The Elk's Skull (§14 of the Trickster Cycle)

Version 1

translation based on the interlinear of Oliver LaMère

Hočąk Syllabic Text with English Interlinear Translation

(317) On the way he came to a valley there. (318) Across the valley they were beating a round drum and they were whooping and making a lot of noise. So much so that it reached up to the sky. (319) "Kora, what are they about to do? I will go over there. I have not seen any fun for a long while. Whatever they are about to do, I will join them," he said. (320) "They are about to dance and I also used to dance," he was saying. When he was going across the valley, they did it again. Again there was a noise. They all shouted and it was loud. (321) He was thinking that there would be some very great many people there. Yet again they did it. When the drum thundered, the heavens seemed to burst. (322) They shouted and now he became so very anxious that he began to run. They were saying it nearby, but he couldn't see any people anywhere. Again they did it. It was very great. (323) What a thing it was! The sky seem to burst. Even now he seemed rather like he was going in their midst, but he didn't see anyone. (324) Here lay a bone of something. Here he seemed to notice something. It was an elk's head. It had many horns. (325) The horns branched out in every direction. Now again he watched it carefully. Again they did it. It was a lot of fun, and it was happening in the elk's head. There inside, it was completely filled with a great many flies. (326) They would go inside and when they rushed out, he heard it as shouting. He looked at them. They were having a great deal of fun. (327) He envied them. "Well, whatever they were doing, I would join them. I was saying as I came, 'What could I do to join them?'," he was thinking. (328) Then he said, "Koté my younger brothers, what great fun you are making, what a great good thing you are doing. I want very much to be one of you. (329) How you do this and are able to do it, if you show me how, I also would join you," he said to them. "Koté, it is difficult to join with us. (330) We enter in at the hollow spot at the neck and that is how we do it, as you have already seen," they said to him. They said this so that he would try to enter, but he always failed. He very much would like to do it, but he was not able. (331) "How do you mange to enter there, my younger brothers?" he said. The man was lacking, although he longed to. (332) Then they said to him, "Koté, if you wish to come in, just say, 'Hollow of the neck, become big.' If you say it, the hollow of the neck will enlarge. (333) This way you can come in. That is what we say and the way we do it," they said to him. So now he sat down to it and, "Hollow of the Neck become big," he said, (334) and the hole formed by the hollow of the neck enlarged. His head fit in, so he entered and his head remained inside up to his neck. Just then all the insects ran out. (335) Then where he entered became small again. He was held fast there. He did much, but it was of no avail. Thus he failed. (336) When he failed to free his head, as a consequence, he wore it and went towards the bank of the river. He had long, branching horns. He wore an elk's head and when he came to the river, (337) he went along its bank.

Finally, as he went on, there unexpectedly, he came to human habitations. Then he waited for night there. (338) He lay there where they come to dip for water. He was wearing his coon skin blanket and to look at him was frightening. His whole body was covered with his coon skin blanket and he had long, branching horns, and (339) early in the morning a woman coming after water saw him. She started to run back, but he said to her, "Turn back. I bless you," he said to her. She turned back, and when she came there, he said to her, (340) "Go home and bring an ax back with you. Then, as many offerings as you should use — your fellow humans will tell you," he said. "Then you will strike me on top of my head. (341) And whatever you use my skull for, it will become true. I am an Elk Waterspirit (Hųwa-Wakjexi). This village has dreamt," he said to her. I am one of the great ones of the waters," (342) he said to her. Then the woman went home.

When she got home she told of it. "There is an ancient Waterspirit at the water dipping place. He blessed me, he said. A medicine chest box he has with him. (343) Then when we place an ax and all the offerings there, then we are to hit the top of his head, he said. Once we cracked his head, we could use that for things, (344) he said," she said. The people took offering with them and they went below. Sure enough, there he was. He was very frightening. They brought many offerings, tobacco, red feathers, white deerskin, and red yarn belts. (345) Once they had done thus, then when they appointed one of them, he used the ax and struck him on the top of his head. His head suddenly split in two. (346) And unexpectedly there Trickster was laughing and he arose there. "I was wearing a nice headdress, but you spoiled it for me," he said. There he laughed a good deal and got up. (347) "It's Trickster," they said. Then he said to them, "You let many things go for offerings, so it will not go for naught. (348) Whatever you use this head for, it will come to pass," he said to them. So there they made themselves instruments. Sure enough, they were effective. (349) And then from there he went away someplace.1

