Chippewa Culture and Customs

Traditions of and Resources for the First Americans

Storytelling

 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 Ojibwa 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 travelled 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."

From Indian Country Wisconsin, Milwaukee Public Museum

Wenebojo and the Wolves

The following two Ojibwa 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.

 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.

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 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 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 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 because the shadow and the soul were the same thing.

Wenebojo then traveled up the stream until he came to the island where the chief of the water monsters was lying in the sun. He shot into the side of the shadow. The manido rose up and began to pursue Wenebojo who ran with all his might, looking for a mountain. He was also pursued by the water, which kept coming higher and higher. At last, he found a tall pine, high up on a mountain, and climbed it. Still the water continued to rise halfway up the tree. (Continued in Creation of the World)

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

Creation of the World

 Wenebojo, having outwitted the evil manido 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, 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.

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

 

Wenebojo Caught in the Moose's Skull

Wenebojo found the skull of the moose and wondered if there was any meat left inside. He looked inside and up the nose, and saw a little piece of meat there. He could crack the moose head open and get the meat, but he didn't do that. Wenebojo wanted that meat badly; so he thought, "I will become a little snake. Then I will be able to get the meat inside there."

So Wenebojo turned into a little snake. He crawled into the moose's skull and started to eat the meat. It was very good and he was enjoying it immensely. But before he finished eating it, Wenebojo changed back into his normal shape, and his head got stuck inside the moose skull. He tried and tried to pull the moose skull off his head, but it hurt him too badly. So he just walked away, thinking that he might be able to get it off another way. Since he was walking and had the moose skull over his head and couldn't see, he didn't get very far before he bumped right into a tree. He touched the tree to see what kind it was, but he couldn't tell. So he asked, "Brother, what kind of a tree are you?" And the tree answered, "I'm a maple tree."

Then Wenebojo said, "You used to stand close to the river. Is there a river close by?" and the tree said, "No, Wenebojo, there's no river near here."

Wenebojo kept on bumping into all kinds of trees and asking them if there was a river near by. All the trees answered No. Finally, Wenebojo came to a tree that he didn't know. He said, "Brother, who are you? What kind of tree are you?" The tree answered, "I'm a cedar."

"A cedar!" Wenebojo said, "You always stand at the edge of the river. Is there any river close by?" And the tree answered, "Yes, there is a river close by, Wenebojo. Just follow along my arm until you get to the river."

So Wenebojo felt along the limb of the tree and then kept on going. There was a big high mountain with a river down below and that's where Wenebojo ended up. He walked along the side of the mountain but his foot slipped, and Wenebojo fell and rolled all the way down to the bottom. When he hit the bottom, the moose skull cracked open and fell apart and he was free of it at last.

(Adapted from Victor Barnouw, 1977, Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales and Their Relation to Chippewa Life, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.)

Wenebojo and the Cranberries

Wenebojo was walking along one day by the edge of a lake and saw some highbush cranberries lying in the shallow water. He stuck his hand in the water and tried to get them, but he couldn't. He tried over and over again to get those cranberries. Finally, he gave up trying to stick his hand in the water and instead, he tried to grab them with his mouth by sticking his head in the water. That didn't work either, So he dove down into the water. The water was so shallow that the little rocks in the bottom hurt his face. He jumped out of the water and lay down on his back on the shore holding his face. He opened his eyes and there were the berries hanging above him! He had only seen their reflection in the water. But he was so angry that he tore the berries off the tree and didn't eat any, and he walked away.

(Adapted from Victor Barnouw, 1977, Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales and Their Relation to Chippewa Life, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.)

Wenebojo and the Dancing Geese

Wenebojo often took long journeys. On one of these, he happened to hear singing out on a lake, and when he looked to see who was singing, he thought he saw some people dancing. He went toward them, saying how much he would like to join them. Suddenly, he heard some loud laughter and when he looked closer, he realized that what he had thought were dancers were really the reeds swaying in the breeze. He realized that the evil manidog had played a trick on him and he was furious.

He went on along the lake and began to get hungry. He saw some geese swimming a little off shore and thought to himself, "Now, I would like some of those geese to eat."

Wenebojo then gathered some balsam boughs in an old dirty blanket he was carrying and, with this on his shoulder, he called to the goslings and offered to teach them some of the songs he was carrying in his bag. They all crowded in to shore, and he told them they must dance just like he did, singing the song he would teach them. He sang "A dance on one leg. Oh my little brothers!"

