Disease Giver (Hošere’ų́wahira)

by Richard L. Dieterle

When people fall ill, the ultimate agent of their malady is a god who dwells in the south, a deity unique to the Hocągara, known simply as "Disease Giver." Next to Earthmaker himself, Disease Giver is the holiest and most powerful of spirits.1 Like the underworld powers in Greece, his name must be used circumspectly and not capriciously or in vain, for to do so could greatly weaken the offender.2 Although Disease Giver has the form of a man,3 his body is divided into two halves, one of which dispenses life, and the other death.4 Prayers are addressed to Disease Giver that he might turn away his death side and face the speaker only with his life side, which has the power to cure any disease. When he does spread disease, he is said to "go upon the warpath" (manina) and to "trample" (wamáninįk) upon his victims. The same death side that dispenses disease also controls more war powers than any other spirit, and Disease Giver is able to grant these powers to anyone who finds his favor.5 He alone can bestow the power to kill a man outright. So strong are his powers in war that he himself has the reputation as the bravest of the spirits.6

Typical offerings to Disease Giver are by mouth (prayer), by reed flutes (music), kettles of food, tobacco, (red) feathers, and white dogs. Once Disease Giver gave Jobenągiwįxka a sacred flute, but he misused it and his blessing was reduced as a consequence. Thereafter he and his descendants used the flute in connection with offerings of white buckskins to the god.7 Disease Giver cannot be propitiated by the ordinary offerings of red feathers and tobacco alone, but must be tendered something akin to a human sacrifice. This is accomplished by the presentation of a dog, which must be killed so that it utters no sound upon its demise.8 The ideal offering would be a white, male dog.9 Dogs are raised as human counterparts, being treated with affection as members of the family,10 even to the extent of having a plate set out for them in the human dining area.11 After their meat has been devoured in ritual feasts, the bones of dogs sacrificed to Disease Giver must be reverently buried at the base of a tree where the ground has been hallowed and purified by the smoke of burning red cedar (juniper). [inset] Red feathers and tobacco must also be offered at the burial.12

The emblem of Disease Giver [inset], which is placed upon his white buckskin offering, consists of twelve short, red vertical lines arranged in four rows of three lines each,13 probably representing the twelve clans of the Hocąk Nation.

Once a man scoffed at the cult of Disease Giver and was visited by the spirit when he was alone in the wilderness. Nevertheless, the man overcame the power of Disease Giver by remaining indifferent to him. When Disease Giver explained what havoc would befall the human race if he were prevented from completing his mission, the man consented to die. However, he exacted the promise that he would revive from the dead after four days. This was granted on the condition that no one viewed his body. When the man died, his wife could not contain her curiosity and went to see his body. As a result he never revived, and when they went to take his body, the red mark of Disease Giver was found on his forehead.14

Links: Earthmaker, Wolf & Dog Spirits, South Wind.

Stories: featuring Disease Giver as a character: Disease Giver Blesses Jobenągiwįxka, The Man who Defied Disease Giver, Bow Meets Disease Giver; featuring dog sacrifice: Wolf Clan Origin Myth (v. 5), Redhorn's Sons, Disease Giver Blesses Jobenągiwįxka, see also Wolf & Dog Spirits; mentioning red feathers (as an offering to the spirits): The Red Feather, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 4), Big Thunder Teaches Cap’ósgaga the Warpath, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, The Elk's Skull, The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits, The Nightspirits Bless Jobenągiwįxka, Great Walker's Medicine, The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Twins Visit Their Father's Village, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Were-fish (v. 1), The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth.

Themes: somatic dualism: The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits, The Chief of the Heroka, Bear Clan Origin Myth, Wears White Feather on His Head, The Red Man, The Forked Man, The Man with Two Heads; a dog is killed in order to send it as a messenger to one of the great spirits: Wolf Clan Origin Myth; burying something sacred in purified ground in conjunction with tobacco offerings: The Twins Disobey Their Father, cf. The Two Boys (negation).


1 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 484.

2 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 239, 388, 392, 401; Sam Blowsnake (ed. Paul Radin), Crashing Thunder. The Autobiography of an American Indian (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983 [1926]) 84. 

3 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 401.

4 Blowsnake, Crashing Thunder, 84.

5 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 392, 409, 479; Sam Blowsnake, The Warbundle Feast of the Thunderbird Clan, in Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 426-429.

6 Blowsnake, Crashing Thunder, 84.

7 Sam Blowsnake, The Warbundle Feast of the Thunderbird Clan, in Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 426-429.

8 Fanny D. Bergen, "Some Customs and Beliefs of the Winnebago Indians," The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 9 (1896): 53-54; Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 403.

9 Blowsnake, Crashing Thunder, 84.

10 Nancy Oestreich Lurie, "Dog Children among the Winnebago," Lore, 2, #2 (1952): 54-56; Radin, loc. cit., 403; Amelia L. Susman, Winnebago Materials (American Philosophical Society #21095, 1938-1939) Notebook 2: 2-3. Her informant was Sam Blowsnake.

11 Lurie, "Dog Children among the Winnebago."

12 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 484.

13 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 200, plate 48.

14 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 261-262.