Bird Spirits

by Richard L. Dieterle


Preeminent among all Bird Spirits are the Thunderbirds, who cause thunder, lightning, and rain. Nevertheless, the chief of the Thunders, Great Black Hawk, is not actually the chief of birds. This honor belongs to Rušewe, created by Earthmaker himself in order to overawe the Twins when they exceeded the proper bounds of their power. Unlike Thunderbirds, who may assume the form of most any kind of bird, but most particularly raptors, Rušewe is a mere turkey.1 Yet it is the feathers of this bird that give the arrow its flight,2 and the arrow is without doubt the most deadly of all flying things.

The arrow is also the fastest of "birds" — even the Twins could not run away from Rušewe.3 In a race among the spirits, the black hawk, hummingbird, and eagle were the fastest,4 but in a race among Thunderbird, Hawk, Eagle, and Pigeon, the latter was the surprise winner.5 However, Redhorn turned himself into his own arrow, and pulled ahead of even the black hawk, showing once again that the arrow is the swiftest of flying things.6

The combination of speed, flight, and beauty make the moon a natural associate of birds. When the spirits were trying to decide how many moons should define a year, the partridge and the wild turkey both advanced the number of spots on their tail feathers, but this was rejected as being too many.7 An auk holding the heads of two of his enemies form the markings on the moon. His escape to the moon was aided and abetted by his grandmother, the curlew.8

Avian Spirits often engage in fighting. Cranes and Owls, despite their different appearances, were once brothers, but some of the owls attempted to take the food of Crane, which precipitated a schism that has lasted even to this day.9 In primordial times the cranes used to war against the Nightspirits, but the Thunderbirds intervened and dealt the cranes a decisive defeat through the first use of the Thunderbird Warclub.10 The chief of the white cranes and his brother the Forked Man (a forked tailed hawk) war continually against the small creatures of the earth.11 The Thunderbirds are eternal enemies of the Waterspirits, whom they not only kill, but eat.12 In one case, a Waterspirit devoured a Thunderbird except for a single feather, from which it was possible to regenerate him.13 The peculiar ability to regenerate from a single feather is also told of mysterious red Bird Spirit who was shot in the village in which he appeared.14

Bad spirits often appear in avian form, and even Bird Spirits who are on the whole allied with the good spirits often have their bad side. The belligerent propensities of Thunderbirds and their voracious culinary habits sometimes put them in opposition to humans. Even the Good Thunderbirds will occasionally eat a human being,15 but the Bad Thunderbirds are particularly attracted to the practice. One human whom they had captured was even fattened up to be sure that he measured up to their standards of taste.16 The Bad Thunderbirds, however, are not the only bad Spirit Birds. Owls have a particular reputation in that respect. Several evil spirits when defeated were condemned to lead the rest of their lives as owls,17 and parents often tell misbehaving children, "The owls will get you!"18 An evil Bird Spirit called, Zogega, guarded the shore of an island from which the bad spirits made cannibalistic forays against the humans. On its long, sharp bill, it would skewer anything that attempted to approach the island from underground.19 Birds, because of their great beauty, also have a propensity to become conceited. The meadow lark was so conceited about having won a contest to find a certain yellow earth, that it splattered mud on its breast, a blemish it bore ever after.20 The blue jay once had a voice to match its plumage, but because of its conceit, Earthmaker gave it a rasping voice.21 Bird Spirits often attempt to deceive people fasting for blessings from the spirits. Wagišeka was deceived by a blue jay that assumed the form of a great man with a cane who radiated a blue nimbus. Others say that he was deceived by a pigeon and three other Bird Spirits who also impersonated Earthmaker.22 Flocks of "evil little birds" attempt to discourage those on the journey to Spiritland.23 Other birds choose to serve evil spirits. A partridge appeared at the will of an evil spirit who used it to test his human opponents.24 Another very strange Spirit Bird, called "Ocean Sucker," served certain Bear Spirits who were waging war on some of the good spirits. Even though Ocean Sucker was the son-in-law of Turtle, he sucked up all the water in the lake in which Turtle was attempting to hide.25 Owl, himself a bad spirit, aided the Spirit of Gamboling in a staring contest against the good spirits.26

