answered Wi'saka, "That is who I am. Who can do any more than I have?"

Wi'saka asked the muskrats to dive into the lake and fetch him some tasty roots. When he had plenty he told them to stop, and then he gave the roots to the Indians. They camped beside his lodge and he lent them his cooking utensils. He showed them how to make clay pots and how to cook their food.

Wi'saka showed the people the forest that he had made, and in the woods he showed them how to peel bark and make household utensils like baskets. He showed them how to make string to tie their lodge poles together. He instructed them how to gather and prepare reeds to weave mats, and how to make rush-mat wigwams. The next day he told them that there would be animals in the world, and deer, buffalo, and other game appeared. In this way, Wi’saka made the world right for the Potawatomi.

(Adapted from Alanson Skinner, “The Mascoutens or Prairie Potawatomi Indians, Part III, Mythology and Folklore,” Milwaukee Public Museum Bulletin 6[3]:327-411.)

top

The Origin of Corn and Other Crops

After man was created, he was lonely, so the Creator gave him a sister to keep him company. The man dreamed that five spirits would visit his sister and want to marry her. The dream told him that she should reject the first four and marry the fifth suitor. The first four suitors to arrive were Tobacco, Squash, Melon, and Bean. On being rejected by the girl, they each fell dead. The fifth and last suitor was Mandamin, or Corn. The girl took him for her husband and he buried the other four suitors. From their bodies grew tobacco, squashes, melons and beans. All Indian people are descended from the marriage of the Indian girl and Corn.

(Adapted from Dorothy Moulding Brown, 1940, “Wisconsin Indian Corn Origin Myths,” Wisconsin Archeologist 21[1]:19-27.)

top

The Men Who Visited the Sun

There were once six men who spent a lot of time together. They agreed that they all wanted to go and visit the Sun, so they had a feast and called the tribe together and told them of their plan. They told the people not to be afraid if they did not return quickly, for they were sure to be gone a long time and might perhaps never return. They asked the people to help them with their prayers. Each took a new deerskin suit with the sun marked on the chest and painted the sun on their faces. They also wore a certain feather in their hair. They took tobacco to the chief and told him that they were going to start in four days. The chief agreed and gave his permission, so they gave a feast the next day. On the last day, all was prepared and all had their feathers ready.

The next day they started due east to meet the sun. It rose higher and higher, yet they kept on, until they came to some high mountains where the Sun seemed low. They kept going and in the evening found the place where the Sun rose. They camped there that night and in the morning they caught the Sun, got on it, and talked to it. The Sun asked what they wanted and who had told them where to find him. They replied that the Great Spirit had told them where to find him. "Well, what can I do?" replied the Sun, "I am only put here to furnish the world with light. I cannot even stop to talk to you because I have to travel to the far west today as I do every day."

"We came here to beg for your power," said the leader, "We want to help our people to be happy." "Well," said the Sun again, "Look down and see your people." Far below them they could see a dark patch, and the second man remarked that he was glad that he had come so far with the Sun, and he begged for help. "My brother," said the Sun, "I am put here only for one thing, and that is to give light. Perhaps I can help you in some way, but you must tell me what it is."

Then the man begged for the gift of seeing into the future. Since the Sun was could see where it was going, he could grant this. "All right," said the Sun, "If that is all, I can help. I will put you down in the west where I go through the earth at the end of the day."

Another man asked for everlasting life, saying "I don't want to die. I want to be here to help my people as long as this earth will last." "All right," replied the Sun, "I can do that. I will grant you immortality. When you start back, you will suddenly turn into something which never dies. Your name will be Cedar Tree and you will remain forever with all nations and all people. You will be the first one that they use in their feasts. All peoples will think of you as holy."

"I also want to be immortal," cried another man, "I want to remain with my brother always.” "Let it be so, then," said the Sun. "I will also bless you. You too will be a great help to all your People. You shall be everlasting. You won’t die either, and you and your friend will be changed at the same time." Another asked to be blessed in some way associated with the water, and he later was changed into a merman-half fish and half man.

None of these men really understood what was going to happen to them. They even felt a little jealous of each other and each wished for what the other had received. When the Sun reached its western stopping place, they all climbed off and thanked to him. The last man told the Sun that he desired no change or blessing. He only wanted to remain as the Great Spirit had made him and said that he had only come to see the Sun and help the others.

As they were on their way back, the man who had first asked for everlasting life suddenly said: "Here is where I am to stay!" When the others looked back they saw a great sweet-smelling cedar tree. "Take my leaves and use them for incense at your ceremonies," it said, "and call the cedar tree your nephew when you speak of it."