And as they danced on one leg, they stretched their necks upward. Then Wenebojo sang, "A dance with my eyes closed, Oh my little brothers!"

And Wenebojo danced and stretched, and the little goslings all did as he did, closing their eyes and stretching themselves. Wenebojo then moved among the foolish goslings and began to break their necks. Just then, the Loon, who had been dancing with the other birds, opened his eyes and immediately began to cry "Look out, we are being killed by Wenebojo!"

By this time, Wenebojo had killed several goslings, but he was so angry with the Loon that he kicked him on the small of the back. That is why the Loon has that peculiar curve to his back.

Wenebojo decided to cook his goslings there on the shore of the lake, so he buried them in the sand, putting their legs up so he could find them when they were cooked. Then he built a fire over them and lay down to sleep. He told his buttocks to keep watch for him and, if anyone came, to wake him, for he did not want his goslings stolen.

While Wenebojo slept, some people came around a bend in the lake. They saw the goslings' legs sticking up in the air and thought that Wenebojo had something good to eat. But they saw Wenebojo stir when his buttocks called him and they ducked behind some bushes to hide. Wenebojo did not see anything and scolded his buttocks for waking him unnecessarily. Again the people came out and again the buttocks woke Wenebojo, but since Wenebojo did not see them, he scolded the buttocks once more. The third time the people crept up silently, took the goslings and put the legs back just as they had found them. The buttocks remained silent because they had received a scolding the first two times they had warned Wenebojo.

When Wenebojo awoke, he was very hungry and started to take out his goslings for. But he could find nothing buried in the ashes. He was furious with his buttocks and decided to punish them by standing over the fire until they were scorched. At last, when the buttocks were black and crisp, Wenebojo tried to walk away, but it was so painful that he could scarcely move. So he sat on the top of a steep cliff and slid down, and the sore skin of his buttocks became the lichen. As he walked along, he dragged his bleeding buttocks behind him through some dense shrubs. When he looked back, the shrubs were red from his blood. This, said Wenebojo, will be what the people will use to mix their tobacco-the red willows.

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

Wendigo

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 fifty 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.

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

 

The Underwater Panther

There once was a big lake where Indians lived all around it. In the middle of the lake, there was a big island of mud, which made it impossible just to paddle straight across. So if someone in one village wanted to go to the one on the opposite side, they would have to paddle all around the edge of the lake. They stayed away from the island of mud because a bad manido.

One day, one of the villages was holding a dance, and the people from the other side of the lake started out in their canoes, coming around the edge of the lake. Two women who were going started out late, after everyone else had gone. The two women were sisters-in-law and one of them was rather foolish. She was steering the canoe and headed straight across the lake to the island of mud. The other warned her not to do it, but it didn't do any good. The first girl carried a little cedar paddle with her but did not use it for paddling. She carried it everywhere with her. As they got to the middle of the lake, they started to cross the island of mud, and in the center of the mud they saw a hole of clear water. The water was swirling around like a whirlpool, and as they started to cross that bit of open water, a panther came out and twitched his tail across the boat and tried to turn it over. The girl picked up her little cedar paddle and hit the panther's tail with it. As she hit it, she said, "Thunder is striking you." The paddle cut off the panther's tail where she had hit it, and the end dropped into the boat. It was a solid piece of copper about two inches thick. The panther ran away through the mud, and they laughed hard. One girl said, "I guess I scared him. He won't bother us again." When they got across, the girl gave the piece of copper to her father. The copper tail of the underwater panther had magical powers. Everyone wanted a little piece of the tail to carry for luck in hunting and fishing and people would give her father a blanket for a tiny piece of that copper. Her family got rich from the tail of the underwater panther. /p>

(Adapted from Victor Barnouw, 1977, Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales and Their Relation to Chippewa Life, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.)

 

Another Wendigo Story

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. After they had sent for a wise old grandmother who lived at the edge of the village, the 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.

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

The Mink and the Fish

Mink found a live pike on the lake shore. He told the pike, "Pike, the Muskie is calling you all kinds of names." "What is he calling me?" asked Pike. Mink answered, "He says you're wall-eyed." Pike did not like to be called names and said, "Well, he's got teeth like a saw blade and a long plated face. He's not pretty either."

There was a muskie nearby, and Mink told him what Pike had said about him. Mink went back and forth, back and forth, getting Muskie and Pike mad at one another. Finally Pike and Muskie had a big fight and Mink acted as referee. Muskie and Pike ended up killing each other in the fight, so Mink had the last laugh on them.

