Lake Winnebago

by Richard L. Dieterle


Lake Winnebago is a large lake in east central Wisconsin, known to the Hocągara as Te Xete, "Large Lake," or "Great Lake." The name by which we know it is Algonquian, akin to the Ojibwe Winnipeg, which denotes a lake whose name means "impure waters." This derives from winipig, "polluted water" < win, wini, wi'nat, "dirty, impure." and nipi, "water." When the plural suffix -ak is added, the latter becomes by contraction, nipig, "waters." However, in Algonquian languages, by adding a terminal -o, a people of this name is indicated.1 The form Winnebago is probably from the Menominee Winnibégo, which expresses the meaning "Dirty Water People."2 The Menominee, who are both friends and neighbors to the Hocągara, tell a story about the origin of this name by taking a Hocąk myth and changing some of the characters around. The Hocąk story is the tale of "Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks" (qv), in which Trickster kills a number of ducks by treacherous means, then has his anus guard the meat while he takes a nap. In the meantime, a group of foxes come along and eat all the meat. In Hocąk thought, the fox is the symbol and exemplar of want and privation.3 The Menominee tell the same tale with their trickster Mä́näbush guarding the ducks; only this time the impoverished foxes are replaced by a band of Hocągara. When the Hocągara make off in their canoes down the river, Mänäbush yells after them, "Winne beg go!" which in this context could mean "dirty water-people."4 The original poverty of the Hocągara is remembered in a Bear Clan myth in which a flock of ravens lands on a beach near Red Banks and materializes into the first Hocągara of Wisconsin. There they are met by the Menominee (known to the Hocągara as Kaǧi, or "Ravens"), whose charity is the only thing that separates them from complete nudity and negritude.5 What is clear, in any case, is that the lake is named for the people, and not conversely. They had been there since at least the XVIIth century, and along this lake also resided their friends the Menominee. On the other side of the lake, in earlier times, were the Sauk and Fox tribes. In a series of fierce battles, these were driven beyond the Mississippi, and the Hocągara occupied their lands. Thus it is told in an old story.6 In the Fox War of 1730, the Fox turned the tables on the Hocągara, driving them to an island in Lake Winnebago. There the Fox laid seige to them. Eventually the French sent a rescue party and prevailed upon the beseigers to go home.7

Originally the spiritual forebears of the Hocąk nation, who appeared on earth in animal form, assembled at Red Banks, a site on the shores of Te Rok or "Within Lake" (Green Bay), an arm of Te Šišik or "Bad Lake" (Lake Michigan). Some say that they became human there; others say that they lived there as spirits, and soon after came to Te Xete, where they changed permanently into human beings. These first people were the Hocąk nation. There they formed a great village. However, in the earliest times the people found that they could not disperse from this village, as their first war had begun when ten lodges camped away from the rest, were rubbed out by the Sioux. It was the famous and holy Great Walker who made war upon the Sioux and whose wisdom in victory brought an end to the conflict between these two people. Great Walker was intimate with Waterspirits and from their blessings it was that he had gained so much power.8 White Thunder, too, was blessed by Waterspirits, including the Waterspirit that ruled over Lake Winnebago itself. He was victorious over the Ojibwe, and took a holy woman captive. Although she was blessed by the Waterspirit of the lake that he was crossing, he was able to sacrifice her successfully to this Waterspirit with impunity.9 Captain Carver of the British Army in his expedition of ca. 1767, makes allusion to what is surely a Waterspirit inhabiting Lake Winnebago itself:

The Winnebago Lake is about fifteen miles long from east to west, and six miles wide. At its south-east corner, a river falls into it that takes its rise near some of the northern branches of the Illinois River. This I called the Crocodile River, in consequence of a story that prevails among the Indians, of their having destroyed, in some part of it, an animal, which from their description must be a crocodile or an alligator.10


This is probably a garbled account of a Waterspirit. It is said of Lake Winnebago that it once was host to a fish, probably a sturgeon, that was so large that it could devour cervids as they swam in the lake. One day its body was found with horns protruding from its side, evidently one meal that was too great even for it to engulf.11 The greatest struggle to take place on Lake Winnebago was the battle between the Waterspirit Traveler and one of the princes of the Thunderbirds. This Thunderbird aspired to wipe out the race of Waterspirits, and only Traveler would meet him in combat. The day after Traveler blessed a mortal, the man showed up at Lake Winnebago to make his offerings just in time to see the two of them battle it out. Each appealed to the human for his aid, the one out of kinship, the other out of benefaction. Finally, through this mortal's help, Traveler was triumphant.12 So Traveler was victorious through the use of trickery.