A moment later the other man who desired immortality cried out, "Here is where I am to stop!" and, behold, they saw a great boulder. The stone spoke to them, saying: "When you are sick, heat a stone and put it where it hurts. You can also make fireplaces of me, and use me in the sweat lodges when you purify yourselves with the Cedar. I asked to be with my friend all the time, so tell the tribe to come and see us from time to time. Let them pray to us and offer us tobacco."

And that is how the Potawatomi got the sacred cedar and the stones they use in their sweat lodges.

(Adapted from Alanson Skinner, “The Mascoutens or Prairie Potawatomi Indians, Part III, Mythology and Folklore,” Milwaukee Public Museum Bulletin 6[3]:327-411.)

top

The Story of a Poor Man

Once there was a poor orphan who was not well brought up. He was respected by no one and never got invited to feasts or ceremonies. Despite this, he managed to get married and went hunting by himself on foot or with his canoe. He usually had very little luck hunting, but once he killed a deer. He built a little shelter to stay overnight, started to cook the deer meat, and sat down to rest with his dog beside him. He smoked and dozed, and after a while he opened his eyes and saw a person standing there.

He looked again and the person vanished. He thought it was strange that his dog had not seemed to notice that anyone was there. The man turned his meat on the fire and, looking up again, saw two men there. They seemed poor and unable to speak. The man greeted them and said, "My friends, you frightened me. I am poor. No one brought me up to know what to do under these circumstances. I would like to know who you are, but I do not know how to ask." The two smiled and nodded to him in a friendly manner, so he went on: "Well, I shall feed you, and do what I can for your comfort." They nodded again. "Are you ghosts?" the hunter asked. Again they smiled and bowed, so he began to broil meat on the coals, as one does for the souls of the dead.

The man was camped right in the middle of an ancient and forgotten cemetery and since the ghosts were there, he thought that might be the case. He offered prayers to the dead and prayed for the safety of his wife and child. He promised to make a feast for these people who were long dead and forgotten and promised to always mention the names of the two visitors, or at least to speak of them.

The next day he killed four bucks and luck went with him wherever he traveled. When he got home, he told his wife what had happened, and how he had been frightened when the two speechless men stood there. He told her to help him prepare a feast for them, although he did not know their names. He hoped that these ghosts would help them to become accepted by society. He invited one of the honorable men of the tribe, and told him of his strange adventure. He explained that he did not know how to go about giving a feast of the dead, and he turned it over to the elder man. The old man said that the poor man had done the right thing, and that the appearance of these ghosts was a good omen. So the feast was held.

A long time passed, and the poor man became a very great hunter, but he never forgot to sacrifice holy tobacco to the two spirits. After a long while, he became one of the leaders of the tribe, and remained faithful to the memory of the two ghosts he had met.

(Adapted from Alanson Skinner, “The Mascoutens or Prairie Potawatomi Indians, Part III, Mythology and Folklore,” Milwaukee Public Museum Bulletin 6[3]:327-411.)

top

How the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Ottawa Became One People

A long, long time ago, the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Ottawa people were enemies. An Ojibwe man had ten children, all boys. He brought them up to be warriors and all ten sons were killed in battle. There was also an Ottawa man who had ten sons who were warriors, and they too were all killed. At the same time, a Potawatomi man had his ten sons killed in raids as well. Each father was left without children. All three men mourned their sons and could not see the point in living any longer. They wandered away from their tribes and into the woods, looking for a place to die.

The Ojibwe man traveled west until he was completely exhausted. As he came to a place to rest, he saw a tree which had a long root running toward the east. The root was as long as a tree is tall, and very thick. He laid down and rested awhile, and then looked towards the south. There he saw another very long root-as long as the one which went to the east-running toward the south. He went to the west and north sides of the tree and found two other roots, each as long as a tree is high. All around the tree, the grass grew long and rich. He walked around the tree until he had come to the east, he realized that the four roots pointed exactly in the four directions.

As he looked up at the tree, he realized that there were also four huge branches, one to the East, one to the West, one to the South and one to the North. The tree had beautiful leaves, but only had these four branches, each extending out as far as the roots. As he examined the tree, he could also see that the tree had a big root that ran straight down into the earth and a huge branch that went up from the center straight to the sky. There were no leaves on that branch until the very top, and then there only a few. All around the tree he could see the blue sky, and there was no wind or breeze.