Mink got a big kettle and boiled and dried the meat. Then he lay down to rest. He was taking life easy. He had the fish eggs, which were his favorite, all together next to him and all he had to do was open his eyes and stick out his tongue out to eat them. Finally he dozed off.

Some Indians came by in their canoes and saw Mink lying there with all those fish. They came ashore and picked up all the fish and put them in their canoes. Where Mink had all the fish eggs right next to him, they put rocks there. Then they went away.

When Mink woke up, he reached with his tongue for the fish eggs, but instead there was only rocks and stones which broke his teeth. He realized they'd played a trick on him and he just walked away.

(Adapted from Victor Barnouw, 1977, Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales and Their Relation to Chippewa Life, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.)

The Hell-diver and The Spirit of Winter

Every winter, the birds fly south. One winter, a hell-diver (also called a grebe) told all of the other birds that he would stay for the winter to take care of two of his friends who had been injured and couldn't fly south. Both of his friends, a whooping crane and mallard duck, had broken wings. To feed them, he got fish by diving through a hole in the ice. But the Spirit of Winter got jealous of his success at fishing and froze the water after the hell-diver had dived through his hole below the ice. But the hell-diver swam to shore where there were a lot of reeds and bulrushes. He pulled one of them down through the ice with his bill to make a hole in the ice and so he got out and flew home.

When he got home, he saw that someone was peeking in the door of his wigwam. It was the Spirit of Winter, who did not like him and who was trying to freeze him out. The hell-diver got a big fire going, but it was still cold in the wigwam because the Spirit of Winter was right there making it cold. But the hell-diver tricked the Spirit of Winter by mopping his face with a handkerchief and saying, "Gee, but it's hot in here!" The Spirit of Winter thought the fire was hot enough to melt him, so he ran away.

One day the hell-diver decided to have a feast. He got some wild rice and sent a duck to invite the Spirit of Winter, but it was so cold that the duck froze to death before he got there. Then he sent Partridge with the invitation. She got very cold too, but she dove under the snow to warm up and then went on again. She reached the Spirit of Winter and invited him to the hell-diver's feast.

When the Spirit of Winter came to the feast, it was like a blizzard coming in the door of the wigwam. He had icicles on his nose and face. Hell-diver built the fire higher and higher, and it began to get warm inside the wigwam. The icicles began to melt on the Spirit of Winter's face. He was getting awfully warm, but he liked the wild rice that hell-diver had at his feast and wanted to keep eating.

Hell-diver said, "Whew! It's very warm in here. It must be spring already." The Spirit of Winter got scared and grabbed his blanket and ran out of the wigwam. With his fire, Hell-diver had brought the spring and outside, things were already melting and there were just patches of snow here and there. The Spirit of Winter had a hard time getting back to his home in the north, where there is always snow.

(Adapted from Victor Barnouw, 1977, Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales and Their Relation to Chippewa Life, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.)

Why the Porcupine Has Quills

Long, long ago, the Porcupines had no quills. One day, a Porcupine was out in the woods. A Bear came along and would have eaten Porcupine, but he managed to get up a tree where the Bear couldn't get him.

The next day Porcupine was out again and he went underneath a hawthorn tree, and he noticed how the thorns pricked him. He broke some branches off and put them on his back, then he went into the woods. Along came Bear and he jumped on Porcupine, who just curled himself up. The Bear just left him alone because the thorns pricked him so much.

Wenebojo was watching them. He called to Porcupine and asked "How did you think of that trick?" Porcupine told him that he was in danger when Bear was around. Then Wenebojo took some thorns and peeled the bark off of them until they were all white. Then he got some clay and put it all over Porcupine's back and stuck the thorns in it. Wenebojo used his magic to make it into a proper skin, and told Porcupine come with him into the woods. When they got there, Wenebojo hid behind a tree. Wolf came along and saw Porcupine and jumped on him, but the new quills pricked at him and Wolf ran away. Bear was also afraid of the quills and Porcupine was safe. That is why Porcupines have quills.

(Adapted from G.E. Laidlaw, 1922, "Ojibwe Myths and Tales," Wisconsin Archeologist 1[1]:28-38.)

 

 

The Story of Redfeather

There once was a little boy called Redfeather who lived with his great-grandfather. His great-grandfather taught him to shoot with his bow and arrows. They lived in a village near a great big frog-meadow. The old grandfather told Redfeather stories about the different ways of creatures.