Version 2

"Another time Wak-chung-kaka [Wakjąkaga] was walking along the sandy shore of a lake, and when he came to a point of the shore he heard a cry, 'Wu-wu-wu!' He looked over the point. but could see nobody. so he walked on till he heard the cry, 'Wu-wu-wu!' and saw a little cloud of flies fly up into the air. There was an elk's head lying on the shore, and a swarm of flies flew in at the neck-hole behind, and then flew out again all at once. Wak-chung-kaka stood and looked at them. 'That must be good sport,' he thought. 'I wish I could do that too.' A little fly looked up at him and said, 'Wak-chung-kaka, you can!' At once Wak-chung-kaka felt himself growing smaller and smaller, till he was no bigger than a fly, and then he easily went in at the hole in the head and flew out again, crying, 'Wu-wu-wu!' He thought it was fine sport to fly in and out, in and out, with the swarm of flies. So the flies let him play with them for a while, till all at once, when Wak-chung-kaka was just starting to go in, he grew to his own natural size, and as he already had his head within the elk's head, the neck-hole fitted him so closely that he could not get his head out again. Wak-chung-kaka walked on, wearing the elk's head; and as he could not see very well, he walked into the lake. The water came up to the eye-holes of the head, and Wak-chung-kaka swam until he came near a village that stood beside the lake, and when the peeple saw the elk-horns moving along the water they said, 'It is a water-spirit; let us offer him gifts.' For there are spirits in the ground, under the water, and in great springs of the hills, and the spirits often look like elk or buffalo. So the people brought tobacco and beads and laid them on the shore before Wak-chung-kaka, and he stayed in the water; and the young people prayed to him, 'Spirit, grant us long life!' and the old people prayed, 'Long life for our children!' and to every prayer Wak-chung-kaka answered, 'Ho!' (yes). At length, when all the people were gathered before him, he said, 'My nephews and nieces, I will grant your prayers if you will do what I tell you. Let two strong men take hold of my horns, one on each side, and let another one split my head down the middle, carefully, carefully—he must be careful not to cut too deep.' So two strong men took hold of his horns, one on each side, and pulled with all their might, while a third took a stone axe and very carefully chopped the elk's head down the middle, till crack! the skull fell apart, and there stood Wak-chung-kaka, and laughed, 'Haw, haw, haw!'"2

Commentary. "the man was lacking" — in Hočąk this is, wąkra haruges, which is nearly identical with wąkra harukéz, "the man was caught." In fact, they are both spelled the same way in the syllabic text, A so Kere. This is an interesting, skillful, and humorous use of a pun to underscore the fact that Trickster's lack (of good sense) is what got him caught (in the skull).

"an Elk Waterspirit" — this is a Waterspirit that has certain elk characteristics, most notably the branching horns. A Waterspirit (Hočąk, Wakjexi) is a spirit who lives in animal from underwater or in caves within the earth. They are considered tricky, and their blessings are thought to be dubious. They will often offer a worshipper their own earthly body out of which to make medicines. LaMère translates Wakjexi as "Spirit," since the Hočąk term has no exact English equivalent. Unfortunately, Radin adopted this English rendering, "Elk Spirit," as his translation, which is very much off the mark.

"this village has dreamt" — someone who succeeds in obtaining a vision is said to have dreamt (hate). The vision consists of the visitation of a spirit, and since, in this case, the whole village will have seen him, they can be said to have dreamt. Blessings are given on the occasion of a dream, so when a spirit announces that the village has dreamt, it is equivalent to saying that they are to be blessed.

