Ghosts (Wanąǧi)

by Richard L. Dieterle

The wanąǧi, or ghosts, are the souls of the dead as opposed to the waxop'ini, or divine spirits. Nevertheless, it is clear that a ghost is a kind of spirit being, and can bless people much as other spirits can, as witnessed by the existence of a Society of Those who are Blessed by Ghosts.1 In one story, a ghost blesses Little Fox, but ends up trying to punish him when he proves ungrateful.2 Nevertheless, there is one class of spirits (waxop'ini,), the Wanąǧi Mónąc, who go about in the form of ghosts and who exercise some control over them.3

An especially powerful ghost can reanimate its corpse, although the ghost itself has a spirit body that is in some sense "incorporeal."4 Its incorporeal nature expresses itself in the ghost's invisibility: under ordinary circumstances, living people cannot see the departed, although a ghost may be present at its own wake. Ghosts are also inaudible, and while they themselves cannot be seen or heard, they still possess the faculties of perception. Indeed, ghosts are even able to knock people down as by main force.5 Ghosts also retain the consciousness, emotions, and even the appetites of the living. At death it is believed that the ghost experiences accentuated hunger and needs particularly to be fed the incorporeal counterpart of the food of the living.6 However, these desires associated with living bodies do not continue forever. On the journey to Spiritland, the ghosts will soon come to the lodge of Spirit Woman, who by cupping them, will cause these desires to drain from them.7

The spirit (nąxirak) is a reflection (nąxiragera) of the flesh,8 a fact mirrored in their personifications, Ghost and Flesh, who are otherwise known as the "Twins." However, the nąǧírak is a kind of power, in some way insubstantial like a shadow or reflection, and controlled by the ghost, the wanąǧí.9 It would seem to be, as a spirit, a power of animation. Certain people have acquired the extraordinary power of transforming themselves into ghosts and completely controlling their souls. Some powerful shamans have even been able to visit Spiritland in this form.10 The obfuscating of the boundary between life and death occasionally occurs during sleep. While a person sleeps, a waxop'ini spirit may summon his soul from his living body, allowing the soul to travel to Spiritland to receive a dream directly from the spirits who wish to contact him. When they have done with him, his soul returns to his sleeping body.11

When a person dies, his conscious self lives on and sometimes the person does not even realize that he is dead. The soul stays around the body for four days, the period during they hold the Four Slumbers (wake) for it. Then the spirit begins its journey to Spiritland, which is not a simple and easy trip. To aid him on his journey are certain other ghosts, the spirits of those who had been killed in action by the veterans who attend the wake. Inasmuch as the slain are said to be at the service of the victors, the veterans may offer them as guides to the deceased on his journey to Spiritland.12 Those who reach Earthmaker may elect to return as a human, an animal, or a bird,13 although most decide to return as humans and even choose to be born in their own villages.14 Normally only those who were killed in battle would have the opportunity of entering the abode of Earthmaker, although with the advent of the Medicine Rite, its members were thought to have this power as well. However, those killed in action who choose to dwell in one of the spirit village on the road to Earthmaker, will look just the way they did when they were buried, which usually means that they will be missing at least their heads.15 The rare ghost who does not have the power to get to his Spiritland is called a rohą́pjį, "a whole body."16

The lives of ghosts in Spiritland seem to be carefree with most of their time spent in song and dance. However, they are creatures of the night and disperse with the advent of daylight. They also have a peculiar aversion to ashes: if a person were to throw a handful of ashes at a ghost, it would flee.17

The following is an excerpt from the Four Nights Wake of the Thunderbird Clan, and is entitled, "Beliefs Concerning Ghosts."18

