The Four Steps of the Cougar

by Jasper Blowsnake

Jasper Blowsnake

Hocąk-English Interlinear Text

Narrative Structure

(265) South on the way to go to the entrance, when he was going towards the entrance, (266) he took from his right side a cougar (a long-tailed wildcat), an awe inspiring one, an extremely white one, and put it in front of him. On top of his head he put Light and Life, and upon the bottom of his feet he put Light and Life, and when he got what the Creator put him in charge of, he clothed himself in all of it and thus he did. He kept his body frail in holiness. Now having wriggled the tail until it bent, he swept the lodge of all the evil spirits, pushing them into the bad place. Once the Creation Lodge was neat and clean, it came to shimmer and gleam. Even he, the very one, He Who Stands in the Middle of the Lodge, was made to blaze straight up. All the evil clouds were swept away, pushed to the bad place. He made it a perfect day. What the web maker wrought seemed to stand suspended.

(267) With the very first step that he took, he sank down into Our Grandmother all the way to his elbows. When he set down his other arm, he penetrated into the one they call "Nephew." He extended to penetrate. He took a step up to his elbows. When he put down his third limb, he penetrated up to the elbows in Our Grandmother, who was by now quite ripe. When he put down his raised limb, he penetrated up to his elbow in the one they call "Nephew," who was now fine and powdered.

Coming to the entrance, he placed the female green snake, and to her right, the male. He placed the male snake to the right, the female snake he placed to the left. He grabbed both snakes and shook them. However far it is into Our Grandmother, (268) that far he pushed them to go in there. He placed them so that they could not become loose. He threw back the entrance flap, and made half of the Light and Life in the center of the lodge appear full. Half the Light and Life he took out. Here and there the Walkers on Light were flying with something in their mouths. Here and there the Earthly Ones were moving on with something in their mouths.1

Commentary. "South" — this is the Island Weight of the South. The setting is in the original Medicine Rite in which the Island Weights of the cardinal points and many other spirits participated. They are gathered together in the Creation Lodge to set the structure and potency of the Medicine Rite for all time.

"his right side" — as the various Island Weights take their place in their respective cardinal points, it is East that resides to the right of South. In the Medicine Rite, East is denoted by hąbogu, "where the day comes from." Therefore, the cougar is taken "from where the day comes from." As we learn later (see under "he extended to penetrate" below), the cougar symbolizes the four seasons, and his walking is a trek through the year, so it is appropriate that he begin where the day itself begins, which is to say, the proper place to begin time.

"cougar" — the first occurrence of the word is wicąsįcserąjera, "the long-tailed wild cat," where wicą means "(wild) cat." This latter form is rare, the more common word being wicąwą. Wildcats come in two varieties, one of which we call the "bobcat" in reference to its bobbed tail. The other is the lynx. In the XIXᵀᴴ century, Thomas George reported that the lynx was denoted by wicąwąsįcserecera, a recognizable variant of the word above. The problem is that the lynx too has a bobtail, and since the name describes a sįc-serec, "tail-long," it cannot fit a lynx. In temperate North America there are only two basic kinds of cats, the wildcats (bobcats and lynxes) and cougars, which are also known as "pumas" or "mountain lions." In Hocąk they are differentiated by the length of their tails, the cougars are known as wicąwą-sįc-serec, and the wildcats are known as wicąwą-sįc-kąnąk, "cut-tailed wildcats."

The choice of the cougar may be partly based on the fact that this cat can climb trees and therefore inhabits both the upper and the earthly worlds, a division played upon in the temporal code of the myth.

"put it in front of him" — the word for "front" is cowé, which really means "ahead in space or time." This is another way of referring to East, since it is next in sequence (space and time) with respect to South. (See "his right side" above.)

"the bottom of his feet" — this is, Light and Life was placed both above and below him, reflecting again the division of the world into the upper region and the earthly region, which corresponds to the Hocąk moiety division.

"he kept his body frail in holiness" — this same expression is used in "Lifting Up the Bear Heads" earlier in Jasper Blowsnake's account of the Medicine Rite. It alludes to the achievement of holiness through the practice of fasting, which, when done with unusual rigor, will leave the body in a condition of frailty.

"the bad place" — the far north, so described because it is a region where at times the sun does not rise, allowing darkness and its forces to rule for days on end.

"He Who Stands in the Middle of the Lodge" — a title given to the fire, since it is so situated.

"to blaze straight up" — fire that blazes straight and unwavering is propitious, since no wind turns it away from its heavenly orientation.

"the evil clouds" — these would be dark clouds particularly, since they obscure the light (hąp), the symbol of life. This goes some way towards explaining why Waterspirits play so pronounced and patronizing a role in the Rite, since it is they who are associated with the blue sky and white clouds, and opposed to the dark clouds in which their enemies, the host of the Thunders, reside.