Springtime came, and in the evenings the old lady frogs would croak and sharpen their knives to butcher the crawfish. That is the noise they make. Every day Redfeather would take his bow and arrow and kill all the frogs he could get and the crawfish too. One day a heron came along and told Redfeather that she would give him her best feather if he would leave the frogs alone. She told him that she had a nest of babies to feed and that he was wasting her food by killing all the frogs and crayfish. Redfeather said, "Ha! I don't want your old dirty feathers. You can keep your feathers and leave me alone. I can do what I want."

So the birds met together to figure out what to do about Redfeather, who was making life difficult for so many of them. Near Redfeathers's village there was an island with some large trees on it, and on this island lived a very old and very wise owl. Every evening Redfeather would go out and refuse to come in to bed, and run around and be noisy. The crane and the owl and other birds all complained about him because he scared away all the rabbits and small birds. They said he must be punished. The crane said that she was starving because he killed the frogs and the birds. No one could live in peace.

On evening, the owl perched himself on a tree close to Redfeather's wigwam, and said, "Hoo Hoo!" Redfeather's great-grandfather said to him, "Redfeather, come in, don't you hear that owl calling?" But Redfeather said, "I'll get the biggest arrow and shoot him." Grandfather said, "The owl has large ears and he can put rabbits and other food in them. He might catch you too. You'd better come in and go to sleep." But Redfeather disobeyed his Grandfather and went out and shot at the owl. He missed, and while he was out looking for the arrow, the owl swooped down and picked him up and stuck him in his ears, and flew off with him. The owl flew across the lake to his island, and up into an old oak tree where the nest of baby owls were.

He put Redfeather down there, and told his babies, "When you get big enough to eat meat, you shall eat Redfeather." The little owls were quite excited at this. Then the owl flew away. The next day, the owl called to the crane and the other birds and said, "When your babies are old enough we'll have a feast of Redfeather. I have him imprisoned in my oak tree." So Redfeather was kept a prisoner, and he cried, but he couldn't get down.

Back in the village, all the Indians knew Redfeather was lost. His great-grandfather asked all the living beings to help him find Redfeather and at last they found him a prisoner in the owl's tree. The spirits told the great-grandfather to give a great feast and ask the owl to return Redfeather. His great-grandfather gave a huge feast, and Redfeather was returned to his great-grandfather. Redfeather also promised that he would never again misuse the food that Wenebojo had made for the birds.

(Adapted from Beatrice Blackwood, 1929, "Tales of the Chippewa Indians," Folk-Lore 40[4]:315-44.)

Wenebojo Made a House for the Tortoise

Long ago, when the world was young, there were only two tortoises. They didn't have any shells or houses on their backs as we know them today. They were all soft. In the woods, the strong animals hunt the weaker animals, and Otter planned on eating the Tortoise. One day, Tortoise wanted to go on land to take a walk, but he couldn't run very fast so he looked around to see if any of the other animals were there. As he looked around, he saw Otter coming so Tortoise turned around and crawled under a piece of bark and drew his head, legs, and tail in and Otter didn't see him. When Otter was gone, Tortoise went back to the pond where he lived. But he didn't know that Wenebojo was watching him and saw how had he saved himself from Otter.

One morning Wenebojo was out fishing, he asked Tortoise where there were lots of fish. He said "If you tell me, I'll give you a sturdy house that you can carry on your back." As soon as the Tortoise heard this, he dived down and looked for fish and found a lot and then he came back and told Wenebojo where they were. Wenebojo thanked him and got out of his canoe and asked Tortoise to come up on land with him. There Wenebojo found a piece of bark and put it on the Tortoise's back and got another piece and put it on his stomach. Then they watched for Otter to come. When they saw him coming, Tortoise went out on the path and pretended that he didn't see Otter coming. When Otter saw Tortoise he jumped on him so he could eat him, but Tortoise drew his head, legs, and tail into the new shell and was safe. After Otter went away, Wenebojo told Tortoise that "From this day forth, every Tortoise shall carry his shell, or house, along wherever he goes."

(Adapted from G.E. Laidlaw, 1922, "Ojibwe Myths and Tales," Wisconsin Archeologist 1[1]:28-38.)

Why the Buffalo Has a Hump

Long ago, the Buffalo didn't have any hump. In the summer he would race across the prairies for fun, and the Foxes would run in front of him and tell all the little animals to get out of the way because the Buffalo was coming. They didn't know that Wenebojo was watching them.

So the Buffalo raced across the prairies. There were little birds nesting on the ground and the Buffalo raced over them and tramped their nests. The little birds cried out and told him not to go near their nests, but Buffalo didn't listen to them and ran right over them.

