The Origin of Big Canoe's Name


J. O. Lewis
Wajᵋxetega, Big Canoe, 1825

Chah-post-ka-ka, called the Buzzard Decorah, was the second son of "Glory of the Morning." He was at LaCrosse in 1787 with his band when he was killed there. His two sons were called Big Canoe or One Eyed Decorah, and Wakun-ha-ga or Snake Skin, known as Waukon Decorah. The Winnebagoes explain the origin of Big Canoe's name by the following story:


(228) One time when the Winnebagoes were encamped on the shores of a great lake or bay, a French party visited them and asked for assistance in fighting the English. A large number of warriors responded and were transported across the water in large boats. On their arrival at their destination, they saw a large encampment of soldiers, which the Indians were informed were British prisoners. The next evening a body of English troops appeared (229) in sight and, not knowing that their comrades were prisoners, they came to re-inforce them. Hearing of the surrender, the English dropped anchor, and as it was already dark, laid off for the night. About midnight, Big Canoe with four companions suddenly snuck up to the boat in their canoes. Boarding the troop ship, the English believed they constituted a large surprise party and surrendered to them.

The red coats were taken in charge by the French, who bestowed upon the Big Canoe an officer's uniform and other tokens of their appreciation of his services. From this event, the Chieftain was given his name, Watch-hat-ta-kaw, meaning Big Canoe.1


Commentary."Chah-post-ka-ka" — this is for Čap’ósgaga, "White Breast," a clan name from the Thunderbird Clan.

"Wakun-ha-ga"this is for Wakąhaga, which does literally mean "Snake Skin." Waukon (Waką[ga]) means "Snake."

"a great lake or bay" — this is an oblique way of referring to Green Bay and Red Banks, the traditional place of Hočąk origins, in particular.

"Watch-hat-ta-ka" — for Wajᵋxetega (< Wač-xete-ga). The word wač means basically, "boat," so that wač-xete means fundamentally, "big boat." Was he called Wač-xete because he captured a big boat of English soldiers, or was it because he attacked this objective using a big boat? The former seems more likely.


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Stories: mentioning Big Canoe (One-Eyed Decorah): Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon; mentioning Čap’ósgaga: The Fox-Hočąk War, Big Thunder Teaches Čap’ósgaga the Warpath, The Osage Massacre; about famous Hočąk warriors and warleaders: How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, Little Priest's Game, The Masaxe War (Hogimasąga), Wazųka, Great Walker's Warpath (Great Walker), Great Walker's Medicine (Great Walker, Smoke Walker, Dog Head, Small Snake), Šųgepaga (Dog Head), The Warbundle Maker (Dog Head), The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hočągara (Smoke Walker, Dog Head, Small Snake), Big Thunder Teaches Čap’ósgaga the Warpath (Big Thunder, Čap’ósgaga), The Osage Massacre (Big Thunder, Čap’ósgaga), The Fox-Hočąk War (Čap’ósgaga), White Thunder's Warpath, Four Legs, The Man who Fought against Forty (Mąčosepka), Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon, The Hills of La Crosse (Yellow Thunder), The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, Fighting Retreat, Mitchell Red Cloud, jr. Wins the Medal of Honor (Mitchell Red Cloud, jr.), How Jarrot Got His Name, They Owe a Bullet (Pawnee Shooter); mentioning the Decorah family: Origin of the Decorahs, The Glory of the Morning, The Tavern Visit, How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, The Hočągara Contest the Giants.


Notes

1 quoted from Norton William Jipson, Story of the Winnebagoes (Chicago: The Chicago Historical Society, 1923) 228-229. This is an unpublished typescript.