"Our Grandmother" — this is Earth, who is the grandmother of almost everything.

"the one they call 'Nephew'" — this is Hare, who is here identified with snow. Radin says, "... Hare is the symbol of light, of the dawn, of snow and of whiteness in general not only among the Winnebago but among many other tribes as well."2

"he extended to penetrate" — this whole paragraph is about the four seasons, "not necessarily our seasons" as Radin observes.3 We see an alternation between sinking into earth (Our Grandmother), and sinking into snow (the One Whom They Call 'Nephew'). This corresponds to the two basic divisions of the year into the seasons with and without snow. At the beginning of time the spirits met to decide how the year should be divided between the darkness and light. Chipmunk came forward and suggested, "Let a year be as many moons are there are black and white stripes down my back." The counselors thought well of this suggestion, and allowed that the six black stripes would be the summer moons, and the six white stripes would be the moons of winter. (See Black and White Moons) Years are counted in winters, mąni, so the year (mą) should end with the last moon of winter.4 The year is measured out in the four steps of the cougar, which would mean two divisions of "summer" and two of "winter" for a total of four seasons. The four seasons are a temporal counterpart to the four cardinal directions of space, as space and time are usually seen to be isomorphic. As we see in the mythology of the deer, the limbs of a quadrupedal animal can stand for the four directions, and for the predator of such cervids, the four limbs now stand for the four divisions of time. The cougar begins the year (mą) by stepping on earth (mą). When he is through walking (mąni) he will have passed through a winter or year (mąni). "He extends by penetrating." That is, he moves forward (in time) by penetrating the earth/year (mą) as far as he can go and still retain the power of motion. He penetrates a quarter of a year, the first quarter that begins with the month of Hoiroginįną (Fish Appearing), when the land first becomes free of snow.5 It is our spring, a season associated with the eastern quarter, where the sun finds it beginning. They say of East, "... you grow life ... When you send sunshine to the earth, all grass stalks and trees, all the different fruit, everything comes up well."6 His extension into time is up to his elbow, that is to the point of his limb-joint, where direction in space changes, where two different parts of space meet. Thus it is in time: the first two quarters of the year meet at this joint in time. It is with a limb (hu) that he is coming (hu) through time, that he is penetrating time by extending. He extends first with his left, presumably, since Earth is female, and to that gender belongs the left side. He next step of his front right limb ("arm") is into the snow, as the first quarter of that season belongs to Hare and therefore to the masculine right side. This would seem to be the south quarter, where the sun goes in the winter. The front right limb marks the most sacred quarter where the sun dwells. It is said to the South, "It is your sacred role (wošgą́) to make a Road by which they may make themselves life." Of the South it is also said, "When your wind comes, so it is that it grows life for everything."7 The front right limb is said to be the asąnąk, the "opposite" arm, therefore corresponding to the opposite side of the year. Thus, the first part of the snowless season corresponds to the first part of the snowy season. The next limb to move is on the left side, and sinks into the earth. Now the earth is said to be "quite ripe," which is to say at its most mature in time, and indeed, the second half of the "summer" is the time of harvest where all things become ripe not long before the snow falls. This time belongs to the west quarter, which is noted for rain. "When you make it rain on the ground," they say to the West, "everything moves around, and life comes up well."8 The last rear limb now extends and plunges into a fine, powdered snow, the snow of the coldest time of the year, which falls in the last quarter of the winter season. This season belongs to the cold north quarter, where the earth is transformed and everything is frozen.9 Thus each limb has exemplified a quarter of the year, depending on whether it is a right or left limb, whether too it was front (early) or back (late). It may be noted that the four steps are sunwise, East > South > West > North, the path that the sun takes diurnally in the Northern Hemisphere. A cougar walks in this pattern: left front, right rear, right front, left rear. This would mean that the two front limbs represent east and west, and the two back limbs represent north and south; temporally, the front limbs represent the warm time of the year, and the hind limbs represent the cold time. This can be summarized on a table:

Quarter Time Moons Limb
East First Warm Season
(April - June)
Fish Appearing (Hoiroginįną) 1. Left Front
Earth Drying (Mąįtawušira)
Earth Cultivating (Mąįna’ų)
South First Cold Season
(October - December)
Deer Pawing (Camąįnąǧo) 2. Right Rear
Deer Mating (Caikíruxe)
Deer Antler Shedding (Cahewakšų)
West Second Warm Season
(July - September)
Corn Tasseling (Waxojra) 3. Right Front
Corn Popping (Watajoxhi)
Elk Whistling (Hųwąžuk)
North Second Cold Season
(January - March)
First She-Bear (Hųjwiconįną) 4. Left Rear
Last She-Bear (Hųjwioragnįna)
Raccoon Mating (Wakekiruxe)

Compare this to the table at "The Buffalo's Walk," which sets out the quarters in ritual order.