"whatever you use this head for, it will come to pass" — when Trickster reveals himself, they think that they have been fooled, but in a sense they have not, since the elk's bones are vested by Trickster with just the potency that he promised in his trick. If they were fooled, then they would have been caused to believe what is false by a deliberate concealment of the truth in order to lead them into error or disadvantage.3 But they are caused to believe what is true by the deliberate revelation of truth. Furthermore, Trickster leads them to the advantage that they were truthfully promised. Just the same, we cannot help coming away with the feeling that they had been indeed tricked, for at no time did they realize what was going on. They were misled into thinking that Trickster was a Waterspirit, but they were not misled into thinking that his bones would make good medicines; yet when Trickster revealed himself, they thought they had been misled, only to discover that they had not. It's a kind of paradox: it is only when they see the Trickster directly, which is to say symbolically, when they have made direct contact with the spirit of the trick, that they think that they have been completely deluded; yet it is only then that they win what they now believe that they cannot have.

Comparative Material: The episode of the flies in the elk skull has an Assiniboine parallel, summarized here by Radin:

Sitcóⁿski hears people dancing, and finds mice dancing in a buffalo skull. He puts his head in and cannot get it out for some time.

Sitcóⁿski puts his head into dancing mice's buffalo skull. He falls asleep. The mice chew up his hair, and when he wakes up he cannot pull his head out. Finally he breaks the skull against rocks.4

Sitcóⁿski is the Assiniboine trickster, otherwise known as Inktonmi.

The Arapaho trickster Nih’āⁿçaⁿ was roaming about when he heard the noise of celebration. He stuck his head in the lodge where the festivities were taking place, but soon found himself stuck. The lodge was an elk's skull, and the celebrants were mice. He worked his way down to the water by asking each tree what kind it was. Then Nih’āⁿçaⁿ floated down river until he met women who cracked open the skull for him.5

In the Blackfoot version, the trickster figure Old Man encounters an elk skull in which mice are having a dance. He wants to join in, but he is too big, so the mice tell him if he sticks his head in and shakes it, it will be the same as dancing. When he does this he finds that he is stuck fast. When he violates the prohibition against sleeping, the mice eat all the hair off his head. Old Man travels down the river with the elk antlers protruding above the water, and he makes noises like an elk. The people grab him, but discover that it is Old Man. They crack open the skull so that he can free his head.6

The Gros Ventre have a version fairly close to the Hočąk story. Nix’aⁿt heard the noise of celebration and stood on an elk skull to see if he could determine where it was coming from. He soon realized that it emanated from inside the skull, so he stuck his head inside. Within the mice were holding a Sun Dance. Before he realized what was happening, the opening of the skull tightened around his neck as the mice fled in every direction. He couldn't get the skull of his head. He wandered around like a blind man, and asked every tree he encountered what kind it was. Soon he fell into a river and was carried by the current. He drifted among some young women who were bathing there. They thought that he was a water monster (bax’aaⁿ), but he spoke to them and reassured them that they could take him ashore. When he got there, he immediately raped one of the women. This woman's mother came running from the village to her rescue. When she arrived, Nix’aⁿt told her that he could only be killed by being struck in the head, so she wacked his elk skull a good one, and it split in two, causing it to fall off his head. He jumped up and ran away, making good his escape.7

The Arikara are also said to have versions of this story.

The Lakota version has no role for the trickster figure. This is how Zitkala-Ṣa relates the story: "It was night upon the prairie. Overhead the stars were twinkling bright their red and yellow lights. The moon was young. A silvery thread among the stars, it soon drifted low beneath the horizon. Upon the ground the land was pitchy black. There are night people on the plain who love the dark. Amid the black level land they meet to frolic under the stars. Then when their sharp ears hear any strange footfalls nigh they scamper away into the deep shadows of night. There they are safely hid from all dangers, they think. Thus it was that one very black night, afar off from the edge of the level land, out of the wooded river bottom glided forth two balls of fire. They came farther and farther into the level land. They grew larger and brighter. The dark hid the body of the creature with those fiery eyes. They came on and on, just over the tops of the prairie grass. It might have been a wildcat prowling low on soft, stealthy feet. Slowly but surely the terrible eyes drew nearer and nearer to the heart of the level land. There in a huge old buffalo skull was a gay feast and dance! Tiny little field mice were singing and dancing in a circle to the boom-boom of a wee, wee drum. They were laughing and talking among themselves while their chosen singers sang loud a merry tune. They built a small open fire within the center of their queer dance house. The light streamed out of the buffalo skull through all the curious sockets and holes. A light on the plain in the middle of the night was an unusual thing. But so merry were the mice they did not hear the 'king, king' of sleepy birds, disturbed by the unaccustomed fire. A pack of wolves, fearing to come nigh this night fire, stood together a little distance away, and, turning their pointed noses to the stars, howled and yelped most dismally. Even the cry of the wolves was unheeded by the mice within the lighted buffalo skull. They were feasting and dancing; they were singing and laughing — those funny little furry fellows. All the while across the dark from out the low river bottom came that pair of fiery eyes. Now closer and more swift, now fiercer and glaring, the eyes moved toward the buffalo skull. All unconscious of those fearful eyes, the happy mice nibbled at dried roots and venison. The singers had started another song. The drummers beat the time, turning their heads from side to side in rhythm. In a ring around the fire hopped the mice, each bouncing hard on his two hind feet. Some carried their tails over their arms, while others trailed them proudly along. Ah, very near are those round yellow eyes! Very low to the ground they seem to creep — creep toward the buffalo skull. All of a sudden they slide into the eye- sockets of the old skull. "Spirit of the buffalo!" squeaked a frightened mouse as he jumped out from a hole in the back part of the skull. "A cat! A cat!" cried other mice as they scrambled out of holes both large and snug. Noiseless they ran away into the dark."8

