Aurora Borealis (Wąkwoešgač)

by Richard L. Dieterle

The Aurora Gallery
of Christopher J. VenHaus

The Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights) can be seen from Wisconsin, and as the inset shows, they can be quite striking. The Hočąk term for the Aurora is wąkwoešgač, which is said by several scholars to mean, "man's play" or "play above."1 This suggests that the phenomenon is explained as the play of a certain spirit being. Some confirm this by saying that the aurora is an evil spirit that may bring death upon human beings.2 The term wąkwoešgač, however, must have a more complex meaning. The word wąk is irreducably ambiguous, meaning either "man" or "above." The ultimate syllable, šgač, clearly means "to play." The middle syllables appear to be the stem e prefixed by wo-. The prefix wo- is a contraction of wa-ho-. The word ho-e (or ho'e) means, "to scatter about," and prefixed by wa- (wa-ho-e), it means, "to scatter it about." So wąkwoešgač should mean, "he plays, scattering it about up above," or "man scattering it about in play." This suggests that a single spirit, for artistic entertainment, paints the sky with tones of possible ill omen.

On the other hand, Jacob Strucki, a long time missionary among the Hočągara, says, "From the Northern Lights they infer that there are spirits in the north that find themselves in combat."3 Thus the "play" to which the word makes reference may be a metaphor. We find the expression, hąké wošgáč winią́je, which is given the meaning, "don't mutilate (play) more than you have to."4 It is possible that the šgač ("play") in wąkwoešgač refers to spirits mutilating one another. We find this same use of šgač when enemy captives are said,"to play with fire" (peč-ki-šgač), when they are put to the torture. It is said that in the past as the Night Spirits crossed the sky bringing darkness, that they were attacked by the cranes, who cut their faces with their sharp bills. Perhaps this is the battle to which the tradition passed down through Strucki makes reference. (For the mutiliation of the Night Spirits, see How the Thunders Met the Nights).

Links: The Meteor Spirit, Nightspirits.

Stories: about stars and other celestial bodies: The Dipper, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, The Seven Maidens, Morning Star and His Friend, Little Human Head, Turtle and the Witches, Sky Man, Wojijé, The Raccoon Coat, Sun and the Big Eater, The Big Eater, The Star Husband, Grandfather's Two Families, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, The Children of the Sun, The Origins of the Milky Way, The Fall of the Stars.


1 Thomas Foster, Foster's Indian Record and Historical Data (Washington, D. C.: 1876-1877) vol. 1, #2: p. 4, coll. 4, sv "Aurora Borealis." Compare, wañkwóeckatc, a variant apparently reported by Reuben StCyr — Rev. James Owen Dorsey, "Winnebago Gentes, including Personal Names Belonging to each Gens" (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution: T.D., 1878-79?), cat. #4800 Dorsey Papers, Winnebago (319). Compare, wąkwoskočera (wonk-wo-skoch-er-rah), "man's play," in Thomas J. George, Winnebago Vocabulary, 4989 Winnebago (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, 1885). Informants: Big Bear of Friendship, Wisconsin, and Big Thunder.
2 "58. The Winnebagoes believe the Aurora Borealis is produced by a bad spirit, and that it is ominous of death." Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, 4 vols. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Company, 1856) 4:240. Mary H. Eastman, Chicóra and Other Regions of the Conquerors and the Conquered (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, & Co., 1854) 22.
3 Jacob Stucki: ‹‹Die Winnebago Indianer: ihre Religion, Sitten und Gebrauche» p. 5.
4 Aleck Lonetree, Untitled, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3867, Winnebago III, #17: 1-20.