Black Hawks

by Richard L. Dieterle

"Black Hawk" is a widespread Indian term for certain kinds of raptorial birds, although the term cannot be found in an English dictionary. In 1909, Emil William Lenders, whose informant was Joseph LaMère of the Bear Clan, said that this bird is the Black Swallow-tail Kite (Nauclerus forficatus), now known as the American Swallow-tail Kite (Elanoides forficatus).1 Its usual habitat is river bottoms, swamps, and forest glades, which strongly associates it with water.2 The bird is about two feet in length and both sexes are the same black and white color. Its most recognizable feature is its forked tail (Latin, forficatus).3 "This bird [is] one of the most exquisite creatures alive,"4 largely on account of the fact that it has the most forked tail of all raptors, giving it aerodynamic powers that make it "the most aerial of our birds of prey."5 It is the most aerobatic and graceful of all birds, as it seldom flies in a straight line, but inscribes graceful turns and dips as if showing off its skill. It feeds mainly on insects, lizards, snakes, and other reptiles, but never attacks small birds. It builds nests in the upper branches of high trees with twigs and occasional moss lining. It usually lays two eggs, but sometimes as many as four, which run from white to beige in color with chestnut splotches on the larger ends.6 The bird is now almost never seen in Wisconsin. In times past it was quite otherwise, as Barry observed in 1854: "At one time quite numerous upon our prairies, and quite annoying to us in grouse shooting; now rarely met with in this vicinity [southwest Wisconsin]."7 Increase Lapham remarks, "This kite was numerous within 10 miles of Racine, where they nested up to the year 1848, since which time they have abandoned this region. I have not seen one since 1850. They nested on tall elm trees about the 10th of June, and left us about the 1st of September."8

Swallow-tail kites are very rare in Wisconsin, but they are blown north by storms frequently enough.9 To observant people, this remarkable bird might well have a special association with thunderstorms. It never travels in a straight line and is altogether absent in the winter. It is little wonder then, that the chief of all the Thunders is Great Black Hawk. He possesses the powerful Thunderbird Warclub, the slightest shaking of which will lead to terrible thunder.10 That Thunderbirds generally are said to be bald in their anthropomorphic guise, is probably due to more than the fortunate assonance between capara, "baldheaded," and jąpara, "lightning." Radin remarked in this connection, of the Thunderbird,

Something of the older conception still clings to him, however, for he frequently acts as a bird and the flashing of his eyes still causes lightning. His baldness itself is an archaic feature, because the Thunderbird originally was supposed to be a kind of eagle.11

It is clear now that it is not the Bald Eagle which served as the model, but the bird that naive people have been known to confused with it, the American Swallow-tail Kite, also known as the Black Hawk. In the great Creation Council held to establish the Hocąk clans, the leader known as "Black Hawk" was a terrestrial counterpart to Great Black Hawk.12 When Black Hawk died, since he was the first of all humans to succumb to death, he became chief over the spirit realm of the Thunderbird Clan.13

Part of the superiority of the black hawk resides in its speed. It is probably for this reason that a black hawk was among those selected to be messengers to the spirits of the Upper World when Hare called a general council to find a means to restore Red Star.14 In a race among the spirits, Black Hawk was out in front.15 In a great contest between a number of Good Spirits and the Giants, one of the competitions was a race. The two Giants in this race would change themselves into fleet animals, while their competitor would change himself into a similar but faster animal. The Giants changed into pigeon hawks, but the Good Spirit turned himself into a black hawk who eventually won the race. The Good Spirit turned out to be Wind, the fastest of all things in nature.16 The black hawk clearly stands in opposition to the pigeon hawk. In a lacrosse game in which spirits arrayed themselves on opposite sides, Black Hawk confronted Little Pigeon Hawk in a struggle for the ball. Black Hawk cleaved his opponent in two and followed that feat with a goal.17 The black hawk is not only noted for speed, power, and agility, but for being able to climb to great altitudes. A young man who joined up with the Thunderbirds nearly reached the lofty abode of these spirits by changing himself into a black hawk. He got so far that the Thunderbirds took him by the arms and lifted him the small distance remaining.18

Black hawks are often associated in story with hummingbirds, since both represent opposite ends of the spectrum of great fliers. In the waiką the "Dipper," Polaris in human form shoots an otter, but the otter survives to chase after him. Polaris turns into a black hawk, but just as the otter swallows the black hawk, a hummingbird emerges out of its nostrils. This adventure happened more than once. The hummingbird is a stellar alloform of the Pole Star since Polaris is a hovering star. The part of the Milky Way that looks like a black hawk seems to be looking at him. Thus Polaris is also called, "Black Hawk Looking at Us as He Stands." Thus, in another image of the same thing, Polaris is said to have a living black hawk as a headdress that cries out (shines) with a good voice, Kisik-a! Once a mortal man trying to follow after the Thunderbirds changed himself first into a woodpecker, then into a hummingbird, and finally into a black hawk. In trying to escape from Waterspirits later, he changed from a black hawk into a hummingbird.19 When the Ioway sorcerer Cašex'įga came to Keramaniš’aka to bless him with certain powers, he came in the form of a black hawk whose voice Keramaniš’aka first heard outside his lodge.20