One of the really strange uses to which birds are put, to aid or oppose humans, is in gamboling. In a game of "Jack Pines," the Spirit of Gamboling used a whole partridge as his stick, but Hare used Crane, and with his superior bill, emerged victorious.27 In another waiką, a Giant pounds his chest and coughs up a whole, live pheasant. The good spirit who opposes him does the same thing, and coughs up a "woodsplitter" (šarorup'e). With this bird he triumphs by picking up more wooden chips than his man-eating opponent.28 In another game, the Giants contest Turtle by throwing snowbirds as dice.29

Many Bird Spirits are helpful to mankind. A human had three Bird Spirits for brothers — a robin, an owl, and a black hawk — all of whom helped him overcome their were-grizzly sister.30 A Bird Spirit emerged from a black hawk wing in a hero's headdress to help him in the body form of that raptor.31 The Thunderbirds often bless vision seekers with powers of war and of life, even going so far as to bestow the Thunderbird Warclub on a human who had visited them. This warclub was so effective that it had to be recalled and replaced by a copy.32 The founding of the Hočąk Bird Clan is intimately associated with Bird Spirits. The Thunderbird Clan was founded by four brothers who were not Thunderbirds themselves, but were created in their image and set on earth under their guidance.33 In the end, of course, the greatest thing that Bird Spirits do for mankind is to offer themselves up as food, a self sacrifice for which humanity will always be grateful.34


Links: Spirits, Rušewe, Thunderbirds, Great Black Hawk, Black Hawks, Hummingbirds, Earthmaker, Ducks, Blue Jay, Loons, Black Hawk, The Forked Man, Kaǧi, Wears Sparrows for a Coat, Crane and Crane Spirits, The Redhorn Panel of Picture Cave. An American Star Map, Eagle, Owls, Pigeon, Pigeon Hawk, Wonáǧire Wąkšik, Partridge (Quail), Swans, The Thunderbird Warclub, Moon, Redhorn, Hare, Giants, Turtle, Gottschall, Nightspirits, Martens, Lice.


Stories: about Bird Spirits: Crane and His Brothers, The King Bird, Bird Origin Myth, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Wears White Feather on His Head, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Thunderbird, The Boy Who Became a Robin, Partridge's Older Brother, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Foolish Hunter, Ocean Duck, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Quail Hunter, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Hočąk Arrival Myth, Trickster Gets Pregnant, Trickster and the Geese, Holy One and His Brother (kaǧi, woodpeckers, hawks), Porcupine and His Brothers (Ocean Sucker), Turtle's Warparty (Thunderbirds, eagles, kaǧi, pelicans, sparrows), Kaǧiga and Lone Man (kaǧi), The Old Man and the Giants (kaǧi, bluebirds), The Bungling Host (snipe, woodpecker), The Red Feather, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Waruǧápara, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Black and White Moons, The Markings on the Moon, The Creation Council, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna (chicken hawk), Hare Acquires His Arrows, Worúxega (eagle), Hočąk Clans Origin Myth, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, The Hočąk Migration Myth, Blue Jay, The Baldness of the Buzzard, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster (buzzards), The Shaggy Man (kaǧi), The Healing Blessing (kaǧi), The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (kaǧi), Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Įčorúšika and His Brothers (Loon), Great Walker's Medicine (loon), Roaster (woodsplitter), The Spirit of Gambling, The Big Stone (a partridge), Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, The Fleetfooted Man, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4) — see also Thunderbirds, and the sources cited there; featuring Pigeon as a character: Pigeon Clan Origins, Origin of the Hočąk Chief, Hočąk Clans Origin Myth, The Creation Council, The Creation of Man (v. 2).


Genealogies: Thunderbirds, Chief of the White Cranes (+ Hįja Owl Spirit, The Forked Man, the Čaručge).