The birds were sad and kept crying about their spoiled nests. Wenebojo heard them and he ran ahead of the Buffalo and Foxes and stopped them. With a stick, he hit the Buffalo on the shoulders, and the Buffalo hung his head and humped up his shoulders because he was afraid that Wenebojo would hit him with the stick again. But Wenebojo just said "You should be ashamed. You will always have a hump on your shoulder, and always carry your head low because of your shame." The Foxes were also afraid of Wenebojo and ran away and dug holes in the ground where they hid. And Wenebojo said to them "And you, Foxes, you will always live in the cold ground for hurting the birds." And that is why the Buffalo have humps, and why the Foxes have holes in the ground for their homes.

(Adapted from G.E. Laidlaw, 1922, "Ojibwe Myths and Tales," Wisconsin Archeologist 1[1]:28-38.)

The Magic Pots

A long time ago, a very old woman lived in an Ojibwe village. Besides the wigwam she lived in, she also had a separate bark house where she kept five beautiful pots on a shelf. These pots were magical and weren't supposed to be used for cooking or anything. Instead, the old woman kept them there so the other women of the village could come look at them and get ideas and go home and make their own pots to use. No one could make pottery without the inspiration of the magic pots and, to keep them safe, no one but the old woman was allowed to touch the pots.

One year, everyone went out at the same time to pick berries, and the old woman went along too. In the village, five little girls were left behind to tend to their chores. They quickly gathered firewood and did all of their other chores and then got together to play. Out of curiosity, the girls went to the old woman's bark house where she kept the magic pots so they could get a look at how beautiful they were. But that wasn't enough for them, and they got the pots down off their shelf and took them outside and played with them, despite the fact that the old woman had forbidden anyone to touch the pots.

As the girls were playing, a wolf appeared. The girls were frightened and got up to run into one of the houses to get away from the wolf. As they ran, one of them fell over the birchbark sheet they used to cover the ground under the pots, and instantly there was a noise like thunder. When the wolf was gone, the girls came out and found that all of the pots had all been shattered into tiny pieces.

When the old woman returned and found out what had happened, she found the five girls and told them what they had done. As soon as she told them, a magic thing happened, and the disobedient girls were changed into five black crows which flew away, cawing.

Without the magic pots, the women no longer knew how to make pottery, and that is why the Ojibwe no longer make pots. But the crows live on and in summer you can see them in some tall tree, uttering a mournful caw, caw.

(Adapted from Albert B. Reagan, 1928, "The Magic Pots," Wisconsin Archeologist 7[1]:227-28.)

How the Indians Got Maple Sugar

One day Wenebojo was standing under a maple tree. Suddenly it began to rain maple syrup-not sap-right on top of him. Wenebojo got a birchbark tray and held it out to catch the syrup. He said to himself: "This is too easy for the Indians to have the syrup just rain down like this." So he threw the syrup away and decided that before they could have the syrup, the Indians would have to give a feast, offer tobacco, speak to the manido, and put out some birchbark trays.

Nokomis, the grandmother of Wenebojo, showed him how to insert a small piece of wood into each maple tree so the sap could run down into the vessels beneath. When Manabush tested it, it was thick and sweet. He told his grandmother it would never do to give the Indians the syrup without making them work for it. He climbed to the top of one of the maples, scattered rain over all the trees, dissolving the sugar as it flowed into the birchbark vessels. Now the Indians have to cut wood, make vessels, collect the sap and boil it for a long time. If they want the maple syrup, they have to work hard for it.

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

The Legend of the Birch Tree

The Legend of the Birch Tree


Long ago and not far away, a boy was born into a respected family. Before he

could walk, a naming ceremony was held in his honor. He was given the name

Wiigwaas. Wiigwaas was given many gifts from the Creator. One of those gifts

was to help others in a good way. Wiigwaas not only helped his father hunt and

fish, but he also helped his mother pick wild berries and tend the garden. He

helped the elderly in his village and in other villages nearby. He helped the

people make canoes and build their homes.

 

One day, when he became a young man, Wiigwaas had to go to battle. In this

battle, he lost his life. His brothers brought him home. He was wrapped in pure

white buckskin and buried on a hill just beyond his village. After the burial, they

held a farewell ceremony. The following spring, his people noticed that a little

tree had begun to grow at the site of his grave. As this tree grew taller, a dream

came to the father of Wiigwaas. In this dream, Wiigwaas told his father that he

was still able to help his people. The dream showed the father how to use the

birch tree.