1. Égi wanąǧí ciną́k-nąka hąp-régi hąké-hižą nįge-howe’ąk-nis’àže; wanąǧíra hąprégi wanąǧi ciną́k-nąka wanąǧíra[mąišta?] hąp-regi cų́šguni á-anąga. 2. Hoxjára wíra-kužiárega egíxjį reǧo-ropó-rok-ra gicgáires’áže, wira-kužíxjinįkga reǧo-ropó-rok-ra téjąkixjį gicgáires’àže. 3. Higų́wira-hírega higuą́-ra howašíra jikére himes’áže.
1. During the daytime ghosts do not travel around in the village of ghosts; there are none about in the village of ghosts during the daytime, the ghosts said. 2. In the evening, however, when the sun is getting low, then the drum is beaten; when the sun is getting very low then the drum is beaten every once in a while. 3. Finally when the sun actually has set the ghosts start up their dance.
4. Hižą́ ce-khigá hąhe jop-óhą hakikóik-hires’àže giži. 5. Jee hawįcgáži épa hišgé jasgánąka žésga jijéres’àže giži. 6. Wožáwara éja-gają hiracéraže ánąga jánąga wąkšįk-ra t’éga hąhé jopó-hąregi éja-hínąkže. 7. Higų́pežéregi wą́k-ra, hinų́k-ra, nįkją́k-nįk-ra žeše-’šge (?) Mą’ų́ra e žésge higé. 8. Ésge wąkšík-nąk-re haną́cį-xjį t’áiregi éja hirekjéra wa’unąk-gáją. 9. Wąkšíknarokára Mą’ų́ra e žésge wogáge. 9a. Nąǧirák-ra sánįk yoiréregi wanąǧí ciną́k-ra nąkgi iyówaránąkže.
4. As soon as a newcomer arrives from the Four Nights' Wake, the ghosts fight for his possession. 5. When the Four Nights' Wake is over the newcomers [the recently deceased] arrive, retaining the form they possessed when killed [as they are, they remain]. 6. The happiness of the Indians who have been killed increases markedly as the fourth night of the Four Nights' Wake is reached. 7. Subsequently, everyone, whosoever he may be, a woman or child, can speak to Earthmaker. 8. All the Indians who have been killed eventually come to him. 9. This is so because Earthmaker gave the real Indians [Winnebago] just that, [the possibility of coming to him]. 9a. The ghosts travel to the village of the ghosts in a westwardly direction.
10. Ánąga égi jánąga wónąǧirèja t’egí nąǧírak-ra hikikúrukanàįrekjèže. 11. Ge [ánąga] ésge wąkšík-hižą karašíšik-ìrega wonąǧiréja t’e-hakikáražirèrą. 12. Wonąǧiréja t’ánąka wąk-wóikikax ’uį́re-ánąga šgác-irašaną̀xjį ’únąkže. 13. Ánąga ésge žesgéja t’ekikáražires’àže. 14. Hižą́ nįkją́k-ra wogixetériga [< wogixetera-higa] wónąǧire-ánąga t’ekikáražires’àže nąǧirák-ra e kikúrukoną̀kjege it’a (?) nįkją́k wogixetérajega hątáginąc higires’áže. 15. E wažą́-hižą hipéres-giži.
10. Now those who die on the warpath are in control of their own ghosts. 11. Therefore if people think highly of [love] anyone in their family, they spur him on to die on the warpath. 12. He who is killed on the warpath truly wears the apparel of man [attains true prestige] and truly enjoys himself. 13. For this reason they ajure one another to die in this fashion. 14. Indeed, if parents loved their child intensely they always desire him to die on the warpath so that he would be in charge of his own ghost subsequently. 14a. That is the reason they used to make him fast. 15. Then he would acquire real knowledge.
16. Waxopíni warác-irera wą́k-regi janągáki mą-hihák-regi mą-kúhą-regi žé žé-nųga hihą́de ragígų hąta’ginąte gigíranó-ną. 17. Hižą́ že’sge-hipéresgi hąták-nąc-ánąga e wust’ékį-giži, wanąjajáįsge wa’ųgí nąc-oja’įre-ànąga; woną́ǧire-anąga ną́te-irajaį̀ra-ną̀ži giži. 18. Woną́ǧi-rera woirokį́pųra kíkuruxùrukgi égi wáizara hinákįgi égi t’e-gíži nąǧírakira hikikúrukaną̀-nąžè. 19. Ge ésge žée žežésge hikišérera hi’ųjáxjį hiranihéną. 20. Nąǧírak-nįka rašgúnįkjege. 20a. Ésge wocéxi núnįge ’uįranihéną. 20b. Howaža-t’era woną́ǧire-anąga t’éra e pį́že e wairéną.
16. They, the parents, always desired their son to fast for powers from all the various spirits, those who are above, on the earth, and below the earth; that they made him do. 17. If, then, a person was successful in obtaining these powers in his fasting experience, if he really died of thirst [did not eat or drink], if he truly made himself a pitiable object, then the spirits would bless him, bless him with war-powers. 18. He, the faster, would always ask for the gift of war-powers so that he might attain his fill of limbs [fill of killings] and so that, when he died, he would be in control of his own ghost. 19. This is why they work so hard and try to obtain just these things. 20. Such a ghost possesses no fear. 20a. However difficult it is to obtain these things they, nevertheless, try to obtain them. 20b. It is a happy death, death on the warpath, and it is a good thing, they say.


