Beavers (Rabera)

by Richard L. Dieterle

Beavers are among the most remarkable creatures in nature, who because they possess a rudimentary culture, are unlike all other animals. By harvesting wood, they are able to master the aquatic realm in which they live. They dam streams, and convert them into lakes. On these artificial lakes they even construct lodges out of wood which afford them every manner of protection. They are creatures of order who can control the chaos that is the spiritual essence of the waters. This is effected through wood, whose nature is repelled by the waters: no matter how heavy the log, it will always float.

Beavers, as masters of water, play a prominent role in one of the stories about Hare. Hare was led to a mysterious man who had lost his red scalp and wanted Hare's help in getting it back. This man was probably Redhorn, one of whose wives was She who Wears a Beaverskin Wrap, the outer garment perhaps suggestive of her inner nature. The mysterious man knew that Hare could depend on a family of beavers who lived at the edge of the Ocean Sea that surrounds the island Earth. When Hare arrived, the father beaver told him that he would ferry him across the ocean on his back, but his wife interrupted and said that if they were to get there in a decent amount of time, that she had better do it. In their ability to ferry Hare across the ocean, the beavers show their mastery of the element of water. Hare presented his hosts with a hoe as a gift, an implement reminiscent of the front teeth of a beaver as well as the beaver's cultural preoccupation with removing trees the way a people sculpt their gardens. They offered Hare one of their own children as a meal, but they told him to be sure not to damage the bones when he ate the child. However, Hare was careless and ate the sinews of the front paws. When they gathered up the bones of the child and resurrected him, his front paws ended up turned inward for want of sinews. Thus beavers have had pigeon toed front paws ever since. The next day the mother beaver ferried Hare over the ocean and instructed him on what to do. The mother beaver ate holes in the enemy boats while Hare was gone. When Hare stole back the scalp, he came running back to the shore, and leaping blindly into the ocean, he landed right on the beaver's shoulders. Some of the enemy found two boats and set out in pursuit, but the beaver flapped her tail down on the waters so hard that she capsized them. Thus, by mastering the waters as a kind of counterpart to the wooden boat and oar, a beaver was responsible for Hare's escape and the restoration of the man's red scalp. [1]

Hare's rather inept older brother, Turtle, had to get some beaver pelts to pay of his debt to a French trader. Instead of hunting the beaver himself, he had both his wives run around clubbing the beavers in the nude. This odd scene was followed later by a wonder. The boat full of beaver skins was docked at a French trading post when it began to tremble and shake in the water. The mere hides of the beavers were effecting this strange incident. [2] Given their commanad over both wood and water, it is not surprising that the power of the beaver spirits could have such an impact on their essential elements.

Once Heroka, who is also Redhorn, was asked by his evil mother-in-law to hunt certain animals that lived at the edge of the world. Her request stemmed from a pretended dream she had that these creatures would cure her equally pretended sickness. These animals were considered the dogs of the evil spirit's family. One of them was a black beaver that lived on the northern edge of the world. Heroka went all the way there, clubbed it to death, and brought it back. Its pelt was so beautiful that the mother wanted to make it into a rug, but this was forbidden, since it was to be an offering to cure disease. The objective of the hunt was consummated only when a feast-offering was made to the assembled spirits. [3] Heroka is the spirit of the (wooden) arrow, and like his alloform Redhorn in the preceding story, he can claim the beaver as his own, taking it with a wooden club.

Pretended dreams are also associated with beavers in the astronomical story, "The Dipper." The grandfather of the personification of Polaris was an evil spirit that was trying to kill him, so his wife and sister-in-law revealed to Polaris the secret way that his grandfather could be killed. This was to boil a beaver with its hair on and have him eat it. The grandson pretended to have a nightmare, and when he told it to his grandfather, he made out that the spirits had demanded an offering to his a warclub. If the grandfather did not participate in the feast, the spirits instructed him to strike him with the warclub. So the young man killed a beaver and boiled it in the manner suggested. When the old man reluctantly ate its flesh, he became violently ill, and his stomach burst, killing him. [4] In the astronomical code of this story, the grandfather plays the role of the sun.

