The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells
by Albert Yellow Thunder
retold by Richard L. Dieterle
The people prayed to Earthmaker to give them better hunting grounds, so the Creator sent a green (čo) Waterspirit to a lifeless land of snow and ice. The warmth of the Waterspirit melted the ice, and by dint of great effort he clawed and bit out channels for streams and lakes. When the melt collected, the Waterspirit churned up from his body all the game that anyone could want. He fired green quills from his skin, and they became trees that stood in their thousands from one horizon to the other. Thus was created the Wisconsin Dells, which is called Nįš-haki-sųč-ra, "Where the Cliffs Strike Together." [inset] When he finished his great work, the green Waterspirit leapt into the bottomless depths of Devil's Lake (Te Wákąčąk). Even though the Hočągara were far distant, so great was the shock wave of the Waterspirit's final plunge, they were able to follow the sound to their new hunting grounds.1
Others say that the Wisconsin River was created by a great serpent. In origin, he was a denizen of the dark forests that surround Big Lake. His powers made him universally feared. One day he set out for the sea. As he dragged his immense body along the ground, he rent the earth apart, creating a channel as wide and deep as his body. As he moved, water followed in his path, and as he thrashed about his tail, huge torrents of water fell in thunderous splashes to form the countless lakes that dot the landscape. The other great serpents that lived in this distant antiquity were no match for him, and fleeing before him, they too created channels through which the many lesser streams now flow. As he crashed off cliffs to the ground below, he created waterfalls and the deep pits into which they pour. Their great noise is an echo of the primordial crash that created them. Then he came to a wall of solid rock in which there was but a small crack. He pried his way through by a myriad of contortions, creating the meandering chasm that is now the Wisconsin Dells. Thus the name of the Dells is Neechahkecoonahorah, "Where the Rocks Strike Together." Finally, the great serpent reached the Mississippi and his goal.2
Comparative Material. An Ojibwe version of this story, essentially identical to Version 2, says that a giant serpent carved the channel of the Wisconsin River when it attempted to reach the sea from its home in the forests.3
Links: Devil's Lake, Earthmaker, Waterspirits, Traveler, Thunderbirds, The Redhorn Panel of Picture Cave. An American Star Map.
Stories: about the origins of bodies of water: Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, Lost Lake, Heną́ga and Star Girl; in which Waterspirits occur as characters: Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Lost Child, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Bluehorn's Nephews, Holy One and His Brother, The Seer, The Nannyberry Picker, The Creation of the World (vv. 1, 4), Šųgepaga, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Waterspirit of Lake Koshkonong, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Waterspirit of Sugar Loaf Mounds, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, Waterspirits Keep the Corn Fields Wet, The Waterspirit Guardian of the Intaglio Mound, The Diving Contest, The Lost Blanket, Redhorn's Sons, The Phantom Woman, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, Great Walker's Warpath, White Thunder's Warpath, The Descent of the Drum, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Snowshoe Strings, The Thunderbird, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (v. 2), The Two Children, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, Waruǧápara, Ocean Duck, The Twin Sisters, Trickster Concludes His Mission, The King Bird, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Heną́ga and Star Girl, Peace of Mind Regained, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Spiritual Descent of John Rave's Grandmother, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Shaggy Man, The Woman who Married a Snake (?), Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, The Sacred Lake, Lost Lake; about the migration of the Hočągara: The Hočąk Arrival Myth, The Hočąk Migration Myth, The Hočągara Migrate South, The First Sauk and Fox War, The Spanish Fight, Quapah Origins, cf. Hočąk Clans Origin Myth; about the origins of the Hočąk nation: The Hočąk Arrival Myth, The Hočąk Migration Myth, The Creation Council, Great Walker's Warpath, The Annihilation of the Hočągara I, First Contact; mentioning Thunderbirds: The Thunderbird, Waruǧápara, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, Thunderbird and White Horse, Bluehorn's Nephews, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed (vv. 1, 2), The Man who was a Reincarnated Thunderbird, The Thunder Charm, The Lost Blanket, The Twins Disobey Their Father, The Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Story of the Thunder Names, The Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Eagle Clan Origin Myth, Pigeon Clan Origins, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Adventures of Redhorn's Sons, Brave Man, Ocean Duck, Turtle's Warparty, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, The Quail Hunter, Heną́ga and Star Girl, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Redhorn's Sons, The Dipper, The Stone that Became a Frog, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Redhorn Contests the Giants, The Sons of Redhorn Find Their Father, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Origin of the Hočąk Chief, The Spirit of Gambling, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Aračgéga's Blessings, Kunu's Warpath, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, The Glory of the Morning, The Nightspirits Bless Čiwoit’éhiga, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Big Stone, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, Song to Earthmaker, The Origins of the Milky Way; mentioning Green (čo) Waterspirits: River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake; set in the Wisconsin Dells: The Twin Sisters, White Flower, Heną́ga and Star Girl, Red Cloud's Death, Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon, Sunset Point, Mighty Thunder; set at Devil's Lake (Te Wákąčąk): Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, The Sacred Lake, Traveler and the Thunderbird War (vv. 1, 5), The Lost Blanket; set on the Wisconsin River (Nįkúse Xųnųnį́gᵋra): Turtle and the Merchant, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Chief of the Heroka, The Lame Friend, The King Bird, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, The Scalping Knife of Wakąšučka, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake (v. 1), The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, Gatschet's Hočank hit’e.
Themes: the Hočąk nation arrives from another (warmer) place: The Hočąk Migration Myth, The Hočąk Arrival Myth; a giant (Serpent-) Waterspirit carved out channel to form great rivers and lakes that are extant today: Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth; a green (čo) Waterspirit inhabits Devil's Lake: River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name; a Waterspirit kills a human: The Shaggy Man, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, Waruǧapara, The Two Children, The Waterspirit of Lake Koshkonong, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Seer, The Twin Sisters, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Lost Blanket; a Waterspirit has vegetation growing out of his body: Snowshoe Strings (grass growing from his face).
Map: Devil's Lake.
Pictures: of Devil's Lake: Devil's Doorway, Scene 1, Scene 2, Balanced Rock.
1 Capt. Don Saunders, When the Moon is a Silver Canoe. Legends of the Wisconsin Dells (Wisconsin Dells, Wisc.: Don Saunders, 1947) 5-6. His informant was Albert Yellow Thunder.
2 Dorothy Moulding Brown, Wisconsin Indian Place-Name Legends, Wisconsin Folklore Booklets (Madison: 1947) 18. "According to Winnebago legend, an immense serpent foormed the bed of the Wisconsin River. While traveling from his home in the northern forests to the sea, his body wore a deep groove into the ground, into which the water flowed to form the 300-mile river." John-Brian Paprock, Sacred Sites of Wisconsin. A Trails Books Guide (Boulder, Colorado: Big Earth Publishing, 2001) 114.
3 Henry Ellsworth Cole, Baraboo, Dells, and Devil's Lake Region: Scenery, Archeology, Geology, Indian Legends, and Local History Briefly Treated (Baraboo: Baraboo Publishing Co., 1920) 7-8.