"green snake" — according to Miner, this is the grass snake.10 As is the case almost universally, the left side is associated with the female, the right (and stronger) side with the male. The word for green, co, also means "first, in front, before; to lead"11, so that the grass snake becomes the bulwark for the very front of the lodge, the entrance, that which is first encountered in time as well as space.

"shook them" — the snakes are to serve as the entrance posts. He shakes them as he drives them into the earth. The shaking motion recalls that used by the Twins and others when they wish to awaken someone from the dead. The snake, because it is able to emerge from his sloughed off skin, is also a symbol of resurrection.

"Walkers on Light" — a poetic name for birds. This is a way of aligning birds with the central symbolic theme of the Rite, Hąp, light (= life). They tread upon the road of light just as the initiates of the Rite also tread upon another Road of Light, the road to the renewal of life.

"with something in their mouths" — what they carried away in their mouths were the offerings that were made to them in the feast. Some of the earthly counterparts of the divine offerings are also carried away by members of the Rite. See the next entry.

"Earthly Ones" — living creations are often grouped by where they reside: those above the earth, those on its surface, those that are subterranean, and aquatic creatures. This scheme is meant to reflect the moiety divisions of Hocąk society into the Upper Division, and the Earth Division. The participants from the two moieties also carry away food from the feast to feed their own people, to give them Life.

Links: Cougars, Island Weights, Hare, Earth, Fire, Earthmaker.

Stories: mentioning mountain lions (Cougars, Pumas, Panthers): The Dog that became a Panther, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, Bladder and His Brothers (v. 1); mentioning Island Weights: The Creation of the World, The Island Weight Songs, South Enters the Medicine Lodge, East Shakes the Messenger, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, North Shakes His Gourd, Wolves and Humans, Šųgepaga, Traveler and the Thunderbird War (v. 2), The Lost Blanket, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth (v. 1), The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, South Seizes the Messenger, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Messengers of Hare, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, The Petition to Earthmaker; mentioning the Island Weight of the South: South Enters the Medicine Lodge, South Seizes the Messenger; in which fire plays a role: The Creation Council, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Message the Fireballs Brought, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, East Shakes the Messenger, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, North Shakes His Gourd, The Descent of the Drum (v. 2), The Man Whose Wife was Captured (v. 2), Red Cloud's Death, see Young Man Gambles Often (Commentary); mentioning snow: Waruǧábᵉra, The Glory of the Morning, Holy One and His Brother, Wolves and Humans, Grandfather's Two Families, Redhorn's Father, The Old Man and the Giants, Old Man and Wears White Feather, Great Walker's Warpath, White Wolf, North Shakes His Gourd, The Fleetfooted Man, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, Witches, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Trickster Gets Pregnant, The Raccoon Coat, Silver Mound Cave, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married; mentioning Creation Lodges (Wogųzocíra): The Creation Council, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge of the Medicine Rite, The Descent of the Drum, The Nightspirits Bless Jobenągiwįxka, The Boy who would be Immortal, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite, Otter Comes to the Medicine Rite, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, East Shakes the Messenger, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men (v. 1), Peace of Mind Regained, South Enters the Medicine Lodge; pertaining to the Medicine Rite: The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Journey to Spiritland, Holy Song, Holy Song II, Maize Origin Myth, The Necessity for Death, Hog's Adventures, Great Walker's Warpath.

Stories from Jasper Blowsnake's account of the Medicine Rite (The Road of Life and Death) in notebook order: The Shell Anklets Origin Myth (v. 1), Keramaniš’aka's Blessing, The Woman's Scalp Medicine Bundle, The Blessing of Kerexųsaka, Historical Origins of the Medicine Rite, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge of the Medicine Rite, Lifting Up the Bear Heads, East Enters the Medicine Lodge (v. 1), The Creation of the World (v. 12), The Creation of Man (v. 8), Otter Comes to the Medicine Rite, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4), East Enters the Medicine Lodge (v. 2), Testing the Slave, South Enters the Medicine Lodge (v. 2), The Descent of the Drum (v. 1), The Commandments of Earthmaker, The Coughing Up of the Black Hawks, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men (v. 2), East Shakes the Messenger, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (v. 4), The Messengers of Hare (v. 2), North Shakes His Gourd, Grandmother's Gifts, South Seizes the Messenger, The Messengers of Hare (v. 1), The Island Weight Songs, The Petition to Earthmaker, A Snake Song Origin Myth, The Completion Song Origin, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Great Walker and the Ojibwe Witches, The Diving Contest, The Sweetened Drink Song, The Plant Blessing of Earth, Tobacco Origin Myth (v. 3), The Tap the Head Medicine, The Claw Shooter, Tobacco Origin Myth (v. 4), Peace of Mind Regained, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 5), A Wife for Knowledge, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth (v. 2), The Descent of the Drum (v. 2), South Enters the Medicine Lodge (v. 1), Death Enters the World.