White Wolf's friend among the Good Giants could transform himself into a beaver. Once White Wolf and his friend dueled the Bad Giants, who are man-eaters, to see who could stand the cold the longest. During the contest White Wolf sat atop a mound of snow, but during the night his friend transformed himself into a beaver and swam over to where the wolf sat. He said, "My friend! I am sweating so hard that I want to splash water on myself to cool off." While they were thus talking, the two Bad Giants keeled over dead, frozen into blocks of ice. [5] The beaver-giant is a strangely contradictory amalgam. The reason that Bad Giants eat people is the constant presence of a fist-sized chunk of ice in the pit of their stomachs. This ice controls the cannibalistic Giants; however, the Good Giants are not man-eaters, and therefore do not have this ice in the pit of their stomachs. Thus the Good Giants, as opposed to the Bad Giants, have regained control over the element of water in its frozen form, and therefore are more like beavers. In this story the beaver controls the water through heat, which is like the way humans do when they burn wood to ward off the cold. Although beavers do not have fire, they do construct wooden lodges that also have the effect of keeping out the cold.

The association of beavers and transformation is found in another story. The spirit called "He who Wears White Feather," can transform ordinary moss into a myriad of beavers by merely dipping it into a stream. When his enemy tried to steal two of his beavers, they simply reverted back to moss. [6] This suggests that moss and beavers are counterparts in their respective phyla. Part of the reason for this is that moss, like a beaver, needs both trees and water.

When Holy One was looking for his brother, he encountered an old woman, who in reality was a Beaver Waterspirit. He questioned her concerning the plot of the Waterspirits against him, and when he had extracted the information he need, he knocked her teeth out with his bow. She then transformed into a beaver. [7]

In the language of the Thunderbirds, Waterspirits are always called "beavers" (see Themes below). This is of some interest, since there exists a Beaver Subclan [8], apparently a division of the Waterspirit Clan. Comparisons of the kindred Chiwere clans shows that the Waterspirit Clan is the successor to an earlier Beaver Clan. The terminology of the Thunders seems to reflect this contiguity of the Waterspirit and Beaver Clans. In religious ideology, the beavers who are masters of water by opposing its nature, have become displaced by the Waterspirits, who are masters of water by being identical with that element. Beavers, through their wooden dams (mąšų), are the constrainers and masters of water, not the expressions of its nature. Although both are aquatic, Waterspirits control water by embracing its nature; beavers control it by opposing its nature. They are like Dionysus and Apollo, two opposites from the same universe of discourse.

Links: Hare, Redhorn, Turtle, Heroka, Giants, Wolf & Dog Spirits, Thunderbirds, Waterspirits, Wears Sparrows for a Coat, Polaris, Celestial Spirits.

Stories: mentioning beavers: Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp, White Wolf, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Dipper, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite, The Chief of the Heroka, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men, Turtle and the Merchant.

Themes: a Waterspirit that has been killed for food is called a "beaver" by spirits: The Thunderbird, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, Waruǧábᵉra, The Twins Disobey Their Father, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Bluehorn's Nephews; animals volunteer to be eaten: River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake (a sturgeon), Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (beavers), Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans; crossing a body of water on the back of an animal: Ocean Duck (Waterspirit), Hare Visits the Bodiless Heads (crabs), The Seduction of Redhorn's Sons (leeches), The Hocąk Migration Myth (turtle), Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (beaver), Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts (horse), cf. The Shaggy Man; a spirit's "dogs" turn out to be another kind of animal: Old Man and Wears White Feather (human), Porcupine and His Brothers (frogs), Turtle's Warparty (frogs), Chief of the Heroka (grizzly, wolf, otter, beaver), The Red Man (alligators), Bladder and His Brothers (giant raccoon).


[1] Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 107-111.

[2] Charlie Houghton, Turtle and the Merchant, translation, by Oliver LaMere; in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Winnebago III, #9, Freeman #3894 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) 2-29 = 132-146.

[3] Paul Radin, "The Chief of the Heroka," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #33: 1-66.

[4] Paul Radin, "The Dipper," Notebook Winnebago IV, #8 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Story 8r: 1-29 = Paul Radin, "The Dipper," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #49-50: 1-267.

[5] Paul Radin, "White Wolf," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #10: 1-64.

[6] Paul Radin, "Old Man and His Grandfather," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #53, 1-107.

[7] "Story of the Flood and the Origin of the Spirit Home," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3897 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago V, #24: 25.

[8] Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 336.