Menominee Oral Tradition

Story of Manabush

There once was an old woman called Nokomis (Grandmother) who had an unmarried daughter. The daughter gave birth to twin boys and during the birth, one of the boys died and so did the mother. Nokomis wrapped the surviving boy in soft grass and laid him on the ground at one side of her wigwam and placed a wooden bowl over him to protect him. She buried her daughter and the other grandchild a ways from her wigwam. She mourned them for four days and at the end of that she heard a small sound in the wigwam, and it was coming from underneath the wooden bowl. The bowl moved, and suddenly she remembered her little grandchild, whom she had forgotten in her mourning.

Lifting up the bowl, she saw a little white rabbit with quivering ears, and she picked it up, saying "Oh! My dear rabbit, my Manabush." She loved the rabbit and it grew. One day, the rabbit sat up and hopped slowly across the wigwam, causing the earth to tremble. The spirits underneath said to one another, "What was that? A great spirit has been born somewhere." To protect their own power, they began to scheme how to be rid of Manabush.

As Manabush grew up to be a young man, he thought about how he could prepare himself to assist his uncles, the people. He said to Nokomis, "Grandmother, make me two sticks, so that I can sing." Nokomis made the sticks, then Manabush left the wigwam and built a larger longhouse near the wigwam. He began to sing, calling his uncles together, and told them that he would give them the Medicine Lodge and the Medicine Dance so they could cure diseases. He saw that they were hungry, so he gave them plants for food. He also gave them medicine bags made from the skins of mink, weasel, rattlesnakes, and the panther. Into each of these bags, he put samples of all the medicines, and taught the people how to use them. Manabush lived for many years after this and taught the Menominee many useful things.

(Adapted from W.J. Hoffman, 1890, "Mythology of the Menomini Indians," American Anthropologist 3[3]:243-58.)

Manabush and his Brother

When Manabush had accomplished the works which the Great Spirit had sent him to do, he moved far away and built his wigwam on the northeast shore of a large lake. Since he was alone, the spirits wanted to give him a companion in the form of his twin brother. The spirits brought his brother to life. Manabush's brother looked like a human being, but could also assume the shape of a Wolf, which he used when he hunted. Since Manabush had always been aware of the jealousy of the evil spirits from under the earth and the water, he warned his brother the Wolf never to return come home across the lake but rather to always go around it by shore. One day, after the Wolf had been hunting all day, he found himself directly across the lake from his wigwam, and so he decided to cross directly over the frozen lake. When he was partly across the lake, the ice broke and he fell through. He was seized by the bad underwater spirits and destroyed.

Manabush immediately knew what had happened to his brother, and he mourned his brother for four days. Every time Manabush sighed, it made the earth tremble, forming the hills and valleys. The spirit of his brother the Wolf appeared before Manabush, and Manabush realized that his brother would not return to him. He told the wolf's spirit to go to the west to become the chief of all the departed spirits. Sadly, Manabush gave up his home by the lake and hid himself inside a large rock near Mackinaw.

For many years, the people would visit Manabush there and hold the Medicine Dance which he had taught them. And when Manabush wanted to interact with the people but did not want to show himself in human form, he appeared to them in the shape of a little white rabbit with trembling ears, just as he had appeared to Nokomis when he was a baby.

(Adapted from W.J. Hoffman, 1890, "Mythology of the Menomini Indians," American Anthropologist 3[3]:243-58.)

The Origin of Fire and the Canoe

When Manabush was still young, he once said to his grandmother Nokomis, "Grandmother, we have no fire and it is cold in here. Let me go and get some fire." Nokomis tried to make him forget the idea of getting fire because it was dangerous, but Manabush insisted.

Manabush knew he had a long journey ahead, so he made a canoe made of bark -- the very first canoe. He took on the shape of a rabbit so he wouldn't be recognized and started east across a large body of water. He knew that there was an old man living on an island who had fire. As Manabush in the form of a Rabbit approached the island; it was still dark, and he pulled his canoe ashore and hopped along until he came to the wigwam of the old man. The old man had two daughters, who came out of the wigwam and saw the little Rabbit, all wet and cold. They picked him up and took him inside, setting him down next to the fire to get warm.

The girls went about their evening duties while the Rabbit sat by the fire. He hopped a little nearer to the fire to try to pick up a coal but as he moved, the earth shook and disturbed the old man, who was napping in the wigwam. "What was that?" said the old man. The daughters said it was nothing, and told him that they were only trying to warm up the poor little rabbit they had found. When the girls went back to their work, the Rabbit grabbed a burning stick and ran out of the wigwam, going as fast as he could back to the place where he had left his canoe. The girls and the old man dashed out of the wigwam chasing the Rabbit who had stolen the fire.