As the Ojibwe man walked around the tree, he was happy and forgot all of his sorrow at losing his sons. He had never seen so beautiful a place. As he sat there, he heard a noise like someone crying. He looked around, but didn’t see anyone. At last he saw a man walking toward the tree, weeping and mourning just as he had earlier. He saw that the newcomer was an old man, just like him, and that he approached the tree from the south. As the newcomer came to the spot, he saw how beautiful it was and stopped crying. He looked around and noticed all the things about the tree and then he saw the first man. He saw that the man was mourning, and asked him why.

The Ojibwe man, who was sitting at the base of the great tree, said, "I had ten sons and I lost them all in war. I decided I had nothing left to live for and wandered until I came to this beautiful place." The other man, an Ottawa, said, "I did the same as you. I had ten sons and they were all killed and I did not wish to live. I wandered off to die and came to this place."

They talked over the past, and while they were talking they forgot their sorrow and felt happy. While they talked, they heard the noise of a person crying. Far off they saw a man approaching, mourning and crying. It was an old man, about the same age as the other two, and as he walked along wearily. They watched him as he came from the west and approached the west root of the tree. He stopped and examined the root, and he began to notice how beautiful the tree and the place was and wiped away his tears. As he came up to the tree, the Ojibwe man and the Ottawa man asked him who he was and why he was mourning. He answered that he was a Potawatomi and that he mourned his ten sons lost in war. Like them, he had wandered off to die.

They each told their stories and saw that the same thing had brought them to this place. The Ojibwe man said, "It is the will of the Great Spirit that has brought us here to meet."

They all agreed. They walked around and explored the place together, and saw that the air was very still and calm around the tree. It was very quiet and it seemed to them that every word they spoke could be heard by the spirits. Together they said, "The spirits have sent us here to hold council together. There has been too much fighting in our lives."

The Ojibwe man said, "I think I had better go back to my people." The Ottawa man agreed, saying, "Yes, I think it has been wrong for us to fight all the time. We have suffered and neglected our children. It is best for us to go home." And the Potawatomi man said, "All this is true. It is wrong to allow all these people to die because of the fighting between us. We should all go home, and stop the fighting between our tribes and live in peace."

They lit their pipes and smoked, agreeing on what they had said. They talked a long while. As they smoked and talked, the Ojibwe man-having been the first to get to the tree-felt he had a right to speak first. "Our people should unite as one. I will be the eldest brother. And the Ottawa will be our second brother. And you, Potawatomi, will be the youngest brother." They all agreed.

The Ojibwe man said, "My brothers, I will make a pipe and a stem for it. When I get home, I will present it to my people. I will tell them that I had ten children who were all killed in war; but I will wash that away. I will paint the stem of the pipe blue, like the sky, and we will use this pipe when we make peace with other nations."

And the Ottawa man said, "I will do the same. I will remind my people of my sons, and I will have them quit fighting."

The Potawatomi said, “I too will make a pipe of peace. I will call a council of our people and tell them of our resolution, and explain the foolishness of allowing our people to be killed."

The Ojibwe said again, "It is good. Our spirits have brought us together at this point, and have brought us to agreement." They agreed that in ten days they would all meet and bring their tribes to the roots of the tree, and at these roots their tribes would live, each sheltered by one of the great branches. And then they all went their separate ways home.

When he got home, the Ojibwe man took tobacco and put it in his pipe. He was not a chief, only an old man. He took the pipe to the Chief and told him that it was the pipe of peace. The Chief smoked it with him. The old man told all his people to make peace. He told all the head chiefs of different Ojibwe bands to take the pipe, and to tell his story and to explain that the pipe was to be used in friendship. The smoke from the tobacco would soothe and purify their hearts and maintain peace. The older people, who had learned the lesson of peace through their losses, would teach the messages to the younger people, who would carry it on. The same thing happened with the Ottawa and the Potawatomi.

Ten days later, they brought their people to the roots of the beautiful tree. As they all got there, each set up camp on one root of the tree. The Ojibwe man brought a chunk of wood, and so did the Ottawa man and the Potawatomi man. Together, they started a common fire and brought food so they could cook together. As they began cooking, they took tobacco and lit the pipe of the Ojibwe man from the fire they had built together. They were going to offer the pipe to their chiefs to smoke together, but they thought that they should it first offer the pipe to the Great Spirit who had brought them together. They pointed the pipe stem straight up in the air by the tree. Then they pointed the stem to the East and offered it to the spirit of the east. Then they pointed to the south and offered it to the spirit of the south and then to the spirit of the west and lastly to the spirit of the north. Then they turned the stem down toward the central root of the great tree, offering it to the spirit that keeps the earth from sinking in the water.