The Sioux (tribe unspecified) have a closer variant. As Iktomi is going along he sees a buffalo skull, but a song seems to be coming from somewhere inside it. He looks into one of the eye sockets and sees honey bees inside. They are singing a song about their feast of honey, so Iktomi says, "Brothers, let me come in a dance with you." In fact, he was just trying to get himself a little honey. "Sure," they say, "just stick your head in an eye socket!" So Iktomi did just that, and as the bees flew merrily away, Iktomi found his head stuck fast within the skull. He stumbled about, but could not find a way to get it off his head. Finally, he met two boys and they broke it off with a rock. Iktomi tells them who he is and that if they can procure for him a number of very exotic items, they will be rewarded with a medicine story. They do this, but the story amounts to nothing.9

An Anishinaabe variant also has interesting convergences upon the Hočąk tale. [Beginning of the story] Wenebojo (the trickster) had had all his meat stolen, except a little bit that adhered to the inside of the moose's skull. To get at it, he changed into a small snake, but when he was through he changed back before he had completely withdrawn, and as a result the moose skull was stuck on his head. As he walked around, he couldn't see and had to ask the trees for directions. He asked one tree after another whether there was a river nearby, but all answered in the negative except the cedar, who told him to move in the direction that his limb pointed. On his way to the river, he came to a steep bank where he slipped and as he crashed his way down, he hit is head so hard that the moose skull broke open, and he was freed.10

Links: Trickster, Waterspirits, Raccoons, The Sons of Earthmaker.

Links within the Trickster Cycle: §13. Trickster Loses His Meal, §15. Trickster's Tail.

Stories: featuring Trickster as a character: The Trickster Cycle, Trickster Gets Pregnant, Trickster's Warpath, Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, The Mission of the Five Sons of Earthmaker, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Trickster Soils the Princess, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Trickster Concludes His Mission, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster, Trickster and the Mothers, The Markings on the Moon, The Spirit of Gambling, The Woman who Became an Ant, The Green Man, The Red Man, Trickster Takes Little Fox for a Ride, Trickster Loses His Meal, Trickster's Tail, A Mink Tricks Trickster, Trickster's Penis, Trickster Loses Most of His Penis, The Scenting Contest, The Bungling Host, Mink Soils the Princess, Trickster and the Children, Trickster and the Eagle, Trickster and the Geese, Trickster and the Dancers, Trickster and the Honey, Trickster's Adventures in the Ocean, The Pointing Man, Trickster's Buffalo Hunt, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb, Trickster Visits His Family, The Coughing Up of the Black Hawks, The Petition to Earthmaker, Waruǧápara, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge; mentioning elks: Elk Clan Origin Myth, The Animal who would Eat Men (v. 1), Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, Deer Clan Origin Myth, The Creation Council, Hočąk Clans Origin Myth, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Buffalo Clan Origin Myth, Origin of the Hočąk Chief, Little Fox and the Ghost (v. 2), The Great Fish; See The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits; about (false) Elk Waterspirits: The Diving Contest, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga; mentioning drums: The Descent of the Drum, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Buffalo's Walk, The Spirit of Maple Bluff, Tobacco Origin Myth (v. 5), Young Man Gambles Often, Trickster and the Dancers, Redhorn's Father, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, Ghosts, The Four Slumbers Origin Myth, Great Walker's Medicine, Redhorn Contests the Giants, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 1b), Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, Trickster and the Geese, Turtle's Warparty, Snowshoe Strings, Ocean Duck, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Hog's Adventures, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts; mentioning red feathers (as an offering to the spirits): The Red Feather, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 4), Big Thunder Teaches Čap’ósgaga the Warpath, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, 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, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Were-fish (v. 1), Disease Giver; mentioning red yarn (as an offering to the spirits): Ocean Duck, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Trickster Soils the Princess (Trickster's turban), The Spotted Grizzly Man, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married.