The Rabbit reached his canoe safely and pushed off into the water, leaving the old man and his daughters on shore. He paddled as fast as he could toward his grandmother's home. The air rushing past the canoe made the stick burn fiercely, and by the time he reached home, Nokomis could see that his fur was badly burned in several places. She took the burning stick from him and made a fire with him, and then dressed his wounds so his fur would grow back.

(Adapted from W.J. Hoffman, 1890, "Mythology of the Menomini Indians," American Anthropologist 3[3]:243-58.)

Grasshopper and the Origin of Tobacco

One day, Manabush was walking past a high mountain when he smelled a delightful fragrance which seemed to be coming from a crevice in the cliffs. He went closer and found that the mountain was home to a Giant who was known to be the keeper of tobacco. Manabush found a cavern in the side of the mountain and went inside, following a passage which led into the center of the mountain where the Giant lived. The Giant asked Manabush very sternly what he wanted. Manabush answered that he had come for some tobacco, but the Giant told him that the spirits had just been there for their smoke. Since the ceremony only happened once a year, the Giant told Manabush to come back in a year. Manabush found this difficult to believe, because when he looked around the Giant's cavern, he saw bags and bags of tobacco all around it. So he snatched one of the bags and dashed out of the mountain, closely pursued by the Giant. Manabush reached the top of the mountain and leaped from peak to peak. The Giant followed him closely, and when Manabush reached the edge of a cliff, he fell down flat and the Giant leaped over him and fell over the cliff and into the chasm.

The Giant was badly bruised, but managed to climb up the face of the cliff, where he hung at the top with all of his fingernails torn off. Then Manabush grabbed the giant by the back and threw him to the ground and said, "For your stinginess, you will become the Grasshopper, and everyone will know you by your stained mouth. You will become a pest and bother all those who raise tobacco."

Then, Manabush took the tobacco home and divided it among the people and gave them the seed so they could grow it themselves and use it for offerings and blessings.

(Adapted from W.J. Hoffman, 1890, "Mythology of the Menomini Indians," American Anthropologist 3[3]:243-58.)

Manabush and the Birds

Once, Manabush was walking along the shore of a lake and saw a long narrow sand bar surrounded by all kinds of waterfowl. He was tired and hungry, so he was very interested in the waterfowl. He was not carrying his bow and arrows and instead had only his medicine bag, and he wasn't sure how he could hunt or trap the waterfowl. He walked back into the woods and hung his medicine bag on a tree and collected a lot of tree bark which he rolled into a bundle and took back with him to the shore. He walked slowly along within sight of the birds and pretended to pass by them. Some of the swans and ducks moved away from the shore. They recognized Manabush and were afraid of him.

One of the swans called out to him, "Manabush, where are you going?" He replied, "I am going to sing. As you see, I have all my songs with me written on this bark." Manabush then called out, "Come, my brothers, let's sing and dance." The birds agreed, because they liked to sing and dance, and swam to shore. Together, they all went a little way from the lake to an open space where they could dance.

Manabush put his bundle of bark down, got out his singing sticks, and said to the birds, "Now, I will drum and you can dance! All of you sing as loudly as you can and keep your eyes closed. The first bird to open his eyes will always have red, sore eyes." Then Manabush beat time on the bundle of bark while the birds, with their eyes closed, circled around him singing as loud as they could. Beating time with one hand, Manabush suddenly caught a swan by the neck, but before he could kill it, the bird screamed, and Manabush said, "That's right --  sing as loud as you can." As Manabush continued drumming, he also caught and killed the birds.

One bird, a grebe, realized that they were not singing as loudly as they had, and opened his eyes to see Manabush and the heap of his bird victims and cried, "Manabush is killing us! Manabush is killing us!" The grebe ran for the water, followed by the other birds. Since the grebe is a poor runner, Manabush soon caught him and said, "I won't kill you, but you will always have red eyes!" Manabush gave the grebe a kick and knocked off his tail, and that's why the grebe looks as he does.

Manabush then gathered up all the birds he had killed by his trick and carried them out onto the sandbar. He buried them there, with some with their heads sticking out of the sand and some with their feet sticking out. He built a fire to roast the birds in the sand, but since this would take a long time, he decided to take a nap. He slapped his thigh and told it to be on the lookout in case someone should come near the birds and try to steal them while they were cooking. Then he laid down with his back to the fire and went to sleep.