After this, they offered the pipe to the Ojibwe Chief and he smoked it, and passed it to the braves and warriors. They all smoked. The man of the Ottawa tribe did the same, as did the Potawatomi tribe. After that, they all lived as one people, and said "We will keep this fire to represent our bond with each other, and the Potawatomi will be keepers of this sacred fire.” The three old men made rules for the people to live together, and presented them as a path that their people must follow. From the point at which they met under the tree, they must live always in peace and friendship. From that time forward, they kept their rules and the three tribes lived in peace and intermarried with each other and came to be almost as one people.

(Adapted from Harry H. Anderson, ed., 1992, “Myths and Legends of Wisconsin Indians,” Milwaukee History 15[1]:2-36.)

top

Waoniska: The Making of a Great Warrior

There once was a Potawatomi man who had a large family. One of his sons, Waoniska, was old enough to fast but had not yet done so. He said to the boy, "Why don't you fast?" But Waoniska refused to fast, and wandered off to be with the other boys. If they stayed out after it got dark, he would just stay in the woods instead of going home because he was afraid that his father would insist that he fast. Rather than face his father, he just drifted away and no longer lived at home. /p>

Wherever he went, it always seemed that people talked about fasting, and whenever this happened Waoniska would just leave and go on to the next place. He travelled to a distant village and stayed there overnight, and as soon as his host got up, the man insisted that his children fast. It was that way everywhere he went and among every tribe he visited. He wandered from place to place and it was always the same.

With so much wandering, he got lost, and he eventually grew from a boy into a young man. After much wandering and thinking, he went back to his own tribe. There, all the young boys fasted, and no one would associate with him because of his reputation for not having fasted. No one liked him or would have anything to do with him. Since no one would ask him to go hunting and he had no one to help him take care of himself, he dressed in rags and old clothes that he found and live off of a small amount of corn he could get from someone’s field. He felt so sad and alone that he decided to go back to his parents and try to live the life that they had taught him.

The next morning he started his fast and made his way back to his parents’ village. When he got near their house, the dogs began to bark and one of his little brothers came out and then ran to tell his parents that Waoniska had come back. As Waoniska went in, his father said, "I see by the charcoal on your face that you are fasting. Has a spirit told you to fast?" Waoniska said nothing.

In the morning, he continued his fast. He blackened his face and ate nothing. Every morning after that he fasted. Once he felt he was ready, he took his father's bow and arrow and started off hunting, continuing his fast. At night when he came home he brought a willow stick as tall as he was and hung it up in the wigwam. His father asked what he was going to do with the stick, but Waoniska did not answer. The next morning, he charred the stick in the fire and then set it aside. He picked up his father's bow and arrow again and his father said, "Don't take those." But his mother said, "Leave him alone: he is doing the right thing now," and she made him a pair of moccasins to wear hunting.

Waoniska’s mother was right. From then on, he fasted regularly and hunted and brought home meat for the family.

Some time later, an unsuccessful war party returned to the village. They asked Waoniska to go back with them and lead them because they thought he had special powers. His father told him he was not ready to lead a war party, but Waoniska prepared to go.

The war party started out, and Waoniska carried only his blanket: he did not take bow and arrows or even a knife. As they went along, they killed some buffaloes and Waoniska took one of the buffalo bladders and blew it up and dried it and painted it red. Then he put it on his head. His friends thought this was a little odd, and asked him where his weapons were. Waoniska said nothing, but got a piece of wood and carved himself a war club out of it. He practiced throwing it and his friends also thought this was a little strange. Waoniska told them to stop asking questions, and the older men in the war party agreed, saying that some powerful spirit must be guiding him.

After a while, they came to a large enemy encampment. They saw that they were easily outnumbered, and many felt they should go back without fighting. Their leader wanted to turn back but Waoniska said, “I am not supposed to be the leader, but I will lead you.” And he painted his buffalo bladder and his war club red. He said, “I have fasted many years and have been given power by a spirit. Obey me and stay here, and I will go through the enemy camp and make those people senseless. Then you can all follow me in.” They all agreed to this plan. /p>

The next morning, Waoniska threw his clothes away and painted himself red. He also told all of the other members of the war party to do the same. As they drew close to the enemy camp, Waoniska called on the spirits who had come to him when he was fasting and asked for their help. He told the warriors to walk in a straight line and look only at him. He also told them to make whatever noises he made.

