Oral Tradition

The Role of Oral Tradition

Oral tradition is important in all societies, despite the reliance of some cultures on written records and accounts. These traditions account for the ways things are and often the way they should be, and assist people in educating the young and teaching important lessons about the past and about life. Because many oral traditions are highly structured and are told faithfully without alteration, they can be as reliable as other non-oral ways of recording and passing on experiences. While oral traditions can vary from teller to teller, variations are also open to contradiction in the same ways that written accounts are. In this way, the force of oral tradition can continue through generations although small details in the telling may change. Because of this, oral traditions which relate past events and have been passed down through time cannot be dismissed simply as “myth” in the sense that Western society polarizes the differences between “myth” and “science” or “fact.” Ideas about truth, rationality, logic, causality, and ways of knowing the world are contextualized within all societies; they are entirely valid within their cultural contexts and should be respected as such.

Types of Oral Traditions

Oral traditions can be categorized into different types, including legends, myths, folktales, and memorates. A memorate is an account of a personal experience or encounter with the supernatural, such as a ghost story or other expression of the spirit to a human being. Legends are oral traditions related to particular places and often involve culture heroes, witches, ghosts, or some other phenomenon related to that place. They can involve the recent or distant past, but are most important in linking people and the land. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is exactly that: an account of events which happened in a particular place. Myths are those accounts which portray the earliest possible time, including creation stories. Other myths account for the organization of the world and society, for instance how men and women were created and why they are different from one another. Because of their power to dictate how things should be, myths can be very powerful in shaping and carrying on traditions in a society. In contrast to other types of oral traditions, folktales are acknowledged as things which did not really happen, but are useful stories for providing moral or social lessons or for amusement. “Once upon a time” stories, which involve fictional characters, such as Hansel and Gretel, are folktales. Within oral traditions, a culture hero is a human or superhuman who figures prominently in the traditions of that society and whose life, deeds, and adventures are important to shaping the way things are. For many Native American societies, the culture hero was often both the source of good things in life (who brought agriculture, taught hunting, etc.) and a trickster or fool who delighted in showing people that they were not as important or as smart as they thought they were.

Oral Tradition in the Great Lakes Region

The oral traditions of the Great Lakes tribes have many characteristics in common, including the role of the trickster. Because of their close involvement with nature and the things around them in the forests, Great Lakes people have oral traditions which involve many different animals, many of whom had magical characteristics because of their relation to the supernatural or to the culture hero.

Great Lakes Indian myths recounted not only the origin of the people, their clans, and the world, but also were a means of emphasizing religious values, ethical attitudes, and educational patterns. Like similar stories from other cultures, some of these stories are considered sacred and can only be told within specific contexts or to specific individuals who already have the requisite knowledge to understand them and pass them on. For many Native cultures, oral traditions which fall into the categories of folktales, memorates, and legends can be told by anyone and can, where appropriate, be told to and related by children and younger tribal members. However, some myths can only be related by and to adults who have reached a certain age and level of experience. In some cases, particular myths can only be told by someone who is considered an elder in that society. Because of these limitations, Native people carefully guard some oral traditions, and thus they are not suited for presentation to younger or public audiences. For instance, relating the creation myth was an intrinsic part of the Midewiwin or Medicine Lodge rite by which individuals were initiated into a healing religious circle and learned the ways of that medicine society. By the very power believed to be released through its telling, the creation story helped to heal, cure, prolong life, and ward off evil. Because of its use in this special situation, telling the creation story and other equally significant myths in different settings may devalue their importance.


Stories told in social situations were narrated during long winter nights, and these types of oral traditions served as entertainment for children and adults. The Ojibwe believed that since snakes and frogs were considered evil, they were not permitted to listen to stories, and so some types of oral traditions were related only when these animals were hibernating, that is, in the winter. All requests for stories were accompanied by a gift of tobacco. The Ho-Chunk carried this even further: The person qualified to relate the origin myths of his clan could refuse to tell them until he had received the requisite gifts, sometimes including a horse, clothing, food, beads, and blankets. Having transferred the myth to another person, he would later announce at a feast that the recipient was now empowered to tell his clan's origin in the future, but that he must be approached in the proper way and with the proper gifts. It was the duty of every Ho-Chunk to try to learn the origin of his clan.

Good storytellers were esteemed for their excellence as dramatic entertainers, and their reputations traveled far. Some myths were long, often taking many hours to relate, and were often full of repetitious phrases that were well known to the listeners. It is not unusual for a story to come to an abrupt halt rather than a finished ending, occasionally with use of a phrase such as, "That is as far as the story goes," or "That is the way they tell it."