Some time later, a party of Indians came along in their canoes. Seeing the birds roasting and Manabush fast asleep, they quietly took all the birds and put the heads and feet back the way they had found them. Then they paddled quietly away. A little while later, Manabush woke up. He was very hungry, and was looking forward to enjoying the roast birds. He grabbed one of the baked swans by its neck but got nothing but the neck and the head. He tried all the others and found the same.

Then he struck his thigh and said, "Who has robbed me of my feast? Didn't I tell you to keep watch in case anyone came?" And his thigh answered, "Yes, but I fell asleep too because I was tired, but I did see some people paddling away quickly in their canoes. They were probably the thieves." Then Manabush ran out to the point of the sandbar and saw the people paddling away in their canoes and laughing at him for the trick they had played on him.

(Adapted from W.J. Hoffman, 1890, "Mythology of the Menomini Indians," American Anthropologist 3[3]:243-58.)

The Origin of Night and Day

One time, Manabush (the Rabbit) was traveling through the forest and came to a clearing on the bank of a river. He saw the Saw-Whet Owl perched on a twig, but it was almost dark and Rabbit could not see very well. He said to Saw-Whet, "Why do you like it dark? I don't like it to be dark, so I will make the daylight." Then the Saw-Whet said, "If you think you are strong enough, then do it. But let us have a contest to see who is stronger and whoever wins can have it the way that he likes."

Then Rabbit and Owl called all the animals and birds together. Some wanted Rabbit to win so that it would always be light. Others liked the dark and wanted Saw-Whet to win.

The contest began. Rabbit began repeating, "Light, Light," while Owl kept repeating, "Night, Night." If one of them make a mistake and said his opponent's word, he would lose. So Rabbit kept saying, "Light, Light," and Saw-Whet continued, "Night, Night." The birds and animals cheered on their heroes. Finally, Owl accidentally repeated Rabbit's word "Light" and he lost the contest.

Rabbit decided that it should be light, but he also decided that night should have a chance for the benefit of the loser and all of the animals and birds he represented. This pleased everyone.

(Adapted from "Some Menominee Indian Folk Tales," 1974, Manitowoc County Historical Society Monograph 23: 6-8.)

Manabush and the Tree Holders

Manabush was once traveling along carrying his kettle. He saw a moose and killed it, and then cooked it in the kettle. When it was done, he took the meat out of the kettle to cool. While he was waiting, he heard a noise up above him. He called out, "Stop your noise while I'm eating!" It did not stop, and he went outside to look and saw that it was only two trees rubbing together in the wind. The trees would not stop their noise, so Manabush climbed up to make it quiet. He tried to pull the limbs apart, but got caught between them and could not escape. As he looked around him, he saw a pack of wolves coming and called out, "Come here, brothers! Come here! Don't go into my house!"

The wolves began to laugh and smile at one another. "Perhaps Manabush has something in the house that he doesn't want us to see," thought the wolves. They hurried into the house and saw all of the moose meat all cooked and laid out, ready to eat. They ate it all up and ran away laughing, leaving Manabush stuck in the tree.

As soon as they were gone, Manabush twisted and turned and managed to free himself. He ran back into the house, but of course there was nothing left from the wolves' feast but the bare bones of the moose. So, Manabush packed his kettle on his back and started off to see if he could find another moose. It was very windy and he left the forest to get out into the open. When he got there, he saw a great crowd dancing and whooping. Manabush loved to dance so he threw down his kettle and joined them and danced until he was tired. He lay down and fell asleep. When he woke up, he realized that he had not been dancing with a group of Indians at all! What he thought were Indians were just reeds by the lake. He packed his kettle on his back and started off again.

(Adapted from Alanson B. Skinner and John Satterlee, 1915, "Folklore of the Menomini Indians," Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History XIII:217-542.)

The Origin of Corn

The Menominee did not have corn and squash until after their animal ancestors became human. Once, a holy man had a vision in which he was told to go to war. He gathered the young men and they set out as they were directed in his dream. The leader had another dream which told of a gift intended for them. In the morning, after he had eaten, he cut up some tobacco, and told his men to fill their pipes and smoke. After they had smoked, her told the other warriors of his dream that they would travel through the day and find a gift at noon.

They set out, wondering what they could find. When the sun was directly overhead, they looked about but did not know what they were looking for. At last the leader saw something standing on the plains. He and his men hurried to the spot and found something unlike anything they had ever seen before. "This is corn," said the leader. "We will call it Wapi'min (white kernel). The others agreed that they had heard of it and that it was good to eat, and they all tasted it.

It was good, and they brought home some seed. When they got home, they waited until spring and planted the corn so it could grow. This is how the Menominee got corn.