As they began, Waoniska made a huge noise that sounded like "Yaw, Yaw." All of the other warriors did the same. The people in the camp were startled and came out to see what it was. As they saw Waoniska, they dropped to the ground and couldn’t move. Waoniska’s small war party defeated them all. After that, Waoniska became an important leader of his people.

(Adapted from Harry H. Anderson, ed., 1992, “Myths and Legends of Wisconsin Indians,” Milwaukee History 15[1]:2-36.)

top

The Origin of Tobacco

Long ago, when the Potawatomi still lived on the ocean in the east and close to their grandfathers, the Delaware, a old man had a dream that something extraordinary would grow in his garden which was in a clearing he had made nearby. In his dream, he was warned never to let any women approach his farm, so he cut down trees so they fell down over the stumps and made a natural fence. The people of his village grew to suspect that something was going on, but they could see nothing. His uncles and nephews teased him about his garden and asked him how he expected a crop of anything when he had planted no seed. They teased him so much that he became angry, and when everyone else went on the summer hunt in July, the old man stayed at home to tend to his field.

At length, plants sprang up in his garden even though he had not planted anything. The old man did not know what to call the plant, but he hoed it well, and it grew up strong and thick. At last a neighboring Delaware came to visit him, and he showed his friend what he had and explained that it had come as the result of a vision sent by the Great Spirit.

"Why," said the Delaware, "My people have this sacred herb also. One of our number also dreamed of it, the same as you did." "How do you use it?" asked the Potawatomi.

The Delaware answered, "My grandson, if this was a gift to you from the Great Spirit, you ought to know. You should be shown by the Great Spirit how to use it. But if that doesn’t happen by fall, come to me and I will show you how we use ours."

The old man was more puzzled than ever, so he decided to fast and see if the Great Spirit would tell him what he wanted to know. When he had gone without food for two days, the Great Spirit appeared to him and told him to gather the leaves and dry them to pray with, to burn in the fire as incense, and to smoke in his pipe. He was told that tobacco should be the main offering at every feast and sacrifice.

After he had had this dream. the old man went to a place near the sea where there was a hill of soft black stone. He broke off a long rectangular piece, and started to make a pipe. It was very hard to make and he went to his Delaware friend for help. Then they made a pipe stem out of wood. By this time the Delaware saw that his Potawatomi friend had learned the use of tobacco, so he took out his own pipe, filled it with tobacco from his pouch, lighted it and passed it to his Potawatomi friend. The Potawatomi man laughed and said: "I intend to smoke, but I certainly did not understand before." The Potawatomi man had his wife sew a buckskin wrapper around the stem and make him a tobacco pouch. Then he harvested and dried his tobacco.

When the hunters returned from the hunt, the people all went over to see what had grown in the mysterious garden. They were surprised at the peculiar appearance and the strong taste of the broad leaves. No one knew what to call it. The old man soon saw that the people had been taking the leaves from the garden, and he asked the chief to keep them out. So the chief walked all around the village himself, announcing that the people must keep out of that garden and respect its owner on account of his age. "Wait until he is ready to tell us about it," he ordered.

One day the old man gave a feast, and seated the chief on his left. He said, "I am glad that you all have been quiet about my garden, and have listened to my wishes. You all know that it was impossible for me to make this herb, and that it is a gift from the Creator because I did not plant it. We all believe what is given to us in our dreams, and this was given to me in a dream. I dreamed that something was going to grow where I had burned and cleared the earth for a garden, so I fenced it off as though something sacred was there. That was to keep the women away from it, because you know they usually tend the gardens. I fasted for another vision to know how to use this plant and then the Great Spirit appeared and told me how to use this herb in sacrifices, and to place it in the fire and smoke it. I give this feast in honor of the new blessing that is to be with us now for all our lives."

The chief now stood upon his feet and thanked the old man for being so faithful to his dreams. He said, "My people, always think of this man, Wakusha the Fox of the Fox clan, who got this for us. Now I will burn the tobacco, and we will all pray for him. He brought it here, and he will divide it among you all. I want you all to take it and use it when you are hunting. Put it in the fire and tell Our Grandfather the fire where you are going, and for how long. Never leave without telling Our Grandfather these things, and pray to the Great Spirit."

The assembled people all rejoiced and thanked the old man, Fox. Everyone had heard that the Delaware had such a sacred herb, but no one knew what it was until now, when it was given to Fox to pass it on to all Indians. Fox rose once more and said that he would distribute the seeds to everyone, and they were to plant it far off where the women would not come. They were also to set up a pole with leaves left at the top in the middle of the tobacco patch as a sign and a warning to the women to keep away from it.