The Great Lakes Spirit World

The world of the Great Lakes Indians was filled with a host of spirits (manido; plural manidog), which inhabited trees, plants, birds, animals. Great Lakes oral traditions are full of anthropomorphic animals, birds, and fish that became the totems of various clans. The otter, muskrat, skunk, ermine, beaver, loon, heron, Canada jay, sturgeon, crawfish, catfish were all well known to the Great Lakes tribes through their mythic behavior. In particular, the bear played an extremely significant role in Midewiwin myths. Cosmic phenomena were also considered spirits, including the sun, the moon, thunder, lightning, the four winds, and the thunderbirds. Offerings of tobacco were made constantly to protect the peoples’ health, assure their safety in storms, plead for help from the manidog, or express their gratitude for past favors.

In addition to the benign spirits, the Native world was peopled with a throng of fearsome ones: ghosts, the Water Monster, and the Windigo, a cannibalistic giant who stalked the winter woods in search of people to devour. In another category, there was the culture hero and demigod, Wenebojo (the Ojibwe term; called Manabush by the Menominee, and by other names in other Algonkian dialects). Wenebojo’s grandmother was the Earth, and he had a dual role of trickster and bringer of good things. It was he who taught the Indians about maize, tobacco, knowledge and use of medicinal plants, and the religious rites of the Midewiwin. He also saved them from storms, and often played tricks on them. He had no compunction about killing either Indians or animals to further his own ends, but by prodigious feats of magic he could also bring them back to life. Wenebojo’s younger brother was nearly always a wolf (called Chibia'bos by the Potawatomi), the spirit who guided the souls of the dead on the four-day journey.

Stories involving the culture hero Wenebojo admonished the people to "live the right kind of life," but when they related the foolish pranks or risqué behavior of Wenebojo (the Ojibwe name), the moral was that a good Indian did not behave in an unacceptable manner. Sometimes Wenebojo was described as foolish. The name for him in Ottawa, Manabush, means “fool,” although the same name in Menominee means "great rabbit," referring to the mighty deeds he performed. Woodland Indian humor is perhaps at its best in the Wenebojo stories, and humorous passages in these oral traditions never failed to provoke laughter among listeners, although they had heard them before. In these stories, there are many relaxed and ribald references to body parts and bodily functions, and Native people identified with Wenebojo precisely because he exhibited human characteristics and failings.

Some tales related instances of physical prowess while others accounted for natural phenomena. Stories concerning cannibalism are not uncommon, and could have had their origin in fact. Fear of starvation was ever present among Great Lakes people who had to work so hard to survive. Other stories mentioned giants and “little people,” and often someone -- an Indian, one of the animals, or the culture hero himself -- who possessed the magical power to make himself smaller or larger or to bring himself back to life after being killed.

Windigo Stories

Oral traditions of the windigo were important to the Great Lakes tribes. The windigo was an ice monster who came in the winter to devour the Indians, but was often thwarted in his attempts by a little girl and her dog, or in some cases a kettle of boiling tallow which, when poured over the windigo, reduced him to a tiny core and made him vulnerable to assault. The windigo stories were very popular, and it was believed that the frightening creature that stalked the winter woods could be an Indian in disguise. Any stranger who came to the village was closely watched for fear he might be a windigo. The children even made a game out of all this, one acting as the ice monster disguised with leaves on his head with the others searching out his hiding place.

Windigo (Wisconsin Ojibwe)

One winter, a newly married couple went hunting with the other people. When they moved to the hunting grounds, a child was born to them. One day, as they were gazing at him in his cradleboard and talking to him, the child spoke to them. They were very surprised because he was too young to talk. "Where is that manidogisik (Sky Spirit)?" asked the baby. “They say he is very powerful and some day I am going to visit him.”

His mother grabbed him and said, "You should not talk about that manido that way."

A few nights later, they fell asleep again with the baby in his cradleboard between them. In the middle of the night the mother awoke and discovered that her baby was gone. She woke her husband and he got up, started a fire, and looked all over the wigwam for the baby. They searched the neighbor's wigwam but could not find it. They lit birchbark torches and searched the community looking for tracks. At last they found some tiny tracks leading down to the lake. Halfway down to the lake, they found the cradleboard and they knew then the baby himself had made the tracks, had crawled out of his cradleboard and was headed for the manido. The tracks leading from the cradle down to the lake were large, far bigger than human feet, and the parents realized that their child had turned into a windigo, the terrible ice monster who could eat people. They could see his tracks where he had walked across the lake.

The manidogisik had 50 smaller manidog or little people to protect him. When one of these manidog threw a rock, it was a bolt of lightning. As the windigo approached, the manidog heard him coming and ran out to meet him and began to fight. Finally they knocked him down with a bolt of lightning. The windigo fell dead with a noise like a big tree falling. As he lay there he looked like a big Indian, but when the people started to chop him up, he was a huge block of ice. They melted down the pieces and found, in the middle of the body, a tiny infant about six inches long with a hole in his head where the manidog had hit him. This was the baby who had turned into a windigo. If the manidog had not killed it, the windigo would have eaten up the whole village.