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

The Origin of the Dream Dance

Some Sioux people lived at the edge of a lake. While they lived there, some soldiers came to fight them. To escape them, a woman took her child on her back and ran down to the lake to hide in the water. There were many reeds at the edge of the lake, and she went there and hid in the water. She lay for four days in the water while her people were killed and she hid from the soldiers. The soldiers were camped by the shore of the lake, and she could get nothing to eat. At night, she nursed her child to keep it from crying, and by day, she could only keep their mouths above water to prevent the soldiers from finding them.

After four days in the water, a Spirit came to her. It told her to get out of the water and go among the soldiers and eat. The Spirit made sure that the soldiers would not see her. She got out of the water and went to the place where the soldiers were eating. She sat down and ate with them and they did not see her. When she was finished eating, she went outside. A metal washtub was lying by the door.

The Spirit told her to take the washtub back to her people and to instruct the men to kill a deer and prepare the hide to use as a drum head. It also told her that when the drum was completed, the men should dance together around it while the women could sing along but not dance and prepare food so the men could eat after the dance. The Spirit told her that if the people were faithful to the drum and did not fight the soldiers, then they would live. The same peace that they kept with the soldiers they should keep with each other, and from that point forward, there should be no fighting among the different Indian tribes who followed the Dream Drum.

(Adapted from Leonard Bloomfield, 1928, "Menomini Texts," Publications of the American Ethnological Society Vol. XII, 105-107.)

Porcupine's Revenge

One day, some Menominee girls found a porcupine sleeping in the woods at the base of a tree. They tried to wake up the porcupine by calling him names and insulting him, but he continued to sleep. They picked up some sticks and began to poke at him and beat him. This woke the porcupine up and he was angry. He ran away but used his magic power to punish them. As he ran, snow began to fall. Soon the girls could no longer see the path and became lost. They were exhausted and sank down in the snow and froze to death. This is how the porcupine had his revenge for they way they had mistreated him.

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

Fox Plays a Trick

Once, Fox and Wolf were traveling in the winter. The only food they had with them was a birchbark basket full of maple sugar. They came to a frozen lake, and Fox suggested that some fish would go very well with the sugar they had. They cut a hole in the ice and Fox suggested that Wolf use his tail for bait and stick it down through the hole in the ice. The fish would bite his tail and then he could toss them up on the ice by flicking his tail. So Wolf put his tail down into the water and waited for the fish to nibble at it. But it was so cold that the ice froze around his tail and he could not pull it out. While Wolf was trying to get his tail free, Fox ate up all of the maple sugar and ran away.

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

How Dogs Came to Live with the Indians

We often hear the saying that the dog is man's best friend. But before the dog came to live with humans, it belonged to the dog family, and there among the wolves the dogs had to do all the errands. One cold day, the wolves ordered the dog to go to a man's wigwam to get fire. This was the only place that the wolves knew that they could get fire but it was very dangerous for any wolf to go there. The wolves had often gone to Indian villages to get fire, but they would always drop the coals and the humans would get the fire back. Or as they carried a burning stick it would burn brighter and they would have to drop it or otherwise be singed by the flames.

The dog knew all this and decided that it would be a very difficult job to get fire from humans. So the dog decided that he would just pretend to try to steal fire from humans but not really go through with it. But the dog knew that if he failed in the mission to get the fire, life with the wolves would be unbearable, and instead he decided he would just leave the wolves and go live with the humans.

The dog left the wolves' country and went through the forest to the Indian village. He saw smoke coming out of the smokeholes of the wigwams and went toward one of the houses. He stood in the doorway and looked inside, and realized that the hunters were not home --  only the women and children were there. The people had always feared the wolves, so the dog decided that it would be good to show that he himself was afraid of the humans. So he lowered his tail and his head and looked up at the people with his eyes wide to show that he was afraid of them, and crept over to the fire and lie down.

The dog was lucky, because the man who lived in the wigwam had often dreamed of wolves, and had in fact dreamed that he would receive a gift from the wolves. In his hunting, he had also appealed to the Wolf spirit and been assisted by it to feed his family. When he returned to the wigwam and saw the harmless wolf dog lying there by his fire, he decided to make friends with him. Remembering his dreams, the Indian man told the dog that they would be brothers forever, and to prove this, he would take the dog as his companion when he went hunting for his family and share the meat that they got together.

(Adapted from Phebe Jewell Nichols as told by Chief Reginald Oshkosh, n.d., Tales From An Indian Lodge: Menominee Indian Reservation, Wisconsin.)

The Master of Night

There is a little man who is three or four feet high and who looks like a human being but is invisible. He may be a spirit or he may serve a spirit, but in any case, he does only one kind of work:  He is the master of night and is the one who brings sleep to human beings.