Cedar leaves were burned and food was blessed by the chief, and all ate the feast thanking the Great Spirit that tobacco had come to them. When they had finished, a man stood up and said that he thanked the Great Spirit, and each person went over and squatted by the fire and burned tobacco and prayed to the Great Spirit. When this was over, they all thanked Fox again and rejoiced over the coming of the tobacco.

Then Fox took his tobacco bag and filled and lighted his stone pipe and said: "This stone pipe I copied from that used by our Grandfather, the Delaware. I have mixed the tobacco with dried sumac leaves, just as he does." He passed the pipe for all to see and smoke, and it was only a few days before everyone had made a similar one of stone or wood.

From that time on, the Indians smoked as part of their prayers. When Whites came, they took up smoking tobacco, but never used it as part of their prayers, which is definitely not what it was intended for when it was given to the Indian people by the Great Spirit.

(Adapted from Alanson Skinner, “The Mascoutens or Prairie Potawatomi Indians, Part III, Mythology and Folklore,” Milwaukee Public Museum Bulletin 6[3]:327-411.)

top

The Story of Winter Snow

Once two Indian boys lived with their grandmother in a wigwam. One day the boys went hunting to get some meat for their grandmother. While they were gone, a stranger came and asked for them and waited for their return. When they came back late at night, they brought a large buck deer which they had killed. Their grandmother cooked some of the venison, and the stranger ate with them. When they were finished, the stranger asked the grandmother’s permission to stay with them for the winter. She agreed. He was a shaman or medicine man, and whenever they went hunting he gave them hunting medicine and they were always very successful.

This man's name was Winter Snow. When spring came, he thanked the grandmother for her hospitality and went away. The young men wanted to go with him and followed him into the woods. One morning after this, the old woman heard a moaning sound outdoors and found that the snow was melting. This sound was made by her grandsons who had been transformed into snow when they followed their friend Winter Snow.

(Adapted from Dorothy Moulding Brown, 1941, “Indian Winter Legends,” Wisconsin Archeologist 22[4]:49-53.)

top

Turtle Goes to War

One time that well known brave, Snapping Turtle, became angry. All the people wondered why he acted so strangely. "Snapping Turtle is very cranky," said the other turtles, "Something must be in the air." One day a messenger came to all of them, calling each to appear at Snapping Turtle's wigwam. All the turtle people were glad, and hoped that this meant that he would be in a good mood, so they came and feasted. Then Snapping Turtle said to the them: "My brothers, I am angry at mankind. I am going to raise a war-party and fight them."

All the turtles agreed that they had received many insults from men, and were ready to go. That night when everyone was asleep, the warriors started out to do battle. They traveled from dawn until dark, and then they rested and slept. One of their number, the little Box Turtle, had a dream of bad omen. This made Snapping Turtle angry. He said that he did not believe in omens, and that he was determined to fight anyway. Each dawn he called on his followers to narrate their dreams of the night before, and each morning they had only bad omens to report. One morning Box Turtle sang this song:

"Oh! Snapping Turtle, I see you now!
They are throwing all of us turtles in a sack!"

"Don't sing that!" hissed Snapping Turtle. But Box Turtle continued to sing, so Snapping Turtle went up to him and kicked him, but found that Box Turtle was singing in his sleep. The blow struck Box Turtle on the chest so hard that it broke his shell, and you can still see the break-the hinge of the shell on his chest-to this very day.

He said, "Next time, Box Turtle, you will sing 'Snapping Turtle is brave and cleans up all the villages wherever he goes.' I don't want you to sing that I get my people thrown into a sack. It is a bad song. Instead, sing that I am the one who makes a clean, sweep wherever he goes, and throws the enemy into hysterics."

Box Turtle was indignant and answered, "I don't want you people put in a sack. This is not my fault. I was asleep, and the dream I sang about came out that way. Who am I to control my dreams?"

Again they started out to war and at last they arrived at an Indian village. The turtles gave their war whoop and charged the village. All the women ran out of the wigwams. "Oh! Look at the turtles," they cried. They all ran for their sacks and threw the turtles in them. Box Turtle was safe because he had been so badly hurt by being kicked by Snapping Turtle that he had fallen behind.

One of the turtles named Painted Turtle was so prettily marked with red that the woman who picked him up hugged him close to her. He bit her and she threw him into the water, where he escaped. The other women carried their captives home, and were very angry about the blow that the one turtle had struck. They had captured Snapping Turtle along with all the other turtles and held a council to decide what to do with him to punish him for attacking them.