Another common windigo story described how a girl and her dog defeated the cannibalistic monster and saved her village:

The villagers realized a windigo was coming when they saw a kettle swinging back and forth over the fire. No one was brave enough or strong enough to challenge this ice creature. They had sent for a wise old grandmother who lived at the edge of the village. Her little grandchild, hearing the old woman say she was without power to do anything, asked what was wrong. While the people moaned that they would all die, the little girl asked for two sticks of peeled sumac as long as her arms. She took these home with her while the frightened villagers huddled together.

That night it turned bitterly cold. The child told her grandmother to melt a kettle of tallow over the fire. As the people watched, trees began to crack open and the river froze solid. All this was caused by the windigo, as tall as a white pine tree, coming over the hill.

With a sumac stick gripped in each hand, the little girl ran out to meet him. She had two dogs which ran ahead of her and killed the windigo's dog. But still the windigo came on. The little girl got bigger and bigger until when they met she was as big as the windigo himself. With one sumac stick, she knocked him down, and with the other she crushed his skull; the sticks had turned to copper. After she killed the windigo, the little girl swallowed the hot tallow and gradually grew smaller until she was herself again.

Everyone rushed over to the windigo and began to chop him up. He was made of ice, but in the center they found the body of a man with his skull crushed in. The people were very thankful and gave the little girl everything she wanted.

Underwater Monsters

The water monster was another significant supernatural being in the oral traditions of all Woodland tribes. He could invoke terror and his plans and schemes were incorporated into many stories. Among the Ho-Chunk, the water monster was a panther with a copper tail; among the Ojibwe, it was a panther or a lynx; and among the Saulteaux, or Canadian Ojibwe, it was the Horned Water Snake. The Menominee merely called it a great fish, but they told how it devoured many of the first people before finally being destroyed by the culture hero. In whatever form, the water monster was terrified of thunder, the noise made by the Thunderers or thunderbirds who protected Indian people. Therefore, before starting out in a canoe, one must always throw offerings of tobacco on the water to propitiate the water monster and insure one's safety during the journey. One story tells how an Indian boy begged a water monster to carry him across a lake, promising to warn the creature of thunder. However, the boy was determined not to warn the water monster for fear of being carried under the surface and being drowned. When the monster heard the thunder he asked the boy about it, but he boy did not admit that he heard the thunder until they were within easy reach of land. At that point, the water monster, tossing the boy aside, dove beneath the water and (at least in that particular story) worked no more evil.

The following two Ojibwe stories were often, but not always, told together. As the prelude to the Creation myth, the story of Wenebojo and the Wolves is almost essential. Variations in detail existed from tribe to tribe, but the same ideas were reflected in nearly all the stories.

Wenebojo and the Wolves (Wisconsin Ojibwe)

One day, Wenebojo saw some people and went up to see who they were. He was surprised to find that they were a pack of wolves. He called them nephews and asked what they were doing. They were hunting, said the Old Wolf, and looking for a place to camp. So they all camped together on the edge of a lake.

Wenebojo was very cold, for there were only two logs for the fire, so one of the wolves jumped over the fire and immediately it burned higher. Wenebojo was hungry, so one of the wolves pulled off his moccasin and tossed it to Wenebojo and told him to pull out the sock. Wenebojo threw it back, saying that he didn't eat any stinking socks. The wolf said, "You must be very particular if you don't like this food.”

He reached into the sock and pulled out a deer tenderloin then reached in again and brought out some bear fat. Wenebojo's eyes popped. He asked for some of the meat and started to roast it over the fire. Then, imitating the wolf, Wenebojo pulled off his moccasin and threw it at the wolf, saying, "Here, nephew, you must be hungry. Pull my sock out.” But there was no sock, only old dry hay that he used to keep his feet warm. The wolf said he didn't eat hay and Wenebojo was ashamed.

The next day, the wolves left to go hunting, but the father of the young wolves came along with Wenebojo. As they traveled along, they found an old deer carcass. Old Wolf told Wenebojo to pick it up, but Wenebojo said he didn't want it and kicked it aside. The Wolf picked it up and shook it; it was a nice, tanned deerskin which Wenebojo wanted, so Old Wolf gave it to him. They went on, following the wolves. Wenebojo saw blood, and soon they came on the pack, all lying asleep with their bellies full -- only the bones were left. Wenebojo was mad because the young wolves were so greedy and had eaten up all the deer. The Old Wolf then woke up the others and told them to pack the deer home. Wenebojo picked up the best bones so he could boil them. When they reached camp, the fire was still burning and Old Wolf told the others to give Wenebojo some meat to cook. One of the wolves came toward Wenebojo belching and looking like he was going to throw up. Another acted the same way and suddenly, out of the mouth of one came a ham and some ribs out of the mouth of another. It is said that wolves have a double stomach, and in this way they can carry meat home, unspoiled, to their pups.