Themes: Trickster is taught a magical command to cause something to expand, but when he uses it, it works against him: A Mink Tricks Trickster; an inanimate object expands upon command: Kunu's Warpath, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Wojijé, The Raccoon Coat, A Mink Tricks Trickster; someone sticks his head into an orifice of a dead animal, and it tightens around his neck: Baldness of the Buzzard, Trickster's Tail; Trickster is the victim of a trick: Trickster Soils the Princess, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster, The Baldness of the Buzzard, Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb, A Mink Tricks Trickster, Trickster and the Honey, The Markings on the Moon, Trickster and the Eagle; a great spirit changes his form in order to deceive someone: The Skunk Origin Myth (Turtle), The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Man with Two Heads, The Children of the Sun, The Baldness of the Buzzard, Trickster's Tail, Trickster Gets Pregnant, Trickster Soils the Princess, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Seven Maidens; as part of a blessing, a spirit orders the beneficiary to kill him and make magical use of his body: A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, White Wolf, The Seer, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, Paint Medicine Origin Myth; someone is blessed with a medicine: A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Fourth Universe, Great Walker's Medicine, Bow Meets Disease Giver, The Seven Maidens, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Tap the Head Medicine, The Seer, The Healing Blessing, A Weed's Blessing, A Snake Song Origin Myth, Young Man Gambles Often, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, A Peyote Vision, The Sweetened Drink Song.


1 Oliver LaMère (trs.), "Wakjąkaga," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1912) Winnebago V, # 7: 317-349. A published translation is found in Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1956) 32-35.

2 Natalie Curtis Burlin, The Indians' Book: an Offering by the American Indians of Indian Lore, Musical and Narrative, to Form a Record of the Songs and Legends of Their Race (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1907) 245-247.

3 The American Heritage Dictionary (sv "deceive"), for instance, says, "To cause (a person) to believe what is not true, to mislead." They go on to say, "Deceive involves falsehoods that are the deliberate concealment or misrepresentation of truth with intent to lead another into error or to disadvantage."

4 Radin, The Trickster, 100, #20-21. These tales are collected in R. H. Lowie, The Assiniboine, in The Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1909) 4:239-244.

5 Cleaver Warden, "Nih’āⁿçaⁿ and the Mice's Sun Dance," in George A. Dorsey and Alfred L. Kroeber, Traditions of the Arapaho (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997 [1903]) Story 52: 107-108; Hawkan, "Nih’āⁿçaⁿ and the Mice's Sun Dance," in Traditions of the Arapaho, Story 53: 108-109.

6 Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians, compiled and translated by Clark Wissler and D. C. Duvall (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995 [1908]) Story 16: 32-33.

7 "15a. Nix’aⁿt's Adventures: (a) With the Mice's Sun-dance," in Alfred Louis Kroeber, Gros Ventre Myths and Tales, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History (New York: Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History, 1907) Volume 1, Part 3: 71-72; and "7. Nix’aⁿt and the Mice's Sun-dance," pp. 68-69.

8 Zitkala-Ṣa, "Dance in an Old Buffalo Skull," Old Indian Legends (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1901) 112-115.

9 Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz (edd.), American Indian Trickster Tales (New York: Penguin-Putnam, Inc., 1998) 96-99.

10 Tom Badger, "The Wenebojo Origin Myth," trs. by Julia Badger, in Victor Barnouw, Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977) Story 10: 25-26.