Notes

1 Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. Bollingen Foundation, Special Publications, 3 (1954): 83-84, 97; Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 55. Informant: Sam Blowsnake of the Thunderbird Clan, ca. 1912.

2 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 94; Oliver LaMère (Bear Clan) and Harold B. Shinn, Winnebago Stories (New York, Chicago: Rand, McNally and Co., 1928) 135; W. C. McKern, "A Winnebago Myth," Yearbook, Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee, 9 (1929): 215-230.

3 Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. A Study in Comparative Literature, Part I (Basil: Ethnographical Museum, Basil Switzerland, 1954) 97. Informant: Sam Blowsnake of the Thunderbird Clan, ca. 1912.

4 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 115-118.

5 Felix White, Sr. (Wolf Clan), "Origin of the Winnebago Chief," in David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 17.

6 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 115-118.

7 LaMère and Shinn, Winnebago Stories, 91-99.

8 Paul Radin, "The Auk," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #46: 1-22.

9 Paul Radin, "The Crane," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #48.

10 Paul Radin, "Ma ceniabera," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #21: 1-134.

11 Paul Radin, "Wears White Feather on His Head," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #4: 1-50.

12 Radin, "Winnebago Tales," Journal of American Folklore, 22 (1909): 288-300. E. W. Lenders, "The Myth of the 'Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah,' or the Sacred Warclub Bundle," Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 46 (1914): 404-420. Paul Radin, "The Thunderbird," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #16. Paul Radin, "Winnebago Tales," Journal of American Folklore, 22 (1909): 300-303. Radin, "Ma ceniabera," Notebook #21.

13 Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 288-300. Lenders, "The Myth of the 'Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah,' or the Sacred Warclub Bundle," 404-420.

14 LaMère and Shinn, Winnebago Stories, 49-56.

15 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 132-134. Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. A Study in Comparative Literature, Part I (Basil: Ethnographical Museum, Basil Switzerland, 1954) 80-84. Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 393, 415 nt. 52, 415-416.

16 Paul Radin, "Winnebago Tales," Journal of American Folklore, 22 (1909): 300-303.

17 Paul Radin, "The Chief of the Heroka," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #33, p. 63; Lenders, "The Myth of the 'Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah,' or the Sacred Warclub Bundle," 409.

18 Lenders, The Myth of the Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah, 409 (gloss).

19 Paul Radin, "A Wakjonkaga Myth," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #37: 1-70.

20 Capt. Don Saunders, When the Moon is a Silver Canoe. Legends of the Wisconsin Dells (Wisconsin Dells, Wisc.: Don Saunders, 1947) 8-9.

21 Charles E. Brown, Birchbark Tales: Animal Stories of the Wisconsin Indians (Madison: Wisconsin Folklore Society, 1941) 7.

22 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 497. Sam Blowsnake (ed. Paul Radin), Crashing Thunder. The Autobiography of an American Indian (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983 [1926]) 20-23.

23 Paul Radin, "The Journey of the Ghost to Spiritland: As Told in the Medicine Rite," The Culture of the Winnebago as Described by Themselves (Baltimore: Special Publications of the Bollingen Foundation, #1, 1949) 60-72. Informant: Jasper Blowsnake, Thunderbird Clan.

24 Paul Radin, "The Big Stone," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #35.

25 Paul Radin, "Porcupine," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #11: 1-43.

26 LaMère and Shinn, Winnebago Stories, 75-86.

27 LaMère and Shinn, Winnebago Stories, 75-86.

28 Paul Radin, "The Roaster," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #2.

29 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 123-129.

30 Paul Radin, "Partridge's Older Brother," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #7.

31 Paul Radin, "The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #1: 1-11.

32 Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 288-300. Lenders, "The Myth of the 'Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah,' or the Sacred Warclub Bundle," 404-420. Radin, "The Thunderbird," Notebook #16.

33 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 159-163.

34 Oliver LaMère and Harold B. Shinn, Winnebago Stories (New York, Chicago: Rand, McNally and Co., 1928) 38-45.