One said, "Let's burn him to death, he is our enemy." Snapping Turtle thought "That will be good!"

"No," said the council, "he would like that! He thinks that he will be able to kick the fire all over and thus destroy our lodges."

Another said "Let’s shoot him with arrows." Snapping Turtle said, "Oh yes, that is the best way to kill me!" "No," decided the council, "The arrows will bounce off your shell, and others might be hurt."

Another woman suggested, "Let’s boil him in a big clay pot." And Snapping Turtle answered, "I would be glad to die that way!" "No," announced the council. "He thinks that he will be able to spatter boiling water over us, and scald us to death."

"In that case," said another, "Let us throw him in the river!" At these words, Snapping Turtle and all his followers began to beg for mercy, and plead that they be not drowned. They claimed that this was an awful punishment. The women thought that at last they had hit on the right thing, and tossed every turtle into the lake. But really, those turtles lived in water, and they all escaped. And they would pester the women by messing up all the fresh springs where they went to get their water.

The men of the Indian village couldn’t believe that the turtles had deceived their wives until one day they saw a whole lot of turtles enjoying the sun on a log. The snappers lived in the springs under the mud, and people learned that turtles cannot be drowned.

After their escape, the Turtles held a great victory dance at Snapper's house, and the Red Turtle was the hero, because he had had a victory by biting one of the women when she hugged him. Snapping Turtle and Box Turtle have never been able to get along together since that war-party, and they won’t even live in the same area as each other since then.

(Adapted from Alanson Skinner, “The Mascoutens or Prairie Potawatomi Indians, Part III, Mythology and Folklore,” Milwaukee Public Museum Bulletin 6[3]:327-411.)

top

The Adventures of Raccoon

Once Raccoon was walking along the bank of a stream looking for something to eat. He was very hungry, but he found nothing. At last he came to a water hole, and examined it. He saw tracks at the edge, and followed them until he came to a wigwam. He wondered what it was, so he approached it quietly. He peeped in at the door saw three old blind women cooking at a fire. Raccoon was a little afraid of them, but the food smelled so good that he ran around the lodge and came back again to the door with his mouth watering. He saw them take the pots off the fire and put the food two large wooden bowls. This tempted Raccoon a great deal. He saw them look at the door and look right at him. He didn’t know they were all blind, and he thought that they were very kind not to notice that he was just standing there looking and drooling over their food. He thought to himself, "If anybody else comes, I'll jump behind their bundles," he crept in and snuggled close to them.

The old women began to joke with each other about the days of their youth. "Well," said one, "I must feed my husband." So she set a little dish of food over by the wall. "So will I," said another, and she did the same. Raccoon went over at once and devoured both meals.

After a while, the third woman said, "Well, did your husbands eat their dinners?" One of the old women reached over and felt her bowl. "Oh! No kidding, that food is gone!" she cried. The other did the same, "Oh, indeed! That is no joke, my food is gone too!"

The old women did not know what to make of this. They guessed that some man must have sneaked in and eaten the food. One of them brought out her ceremonial net that the women of the Fish clan use to catch men during their ceremonies and put it over the door. They began to draw it through the house to catch the man, but Raccoon stuck out one of their clay pots and let them catch that. When they felt its weight, they rushed upon it with sticks and beat it and broke it. Then they began to examine it. "Alas," cried one, "We have broken up our earthen pot, and it was older than we are."

Watching his opportunity, Raccoon darted from the house and made off with a full belly, wondering how he could gain entrance again when the old women had calmed down, and still be able to escape. "Oh! Well, no matter," he thought, "Here is the river frozen over. I can play a trick on my brother, Wolf." So he tied a stone onto his tail and trotted off on the ice. When the pebble hit the ice, it make a noise "Tum! Tum! Tum! Tum!" as he ran. Wolf heard the sound, and ran to the river bank to see what it was.

"Oh! There comes my little brother, Raccoon. Where did you get that thing that makes such a sweet sound?" he asked. "Why do you do it?" Raccoon answered "Oh! I do it to wake up the fish. Then they come to me. It is easy, you can do it too, Wolf, so I will give it to you."

"Thank you," answered Wolf, "and when the fish gather, how do you manage to catch them?" "Feel my belly," said Raccoon, "I am full of them." "Oh indeed! You have eaten plenty," said Wolf.

Raccoon said, "It is easy enough to catch them, my brother. All you have to do is to run back to the water hole, stick your tail in it, and when the fish take hold of your tail, wait until you have a big load and then pull them all out."

