The Origin of the Cliff Swallow

by Little Eagle (?) and Don Saunders

retold in Hocąk style by Richard L. Dieterle

There in a village lived an unruly boy, so wild was he that everyone called him, Wowąka. As he was now old enough to hunt birds, his father made for him a bird arrow, however, Wowąka put a large stone point on his new arrow. It was not like anything. And so, in the course of time, he went out bird hunting.

Not far from the village there lived a mockingbird and his mate. Among the birds, of the various kinds that are, the mockingbird is seldom seen, and when he is heard, it is rarely in his own voice. He would imitate the calls of all the tribes of birds, the ones that dwelt upon the ground, the ducks and geese of the waters, the little ones that chirped in the branchs, and even the eagles who fly high in the sky, all these he would mock. As Wowąka was in the forest hunting, the mockingbird gave the call of the eagle. "It would be good if I killed an eagle," he thought, and he shot his stone arrow at the bird that had made the call. The arrow tore the bird apart. As Wowąka retrieved his bloody arrow, he again took aim, as the mockingbird's mate called out to him. But when he shot at her, one of the Wind Spirits blew the arrow far off course, so that it stuck deep in a bank of mud.

And of all these things, Earthmaker knew of them. From the blood of the mockingbird, the Creator of Things made a new kind of bird. This bird had all the speed of an arrow, but could turn as swiftlly as the wind itself. It looked like a mockingbird, but on its back and breast it carried the red mark of the blood that had been on the arrow. Its tail was even forked like the vanes of the arrow. And again because the stone arrowhead had been buried under mud, the new bird would always make its nests by covering the rocky cliff sides with mud. This bird was the Nąnažožopke, the Cliff Swallow.1

Audubon   Marlin Harms
The Northern Mockingbird   The American Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)

Commentary. "Wowąka" — from wowąk, which has a wide range of meaning: "bad, wayward, wrong, naughty, foolish, unthinking, unruly, vicious, wild, wicked, unreliable, crazy, silly." It serves to designate the Devil himself, who is sometimes simply termed, "the Bad One" (Wowągᵋra). The text has "Woe-won-kah (Bad Rabbit)."

Plate 31, BAE 37
A Hocąk Bow and a Bird Arrow

"a bird arrow" — this arrow is whittled entirely out of wood.

"mockingbird" — the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) is found in Hocąk territory in southern Wisconsin, where it dwells during mating season, laying eggs between 16 May - 11 June.2

"Nąnažožopke" — perhaps from ną-na-žo-žop-ge: , "he sleeps"; -na, "the one such that"; žo-žop, an emphatic reduplication of žop, "hollow"; and -ge, "the kind or sort of thing," with the /g/ hardened to /k/ as it is when -ga becomes -ka after a consonant. So the swallow is "the kind of thing that sleeps in something emphatically hollow," as may be seen in its hollow mud nest shown above.

Comparative Material. The idea that the red on the breast of the swallow comes from blood is seen in a Tuscan myth. Jesus on the cross was suffering from a thorn that had penetrated his eye from his crown of thorns slipping down from his head. Jesus asked the swallow to help him by extracting the thorn. The swallow complied, and was blessed thereafter to be a friend of mankind. However, a spot of blood fell upon its breast, and ever after it has had a red breast.3

Links: Swallows, Earthmaker.

Stories: mentioning swallows: The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Death of Red Cloud; mentioning eagles: The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Eagle Clan Origin Myth, The Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth (v. 2), Pigeon Clan Origins, Hocąk Clans Origin Myth, The Hocąk Migration Myth, Trickster and the Eagle, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men, The Gift of Shooting, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite; mentioning Earthmaker: The Creation of the World, The Creation of Man, The Commandments of Earthmaker, The Twins Get into Hot Water, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Lost Blanket, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The First Snakes, Tobacco Origin Myth, The Creation Council, The Gray Wolf Origin Myth, The Journey to Spiritland, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, The Seven Maidens, The Descent of the Drum, Thunder Cloud Marries Again, The Spider's Eyes, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Fourth Universe, Šųgepaga, The Fatal House, The Twin Sisters, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Elk Clan Origin Myth, Deer Clan Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, The Masaxe War, The Two Children, Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Petition to Earthmaker, The Gift of Shooting, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Stone Heart, The Wild Rose, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Lame Friend, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed, The Hocąk Migration Myth, The Necessity for Death, Hocąk Clans Origin Myth, The War among the Animals, Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, Blue Mounds, Lost Lake, The Hocągara Migrate South, The Spirit of Gambling, Turtle and the Giant, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, The Hocągara Contest the Giants, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, Bird Origin Myth, Black and White Moons, Redhorn's Sons, Holy Song, The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, Death Enters the World, Man and His Three Dogs, Trickster Concludes His Mission, Story of the Thunder Names, The Origins of the Milky Way, Trickster and the Dancers, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, The Creation of Evil, The Blessing of Kerexųsaka, Song to Earthmaker, The Blessing of the Bow, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, The Origin of the Cliff Swallow.

Themes: ...


1 "The Legend of the Cliff Swallow," in Captain Don Saunders, Driftwood and Debris: Riverside Tales of the Dells of Old Wisconsin by the River Guides, 2d ed. (Wisconsin Dells: Wisconsin Dells Events, 1959) 75.
2 Samuel D. Robbins, Wisconsin Birdlife: Population & Distribution Past & Present (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991) 447.
3 "Why the Swallows are not Molested, a Legend of Tuscany," in Ada Walker Camehl, The Swallow Book; the Story of the Swallow Told in Legends, Fables, Folk Songs, Proverbs, Omens and Riddles of Many Lands (New York, Cincinnati: American Book Companyj, ca. 1912) 54-56.