 

In the springtime, you can take the sweet sap from the tree and distribute it

among your people to use as they do the sap from maple trees. The people can

peel the bark from the tree and use it. The women may use it to create bowls

and baskets for keeping food. The men can use the bark for building lodges and

canoes. From the strong wood inside the tree, you can make sleighs and lodge

poles. All people can use its wood to make fires.” Today, Wiigwaasʼ words are

remembered and he is still helping his people this way, even in death.

 Why Animals and Man Can No Longer Talk Together

Many moons ago, the animals and the Native People could talk to each other. They worked and played together in peace and harmony. They sat at council fires together. The animals taught the Native People many useful life lessons. Otter showed the Native People how to catch fish called Northerns. Beaver taught them how to build homes that would keep them safe from the cold winters and hot summers. From Bear and Wolf, the Native People learned to follow the forest trails. Panther showed the people where to hide in case of danger. Horse trained the Native People to run swiftly. Fox coached them to enjoy life and laugh at themselves.

Time passed, and the Native People learned as much as they could from the animals. Before long, the animals became very frightened. They were afraid that the Native People would no longer need their help and would try to make servants of the them.

One harvest moon, when all the Native People were sleeping, the animals broke the rules of friendship. Secretly, they called a great council fire with only the animals. Jealous Wolf spoke first at the council fire. “The Native People are our enemies,” he growled. “Let us rush into the village and kill all the Native People!” Panther also wanted to kill the Native People. But Bear had another idea. He wanted to challenge the Native People to a battle of strength. “No!” said Beaver. “We could wait until the winter moon comes and tear down their houses at night. Then they will freeze.” Old Fox said slyly, “Let us pretend to be their friends and secretly rob their corn fields at night while they sleep. Then they will starve.”

“Men and animals have always been brothers,” said Horse. “We must not hurt them now. Why not invite them berry picking and lead them so far away that they will get lost and not be able to find their way back to us?”

Then Dog spoke up bravely. “Man has always helped us. If war comes, I will go with the Native People.” As the animals talked, they grew louder and louder. They argued so loudly that their voices reached the ears of the Great Spirit. The heart of the Great Spirit was very sad when he heard the animalsʼ plans. The Great Spirit spoke to the animals. “You have broken the friendship of the great council fires. As a punishment, you can never again speak with man as you would a brother. Because of your heartless plan Beaver, you will be hunted for your fur and used to keep man warm. Traps and snares will be set for you Fox and Wolf. Panther will be an enemy and will be killed by man.”

The Great Spirit also said, “Horse remembered old friendships, so he will still be able to understand man, but will not be able to talk with him. Dog has also broken the law of the council fire, but because of his friendship to man, he will always be welcome in the homes of man and will guard manʼs children.”

And this is why the Native People say that animals cannot talk to man today. However, Horse and Dog can understand every word man says, even though they cannot answer.

Father of the Indian Corn

Long ago, a poor Ojibwe man lived with his wife and children in a remote part of present day Wisconsin. Because he was such a poor hunter, he was not very expert in providing food and supplies for his family. His children were too young to give him much help, but he was a good man with kind and contented disposition. He was always thankful to the Chief of the Sky Spirits for everything he received. 

His good nature was inherited by his eldest son. Eldest son had been obedient since early childhood. He seemed thoughtful of others, mild in manner, and always a joy to his family and to his tribe. Eldest son had just reached the age when he wanted to pursue his Vision Quest. Each young Ojibwe boy looked forward to this time of finding his secret spirit through a Vision Quest. This guide would help him for the rest of his life, and each boy sought to learn his spirit name and what special talent would be given to him. 

At the first indication of spring, tradition told the eldest son to build a hut somewhere in an isolated place. There he would not be disturbed during his Vision Quest. He prepared himself and went immediately to begin his seven day fast. 

For the first few days, he amused himself walking in the woods and over hills. He examined flowers, trees and other plants. This kind of physical effort in the outdoors prepared him for a sound nightʼs sleep. His observations of the day filled his mind with pleasant ideas and dreams. 

More and more he desired to know how the trees, plants, flowers and berries grew. Seemingly they grew wild without much help from humans. He wondered why some kinds of plants were good to eat and others contained poisonous juices. These thoughts came back to him many times as he retreated to his lodge at night. He secretly wished for a dream that would reveal what he could do to benefit his family and tribe.