Links: Spirits, Earthmaker, Red Bear, Little Fox, Cosmography, The Spirit Woman (Hinųkxop’ini), The Gottschall Head, Black Hawk, Gottschall, The Redhorn Panel of Picture Cave. An American Star Map.

Stories: mentioning ghosts: The Journey to Spiritland, The Four Slumbers Origin Myth, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, Holy One and His Brother, Worúxega, Little Human Head, Little Fox and the Ghost, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Lame Friend, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, Hare Steals the Fish, The Difficult Blessing, A Man's Revenge, Thunder Cloud is Blessed, Two Roads to Spiritland, Sunset Point, The Message the Fireballs Brought; about the journeys of ghosts to and from Spiritland: The Journey to Spiritland, The Four Slumbers Origin Myth, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, The Lame Friend, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, Holy One and His Brother; mentioning drums: The Descent of the Drum, The Friendship Drum Origin Myth, 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, The Elk's Skull, 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, Įcorúšika and His Brothers, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Hog's Adventures, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts.


1 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 269.

2 Sam Blowsnake (ed. Paul Radin), Crashing Thunder. The Autobiography of an American Indian (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983 [1926]) 44-49.

3 R. G., Ghost Dance, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, #79 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1909?) 1-5.

4 Blowsnake, Crashing Thunder, 44-49.

5 Paul Radin, "The Two Friends Who Became Reincarnated: The Origin of the Four Nights Wake," The Culture of the Winnebago as Described by Themselves (Baltimore: Special Publications of the Bollingen Foundation, #1, 1949) 38 nt 23. Informant: John Rave (Bear Clan).

6 Radin, "The Two Friends Who Became Reincarnated," 38 nt 23, 40 nt 34.

7 Radin, "The Two Friends Who Became Reincarnated," 42 nt 42.

8 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]) p. 334, s.v. nąǧi/nąxi.

9 Paul Radin in Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Winnebago III, #4: 15.

10 Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3898 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Library, n.d.) Winnebago III, #1: 186.

11 Oliver LaMère and Harold B. Shinn, Winnebago Stories (New York, Chicago: Rand, McNally and Co., 1928) 38-45. Informant: Oliver LaMère (Bear Clan).

12 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 96.

13 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 121.

14 Radin, "The Two Friends Who Became Reincarnated."

15 Radin, "The Two Friends Who Became Reincarnated," 45 nt 65.

16 Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3898 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Library, n.d.) Winnebago III, #1: 186.

17 Paul Radin, "The Man who Brought His Wife back from Spiritland," The Culture of the Winnebago as Described by Themselves (Baltimore: Special Publications of the Bollingen Foundation, #1, 1949) 47-65. Informant: John Baptiste.

18 "Four Nights' Wake of the Thunderbird Clan," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3874 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago III, #3, 95-109; see also Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook 77, 21-23.