Black Hawk Spirits often bless humans. Great Black Hawk himself has control over the powers of war,21 and is best remembered for having given the Thunderbird Clan a powerful copy of the original Thunderbird Warclub.22 Once a young man was blessed by another Black Hawk Spirit. The man had a black hawk wing in his headdress, and this wing came alive in the form of this bird while the boy was fleeing from his village. That night, the black hawk hunted ducks and supplied the young man with food. The black hawk decided to stay in this region since the hunting was so good. When the young man returned home, he found that his half-sister had turned into a grizzly bear and had devastated his village. He was able to kill her, and his hunting prowess, part of which was given to him by the Black Hawk Spirit, enabled him to keep the village in prosperity ever after.23

At a mystical level, the shells shot at an initiate in the Medicine Rite are said to be black hawks.24 When the initiate is struck by the shell-projectile, shot from a bladder, he falls upon the ground, sometime quivering, as if he had been struck by lightning, the weapon whose governance falls to the Thunderbirds, whose chief is Great Black Hawk. The bladder for shooting shells may in some cases have been inserted inside the body of a black hawk.25

Links: Great Black Hawk, Hawks, Polaris, Celestial Spirits, Hummingbirds, Thunderbirds, Otters, The Creation Council, Black Hawk, Gottschall, Pigeon Hawk, Bird Spirits, The Thunderbird Warclub, Waterspirits.

Stories: mentioning black hawks: Hawk Clan Origin Myth (v. 2), The Dipper, The Thunderbird, Partridge's Older Brother, The Woman who Loved her Half-Brother, Waruǧábᵉra, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Morning Star and His Friend, The Coughing Up of the Black Hawks, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, Heną́ga and Star Girl, Keramaniš’aka's Blessing, The Race for the Chief's Daughter; mentioning Great Black Hawk: Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Chief of the Heroka, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Thunderbird, Waruǧábᵉra, The Lost Blanket, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Redhorn's Sons, The Nightspirits Bless Ciwoit’éhiga, Black Otter's Warpath (head of the Thunders); featuring Black Hawk as a character: Morning Star and His Friend, The Creation Council.

Themes: people turn into birds: Waruǧabᵉra (owl, Thunderbird), Worúxega (eagle), The Thunderbird (black hawk, hummingbird), The Dipper (black hawk, hummingbird), The Hocąk Arrival Myth (ravens), The Annihilation of the Hocągara I (turkey), The Quail Hunter (partridge), The Markings on the Moon (auk, curlew), The Fleetfooted Man (water fowl?), The Boy Who Became a Robin (robin); a young man has a living bird with a clear voice as his headdress: Old Man and Wears White Feather (loon), The Dipper (black hawk).


1 Emil William Lenders, "The Myth of the 'Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah,' or the Sacred Warclub Bundle," Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 46 (1914): 409. For the American Swallow-tail Kite, see the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Edition. 2d revised edition. John Bull, John Farrand, jr., Amanda Wilson, and Lori Hogan, edd. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf (Chanticleer Press), 1994) 420-421, plate 317.

2 Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Edition, 420-421, plate 317.

3 The Birds of Louisiana, Bulletin 20, State of Louisiana Department of Conservation (New Orleans, Department of Conservation, 1931) 192-193; National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Edition, 420-421, plate 317.

4 John James Audubon, The Birds of America (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1937).

5 National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Edition, 421.

6 The Birds of Louisiana, 192-193; National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Edition, 420-421, plate 317.

7 A. C. Barry, Ornithological Fauna of Wisconsin, Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, 5 (1854): 1-13.

8 Increase Allen Lapham, Fauna and Flora of Wisconsin (Madison: 1852) 343, sv Nauclerus Furcatus, Linn.

9 Samuel D. Robbins, Jr., Wisconsin Birdlife: Population and Distribution Past and Present (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991) 202.

10 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 302-311.

11 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 239.

12 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 192.

13 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 164-168.

14 Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. A Study in Comparative Literature (Basil: Ethnographical Museum, Basil Switzerland, 1954) I.24-41.

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

16 Paul Radin, "Spear Shaft and Lacrosse," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #36: 1-81.

17 John Harrison, The Giant or The Morning Star, translated by Oliver LaMere, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3892 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago III, #11a, Story 8: 92-117.

18 Paul Radin, "The Thunderbird," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #16.

19 Radin, "The Thunderbird," Notebook #16.

20 Paul Radin, The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians. Bollingen Series V (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973 [1945]) 92-93.

21 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 392, 417, 487.

22 Paul Radin, "Winnebago Tales," Journal of American Folklore, 22 (1909): 288-303; Lenders, "The Myth of the 'Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah,' or the Sacred Warclub Bundle," 404-420. Told by Joseph LaMère, Bear Clan, to Radin in the summer of 1908 and to Lenders in Aug. - Sept., 1909.

23 Paul Radin, "The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #1: 1-11. A very similar story is told in Paul Radin, "Partridge's Older Brother," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #7.

24 Jasper Blowsnake, Untitled, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3887 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Library, n.d.) Winnebago II, #7: 201-202. Radin, The Road of Life and Death, 281-282.

25 This bird might also have been the sparrow hawk. See Paul Radin, The Road of Life and Death, 287-289. The Hocąk text is found in Jasper Blowsnake, Untitled, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3887 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Library, n.d.) Winnebago II, #7: 207-211.