Themes: something is of a (symbolic) pure white color: White Bear, Deer Spirits, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4), White Flower, Big Eagle Cave Mystery, The Fleetfooted Man, Thunderbird and White Horse, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, Worúxega, The Two Boys, The Lost Blanket (white spirits), Skunk Origin Myth, He Who Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, White Wolf, A Man and His Three Dogs, The Messengers of Hare, The Brown Squirrel, The Man Who Fell from the Sky, Bladder and His Brothers, White Thunder's Warpath, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Dipper, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Creation of the World (v. 12), Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, The Descent of the Drum, Tobacco Origin Myth (v. 5), The Diving Contest, Otter Comes to the Medicine Rite, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite, Grandmother's Gifts, The Completion Song Origin, North Shakes His Gourd, Lifting Up the Bear Heads, Thunder Cloud is Blessed, Peace of Mind Regained; when an animal spirit takes a symbolic step forward, he sinks into the surface up to his leg joint: The Buffalo's Walk; a powerful spirit sweeps away evils to the bad place (the arctic north): North Shakes His Gourd, The Descent of the Drum (v. 2), The Buffalo's Walk, East Shakes the Messenger, South Seizes the Messenger; evil clouds are swept away (to the north): North Shakes His Gourd, East Shakes the Messenger, The Descent of the Drum (v. 2), The Buffalo's Walk, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (v. 4), The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men (v. 2), South Seizes the Messenger; flames that stand upright and unwaving are propitious: East Shakes the Messenger, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, South Seizes the Messenger, North Shakes His Gourd, Four Steps of the Cougar.


1 Paul Radin, The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians. Bollingen Series V (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973 [1945]) 333-334; Jasper Blowsnake, Untitled, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3876 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Winnebago II, #7: 265-268.

2 Radin, The Road of Life and Death, 335 nt 7.

3 Radin, Notebooks, Winnebago II, #7: the interstitial page 267/268. In The Road of Life and Death, 345 ntt 53-57, Radin attempts to see this as a progression of the seasons from summer to fall to winter to spring, but in order to do this, he has to distort his translation. For instance, in order to make the last step of the cougar consistent with the season of spring, he translates the text to say, "He-who-we-call-our-Nephew, the snow, had become fine and powdered as he penetrated our grandmother up to his elbow." It really says, "When he put down his raised limb, he penetrated up to his elbow in the one they call "Nephew," [who was now] fine and powdered" (Wązairuągera ruhąjehągają, "Hicųšge" gikąrajirąra hohącą ok’šąk’šuąja hąp’ą gipokgijehąže).

4 Thomas J. George, Winnebago Vocabulary, 4989 Winnebago (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, 1885). Informants: Big Bear of Friendship, Wisconsin, and Big Thunder. Alice C. Fletcher in Papers of Alice Fletcher & Frances La Flesche, MS 4558: Research of Alice Fletcher & Frances La Flesche, Series 26 & 27: Other Tribes, 1882-1922 [26], Box 31 (Washington, D. C.: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, n.d.). The Fletcher-Dorsey list begins the year with the Earth Drying Moon, but they omit the Deer Pawing the Earth Moon, and add a Digging Moon just before the Hoeing Moon. George's list has the year begin with the first moon of winter, the Deer Breeding Moon.

5 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 76-77. Informant for monthly activities was a member of the Bear Clan.

6 "... wąkšígoįra tiré rašą́nągerá ... Mąną́gere hatakác ragá, xąwį́ hurá, nąrá házokirájera haną́c, p’į hahúnągerá." Amelia Susman, Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, Dec. 13, 1938) Book 7, 19-20.

7 "Wošgą́šįnį́wįra wąkšígoį k’ik’ų́ ’ųį́rekje, nągúižą š’ųwį́gi ... Égi máįtacehašįnįrá hugá, jagúraną́c é wąkšígoįrá hitiránągerá." Susman, Notebooks, Book 7, 26-27.

8 "Mąną́gere hanįžú rawíga, žešékjį janąga máįxgąxgą́gere, wąkšígoįrá p’į huágera." Susman, Notebooks, Book 7, 25.

9 Susman, Notebooks, Book 7, 23.

10 Kenneth L. Miner, Winnebago Field Lexicon (Kansas City: University of Kansas, June 1984) s.v. wakącą.

11 Mary Carolyn Marino, A Dictionary of Winnebago: An Analysis and Reference Grammar of the Radin Lexical File (Ph.D. Thesis, University of California, Berkeley, December 14, 1968 [69-14,947]) s.v. co.