When dusk comes, he goes to work. His magic works well on some, and they cannot help but fall asleep easily. He stares at a person and they cannot help but fall asleep. For those who are already in their beds, he knocks them on the head with something soft like a pillow. He visits babies first, and then the children, and then on up to the old people. It is said that those who are struck by the master of night live to a very old age.

(Adapted from Alanson B. Skinner and John Satterlee, 1915, "Folklore of the Menomini Indians," Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History XIII:217-542.)

Beaver and Muskrat

In the beginning, Beaver was jealous of the fine, flat tail that Muskrat had. Beaver had only a very skinny tail, and he did not think it was very attractive. When Muskrat dove in the water, he could slap his tail and make a big noise and scared people and the other animals. So Beaver begged and coaxed Muskrat over and over, and called him his dear little brother, and asked him to trade tails for a while so Beaver could see what it was like to have a broad, flat tail. At last, Muskrat agreed, but Beaver cheated him and never gave Muskrat back his broad, flat tail. Now Muskrat has the skinny tail and is jealous of Beaver.

(Adapted from Alanson B. Skinner and John Satterlee, 1915, "Folklore of the Menomini Indians," Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History XIII:217-542.)

How Women Were Given Menstruation

Manabush was jealous of the attention the Bear showed to Nokomis, his grandmother. One day when he returned, he noticed his grandmother had combed her hair and put on clean clothes. He suspected that someone had been there, but she made no reply, which satisfied him. He went into the woods on the following day and again, when he returned, grandmother had combed her hair and put on clean clothes. This went on for several days. Manabush suspected that it was the Bear who was visiting his grandmother, so he waited near the wigwam very quietly. Soon he heard the Bear coming along the trail, snorting and grunting. He made straight for the wigwam and entered it.

Manabush was furious. He got a piece of dry birchbark and lit it. With the torch in his hand, he crept up to the door of the wigwam, pulled the cover aside and saw the Bear with his grandmother. He threw the torch at the Bear and struck him on the back, just above the groin. Frantic with pain, the Bear rushed out into the woods and down the hill to the stream. But the flames kept burning him and finally he dropped dead. When Manabush came up to the dead body, he carried the carcass back to his grandmother's wigwam and said, "Here, grandmother, I have killed a bear; now we can have something to eat."

His grandmother asked him how he killed the Bear, but he just mumbled something, not wanting her to know how the Bear had been killed.

Then, Manabush cut up the Bear and offered a piece to his grandmother, but she refused, saying, "No, my grandson, I cannot eat this. He was my husband." Angry, Manabush caught up a clot of the Bear's blood and threw it at Nokomis, hitting her in the abdomen. She replied, "For that act, your aunts will always have trouble every moon." And that is why Indian women menstruate every month.

(Adapted from Robert E. Ritzenthaler and Pat Ritzenthaler, 1983, The Woodland Indians of the Western Great Lakes, Prospect Heights IL: Waveland Press.)

The Moon

Once, the Sun and his sister, the Moon, lived together in a wigwam in the east. The Sun dressed himself to go hunting and took his bow and arrows and left. He was absent such a long time that when his sister came out into the sky to look for her brother, she became alarmed. She traveled 20 days looking for the Sun. Finally he returned, bringing with him a bear which he had shot.

The Sun's sister still comes up into the sky and travels for 20 days. Then she dies, and for four days nothing is seen of her. At the end of that time, however, she returns to life and travels 20 days more.

(Adapted from Robert E. Ritzenthaler and Pat Ritzenthaler, 1983, The Woodland Indians of the Western Great Lakes, Prospect Heights IL: Waveland Press.)

The Catfish

Once, when the Catfish were assembled in the water, an old chief said to them, "I have often seen a moose come to the edge of the water to eat grass. Let us watch for him and kill and eat him. He always comes when the sun is a little way up in the sky."

The Catfish who heard this agreed to go and attack the moose. They were scattered everywhere among the grass and rushes, then the moose came slowly along picking grass. He waded down into the water, where he began to feast. The Catfish all watched to see what their old chief would do, and presently one of them worked his way slowly through the grass to where the moose's leg was, when he thrust his spear into it. Then the moose said, "What is it that has thrust a spear into my leg?"

Looking down he saw the Catfish; he immediately began to trample on them with his hoofs, killing a great number of them, while those that escaped swam down the river as fast as they could. The Catfish still carry spears, but their heads have never recovered from the flattening they received when they were trampled into the mud by the moose.

(Adapted from Robert E. Ritzenthaler and Pat Ritzenthaler, 1983, The Woodland Indians of the Western Great Lakes, Prospect Heights IL: Waveland Press.)