 I believe the Chief of the Sky Spirits guides all things and it is him I owe all things,” he thought to himself. “I wonder if Chief Sky Spirit can make it easier for all Indians to acquire enough food without hunting animals every day to eat.” 

I must find a way in my dreams,” he decided. He stayed on his bed the third day of fasting because he felt weak and faint. Sometimes he thought that he was going to die. He dreamed and saw a strong, handsome young man coming down from the sky, advancing toward him. He was richly dressed in green and yellow colors. He wore a plume of waving feathers on his head and every movement he made was graceful. 

I have been sent to you,” said the sky visitor. “The Sky Chief who made all things in the sky and on the earth intends for me to be your guardian spirit guide and I have come to test you.” 

Sky Chief has observed all that you have done to prepare yourself to quest. He understands the kind and worthy secret wish of your heart. He knows that you desire a way to benefit your family and your tribe. He is pleased that you do not seek strength to make war. I have come to show you how to obtain your greatest wish. First, your spirit name shall be Wunzh.” (This name means to name someone.) 

The stranger then told Wunzh to arise and wrestle with him. This was the only way for him to achieve his sacred wish. As weak as he was from fasting, Wunzh wondered how he could ever wrestle with the stranger. 

He rose to the challenge, determined in his heart to die in the effort if he must. The two wrestled. After some time, when Wunzh felt totally exhausted, the sky stranger said, “It is enough time for today. I will come tomorrow to test you some more.” 

The next day, at the same time, the stranger appeared. Again, the two wrestled. While Wunzh felt weaker than the day before, he set his heart and mind to the task. His courage seemed to increase, as his physical strength decreased. 

The stranger stopped just before Wunzh dropped to the ground. Tomorrow will be your last chance. I urge you to be strong, my friend, as this is the only way for you to achieve your heartʼs desire and sacred wish,” said the sky visitor. 

Wunzh took to his bed with his last ounce of energy. He prayed to the Sky Chief for wisdom and enough strength to endure to the end of his quest. 

The third time they wrestled, Wunzh was so weak that his arms and legs felt like rubber. But his inner determination drove him forward with the kind of endurance necessary to win. The same length of time passed as in the first two wrestling bouts. Suddenly, the stranger stopped and declared himself conquered by Wunzh. 

Then the sky visitor entered Wunzhʼs lodge for the first time. He sat down next to Wunzh and instructed him in the way he should now proceed to achieve his secret wish. 

Great Sky Chief has granted your desire. You have wrestled manfully. Tomorrow will be your seventh day of fasting. Your father will come to see you and bring you food. As it is the last day of your fast, you will be able to succeed,” said the stranger. “Now I will tell you what you must do to achieve you final victory. Tomorrow we will wrestle once more. When you have prevailed over me for the last time, then throw me down and remove my clothes. You must clean the earth of roots and weeds and make the ground soft. Then bury me in that very spot, covering me with the yellow and green clothes and then the earth. 

On the seventh morning, Wunzhʼs father came with food. “My son, how do you feel? You have gone without food long enough. It has been seven days since you have eaten food. You must not sacrifice your life. The Great Spirit does not require that of you.” 

My father, thank you for coming and for the food. Let me stay alone until the sun goes down. I have my own special reasons.” 

Very well. I shall wait for you at home until the hour of the setting sun.” 

The sky stranger returned at the same hour as before. The final wrestling match began. Wunzh had not eaten the food that his father had brought, but he was already feeling a new inner power that somehow had been given to him. Was it spirit power from his guardian spirit? 

Wunzh grabbed his opponent with supernatural strength and threw him to the ground. Wunzh removed the beautiful clothes as instructed. Then he discovered that his friend was dead.  He remembered the instructions in every detail and buried his Guardian Spirit on the very spot where he had fallen. Wunzh followed every direction minutely, believing his friend would come to life again.  

Wunzh returned to his fatherʼs lodge at sundown. He ate sparingly of the meal his mother prepared for him. Never for a moment could he forget the grave of his friend. Throughout the spring and into the summer he visited the grave regularly. He carefully kept the ground soft and pliable. He noticed that the more care he gave to the plants, the faster the green plumes grew. 

Wunzh concealed his activity from his father. Days and weeks passed. Summer was drawing to a close. Then one day, Wunzh invited his father to follow him to the site of his quest. He showed his father the graceful looking plants growing there. They were topped with yellow silken hair and waving green plumes. Gold and green clusters of fruit adorned each side of the stalks. 