After that, Wenebojo didn't have to leave the camp because the wolves hunted for him and kept him supplied with deer, elk, and moose. Wenebojo would prepare the meat and was well off indeed. Toward spring, the Old Wolf said they would be leaving and that Wenebojo had enough meat to last until summer. One younger wolf said he thought Wenebojo would be lonesome, so he, the best hunter, would stay with him.  (This was the same Chibia'bos of the Potawatomi who guided the souls to the Land of the Dead. Some tribes called him the Nephew or Younger Brother of Wenebojo.)

All went well until suddenly the evil manidog (spirits) became jealous of Wenebojo and decided they would take his younger brother away. That night, Wenebojo dreamed that his brother, while hunting a moose, would meet with misfortune. In the morning, he warned the brother not to cross a lake or stream, even a dry stream bed, without laying a stick across it. When Wolf did not return, Wenebojo feared the worst and set out to search for him. At last, he came to a stream which was rapidly becoming a large river and he saw tracks of a moose and a wolf. Wenebojo realized that Wolf had been careless and had neglected to place a stick across the stream.

Desolate, Wenebojo returned to his wigwam. He wanted to find out how his brother had died, so he started out to find him. When he came to a big tree leaning over a stream that emptied into a lake, a bird was sitting in the tree looking down into the water. Wenebojo asked him what he was looking at. The bird said the evil manidog were going to kill Wenebojo's brother and he was waiting for some of the guts to come floating down the stream so he could eat them.

This angered Wenebojo but he slyly told the bird he would paint it if it told him what it knew. The bird said the manido, who was the chief of the water monsters (or lynxes) lived on a big island up the stream, but that he and all the others came out to sun themselves on a warm day. So Wenebojo pretended he would paint the bird, but he really wanted to wring its neck. However, the bird ducked and Wenebojo only hit him on the back of the head, ruffling his feathers. This was the Kingfisher, and that was how he got his ruffled crest. From now on, Wenebojo told him, the only way he would get his food would be to sit in a tree all day and wait for it.

Then Wenebojo heard a voice speaking to him. It told him to use the claw of the kingfisher for his arrow and, when he was ready to shoot the water monster, not to shoot at the body, but to look for the place where the shadow was and shoot him there. (The shadow and the soul were thought to be the same thing. The soul of a person was his life, hence, to kill the soul was to kill life.)

That story, having explained Wenebojo's trouble with the evil manidog resulting from his search for his wolf brother, either ended there or might continue with the Creation of the World.

Creation of the World (Wisconsin Ojibwe)

Wenebojo, having outwitted the evil manidog by trickery, at last found himself stranded in the pine tree. He crept higher, begging the tree to stretch as tall as it could. Finally the waters stopped just below Wenebojo's nose. He saw lots of animals swimming around and asked them all, in turn, to dive down and bring up a little earth, so that he and they might live. The loon tried, then the otter and the beaver, but all of them were drowned before they could bring back any earth. Finally, the muskrat went down, but he too passed out as he came to the surface.

"Poor little fellow, " said Wenebojo, "You tried hard." But he saw the muskrat clutching something in his paw: a few grains of sand and a bit of mud. Wenebojo breathed on the muskrat and restored his life, then he took the mud and rolled it in his hands. Soon, he had enough for a small island and he called the other animals to climb out of the water. He sent a huge bird to fly around the island and enlarge it. The bird was gone four days (four is a magic number), but Wenebojo said that was not enough and he sent out the eagle to make the land larger. Having created the world, Wenebojo said, "Here is where my aunts and uncles and all my relatives can make their home."

Then, Wenebojo cut up the body of one of the evil manidog and fed part of it to the woodchuck, who had once saved his life. Into a hollow, he put the rest of the food and when some of it turned into oil or fat, Wenebojo told the animals to help themselves. The woodchuck was told to work only in the summertime; in the winter, he could rest in a snug den and sleep, and each spring he would have a new coat. Before that, most of the animals had lived on grass and other plants, but now they could eat meat if they wished. The rabbit came and took a little stick with which he touched himself high on the back. The deer and other animals that eat grass all touched themselves on their flanks. Wenebojo told the deer he could eat moss. The bear drank some of the fat, as did the smaller animals who eat meat. All those who sipped the fat were turned into manidog and are the guardian spirits of every Indian who fasts. Wenebojo then named the plants, herbs, and roots and instructed the Indians in the use of these plants. Wenebojo's grandmother, Nokomis, also has a lodge somewhere in that land.