Wolf followed the instructions his brother, Raccoon. He tied the stone on his tail and ran back to the water hole. He thrust his tail in the water, and when the pangs of its freezing hurt him he thought he was being bitten by the fish, so he stayed there until his tail was completely frozen in. The old blind women came to the hole in the ice for water and found Wolf with his tail frozen in the ice. He was trapped, and they found him there. They thought he was the one who had stolen their food and now here he was squatting on the ice to mess up the place where they got their water! They hit Wolf with sticks and Raccoon ran off laughing with the stone on his tail so he could play a trick on someone else.

Raccoon returned in the spring to visit the old blind women, but there was a man there so he passed on. As it was getting warm, he climbed up a tree to sun himself, and came down stretching and very hungry. He went along until he found an old wormy dead fish. He took some of the maggots and put them in his eyes, and lay down on the river bank pretending he was dead. After a while a couple of crawfish who happened to pass that way discovered him. They ran back and told their chief what they had seen.

"Oh! Chief, that fellow who ate so many of us last year is dead," they announced to him. "Let us hold a dance over his body." The chief was very happy that Raccoon was dead and sent messengers to all of his Crawfish people to tell them that they would hold their Spring dance over the body of their dead enemy. They came from many places and gathered there and began to dance and sing this song:

"Well, here you lie now! You great big fuzzy thing!
You ate and crushed us all up, but now we will show you what you did to us!"

They pinched his eyes, his nose, and his ears, and it hurt him especially when they pinched his buttocks. They kept on rejoicing over him. At last, Raccoon thought that there were enough within reach so he sprang up and crunched them with his jaws. He headed them off and prevented them from escaping by water, and crunched and crunched the Crawfish until he had his belly full again. Then he washed himself. Some of the crawfish that had managed to escape peeped at him from their holes, wondering how he had managed to come to life. There was one very large green Crawfish among them, and Raccoon sprang at him. The crawfish backed into his burrow, and Raccoon thrust his hand in after him, but the crawfish seized it in his claw and made the Raccoon scream. Raccoon had a lame foot for many days after that, and that is the last they saw of him, limping off with a full belly.

Wolf finally got over his anger at Raccoon and called him his brother once again. He and all his tribe searched for Raccoon to make peace with him. Meanwhile Raccoon on his travels as usual, and he found a lot of berries and made a cake of them which he carried with him to give to Wolf as an apology when they met. At last they did meet, and Raccoon put down the cake and got off to one side of the trail. "Where have you been, my brother Wolf?" he asked.

"I have been hunting for food, my brother Raccoon," said the Wolf. Raccoon answered, "Oh! So have I. I haven't had much luck, but I found some berries. Here is a cake of them pounded up, if you would like to try them."

The wolf accepted his invitation and then said, "I have a little lunch set aside too, if you would like to try it." Raccoon cautiously followed Wolf, and found that he also had some berries, but Wolf had pounded his dung up with them. Raccoon ate the berry cake while Wolf rolled over and over and laughed and laughed, because Raccoon got very sick as soon as he discovered what Wolf had done. He vomited and rushed for some water to drink.

As soon as he could speak, Raccoon cried out, "Listen, Wolf! I’ll get you for this!" Wolf didn’t believe this for a minute, and chased Raccoon up a tree. Wolf said, "You have escaped me for now, but I will wait here until you have to come down."

Raccoon went to sleep in the tree, and when he woke up he saw that Wolf had fallen asleep at the bottom of the tree. Raccoon climbed down slowly and quietly, and when he was on the ground, he saw that Wolf was sound asleep and would not wake up easily. He went to a marsh, found some sticky tree gum and plastered it over Wolf's eyes. Then he climbed back up his tree and woke Wolf up.

Wolf sprang up terrified, and bumped into the trees in his efforts to escape. Raccoon offered to help him if they could be friends again, but when Raccoon came down he only plastered Wolf's eyes with the pitch again. Raccoon ran into the water, and Wolf followed, singing: "How deep am I in the water, Wolf that I am?"

When he was within reach, Raccoon sprang upon him and ducked him until he was drowned. Because of this there is a two-legged animal in the water to this day, which the Potawatomi call a merman. He is half fish and half human.

(Adapted from Alanson Skinner, “The Mascoutens or Prairie Potawatomi Indians, Part III, Mythology and Folklore,” Milwaukee Public Museum Bulletin 6[3]:327-411.)

top
 
to MPM front page Ameritech Galleries Archives Resources Go to Previous Page Navigation Bar