Father, these plants are from my dream friend,” explained Wunzh. “He is my guardian spirit, a friend to all mankind, named Man-daa-min, meaning corn for all Indians. This is the answer to my quest, my secret heartʼs wish. No longer will we need to hunt animals every day for our food. As long as we take care of our corn gift, the earth will give us food for our living.”

Wunzh pulled off the first ear of corn and gave it to his father. Wunzh talked with his father, giving him all of the instructions he had received from his Guardian Spirit. He showed his father how the corn husks could be pulled off the stalks and how the first seeds must be saved for future plantings. He explained how the ears of corn should be held before the fire only long enough to turn the outer leaves brown, so the kernels inside would stay sweet and juicy. 

This is how Wunzh became known as the Father of Indian Corn by the Ojibwe people.

 

Sits On Fog and the Game Animals

 Many suns back, Sits on Fog decided he would do some hunting. He took his bow and arrows and went for a walk in the woods. When the animals saw him coming, they said to each other, “Ah, here comes Sits on Fog. He is going to hunt us. Letʼs hide from him.” So the animals hid from Sits on Fog, and he could not find them. Sits on Fog was not pleased with this and went home to the little lodge near the big river where he lived with Grandmother Woodchuck.

Grandmother, make me a game bag,” said Sits on Fog. So Grandmother Woodchuck took caribou hair and made him a game bag. She made him a fine game bag, but Sits on Fog was not pleased with it. Then Grandmother Woodchuck made him a different game bag out of deer hair. It was a very fine game bag indeed, much larger and nicer than the first game bag. She gave him the second game bag and Sits on Fog still was not satisfied. 

Next, Grandmother Woodchuck took moose hair and wove Sits on Fog a very fine game bag. It was larger, stronger and indeed better than the first two she had made him. She had even used porcupine quills, which she flattened and used to decorated the game bag, to make it more attractive to the eye of Sits on Fog. But Sits on Fog looked at this game bag too and threw it down saying, Grandmother, that is not good enough!”

Grandmother was hurt. She felt that Sits on Fog did not respect all of her hard work. Nevertheless, she asked Sits on Fog, “How can I please you? What kind of game bag do you want?” 

Sits on Fog looked at Grandmother Woodchuck and smiled. He said, “Grandmother, make me a game bag out of woodchuck hair.” So Grandmother began to pull all of the hair from her belly. (To this day, you will see that all woodchucks still have no hair on their bellies.) Then, she wove her hair into a game bag. Now this game bag was magical. No matter how much you put into it, there would still be room for more. Sits on Fog smiled and was happy with the game bag his Grandmother had made for him. “I thank you Grandmother Woodchuck,” said Sits on Fog. 

Then Sits on Fog went back into the woods and walked until he came to a large clearing. He called out to all the animals as loud as he could, “All you animals, listen to me. A terrible thing is going to happen. The sun is going to leave us. The world is going to come to an end, and everything is going to be destroyed.” 

When the animals heard Sits on Fog say these words, they became very frightened indeed. They came to the clearing where Sits on Fog stood with his magic game bag. “Sits on Fog, what can we do? The world is going to be destroyed. How can we survive?”

My animal friends,” said Sits on Fog. “Climb into my game bag and you will be safe when the world is destroyed.” 

All of the animals climbed into his game bag. The rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, and foxes went in first and the game bag stretched. The deer, caribou, bear, and moose went in next and the game bag stretched even further, but there was still more room. Soon all the animals of the world were in Sits on Fogʼs game bag. He tied the top of the bag, laughed and slung it over his shoulder and journeyed toward home. 

When he arrived at his little lodge near the big river, Sits on Fog said to Grandmother Woodchuck, “We no longer have to go out and walk around looking for food! Whenever we want anything to eat, we can just reach into my magic game bag and take what we want.” 

Grandmother Woodchuck opened the magic game bag and looked inside to find all the game animals of the world. “Oh, Sits on Fog. Why must you always do things this way? You cannot keep all of the game animals in a bag. They will get sick and die; they must be able to run free. There will be none left for our children and our childrenʼs children and so on. It is also right that is should be difficult to hunt them. You will grow stronger trying to find them. The animals will also grow stronger and wiser trying to avoid being caught. This way, things will be in balance.” 

Sits on Fog replied, “You are correct Grandmother Woodchuck.” So he picked up his game bag and went back to the clearing. He opened it up and said,“All of you can come out now. Everything is all right. The world was destroyed, but I put it back together again.” All of the animals came out of the magic game bag and went back into the woods and they are still there today because Sits on Fog listened to what his Grandmother had to say.