Lake Winnebago is holy lake. It was near a spring there that Hįcoga, the daughter of Witchman, was seduced by a great white spirit wolf, who took her away to live among his lupine race. Upon his death, she escaped a pack of pursuing wolves through the aid of Earthmaker himself, who guided her magical scattering of rose bushes to cover her retreat. The flowers of these thorny plants are colored with her blood. She survived the pursuit to live once again on the banks of Te Xete.13 There too, it is said, a man was blessed by an epiphany of the Twins.14 The creation of this lake, however, owes not to the Twins, but to the eldest of those created by Earthmaker's own hands. This is Wakjųkaga, Trickster. Trickster had failed in his mission to teach men the proper way to live and to be a deliverance from the many powerful creatures that assailed the human race. So Trickster wished to return to Earthmaker. He ran across a bear who told him the only way that he knew that someone could see Earthmaker was to die, so Trickster fixed his mind upon death. When he saw archers practicing their art, he taunted them to shoot him, but being immortal, even scores of arrows could not kill him. Consequently, he struggled up to a bluff where he wept out of self pity; and just as Earthmaker had created the oceans of the world from his primordial tears, so Trickster created the Great Lake from his.15 Thus the lake associated with the trickery of Traveler finds its origin in the substance of the very spirit of trickery. The Menominee think that the Hocągara should bear the same name as Trickster's lake, since they are as tricky as foxes and can even out-fox and out-trick the Trickster himself.

Links: Waterspirits, Trickster, Introduction, Earthmaker, Sons of Earthmaker, Twins, Traveler, Thunderbirds, Fish Spirits, Wolf & Dog Spirits, Devil's Lake.

Stories: set at Lake Winnebago (Te Xete): Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, The First Fox and Sauk War, The Fox-Hocąk War, White Thunder's Warpath, Traveler and the Thunderbird War (v. 2), The Great Fish, The Wild Rose, The Two Boys, Great Walker's Warpath, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, The Two Children (?); mentioning the Menominee: Origin of the Name "Winnebago" (Menominee), The Hocąk Arrival Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 2b) (Origins of the Menominee), The Fox-Hocąk War, First Contact, The Magical Powers of Lincoln's Grandfather, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I (v. 2), Annihilation of the Hocągara II, Two Roads to Spiritland, A Menominee Visit, The Two Children, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Gatschet's Hocank hit’e (Extracts ...), Introduction; about the relationship between the Menominee and the Hocągara: Origin of the Name "Winnebago" (Menominee), The Hocąk Arrival Myth; mentioning the Fox: The First Fox and Sauk War, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I (v. 2), Annihilation of the Hocągara II, Gatschet's Hocank hit’e (Extracts ...), Introduction; mentioning the Sauk (Sac, Sagi): The First Fox and Sauk War, Mijistéga and the Sauks, Black Otter's Warpath, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I (v. 2), Annihilation of the Hocągara II, The Blessing of Kerexųsaka, Big Eagle Cave Mystery, The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, Little Priest's Game, Gatschet's Hocank hit’e (St. Peet ...), A Peyote Story, Introduction; mentioning the Šąhą (Sioux): The Waterspirit of Green Lake, Berdache Origin Myth, Great Walker's Warpath, The Masaxe War, White Flower, The Omahas who turned into Snakes, The Love Blessing, Introduction; mentioning the Ojibwe (Chippewa, Ojibway): White Thunder's Warpath, The Masaxe War, The Two Children, The First Fox and Sauk War, Introduction; in which Waterspirits occur as characters: Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, 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, Įcorúšika 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, Waruǧábᵉra, 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, The Story of the Medicine Rite, 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; featuring Trickster as a character: The Trickster Cycle, The Mission of the Five Sons of Earthmaker, Trickster Soils the Princess, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Trickster and the Eagle, Trickster and the Honey, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Trickster and the Geese, Trickster and the Dancers, Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, The Markings on the Moon, The Woman who Became an Ant, The Spirit of Gambling, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Green Man, The Red Man, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, Waruǧábᵉra.

Themes: a body of water is created by tears falling from above: The Creation of the World, Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed (v. 1); (attempted) suicide: The Osage Massacre, Lake Winnebago Origin Myth; the war between Thunderbirds and Waterspirits: Traveler and the Thunderbird War, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Brave Man, The Lost Blanket, Ocean Duck, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, The Thunderbird, Heną́ga and Star Girl, Waruǧábᵉra, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Waterspirit of Sugar Loaf Mounds; a mortal causes a Thunderbird to triumph over a Waterspirit (or vice-versa): Traveler and the Thunderbird War, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Lost Blanket; someone is offered to a Waterspirit: The Shaggy Man, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, White Thunder's Warpath, Waruǧábᵉra, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Seer; an aquatic creature eats cervids whole: The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Great Fish; a newlywed goes to the home of her husband to live among his kind, a race of Animal Spirits: The Wild Rose (wolves), The Woman who Married a Snake, The Shaggy Man (bears); a spirit gives someone something to cast at her pursuers that will prevent them from catching her: Rich Man, Boy, and Horse, The Wild Rose, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II.


1 James Owen Dorsey and Paul Radin, "Winnebago," Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 30 (Totowa, N. J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1979) 2:958-961 (958, 961); from the manuscript of Chippewa (Ojibwe) words submitted by Albert Gatschet to the Bureau of American Ethnology. Foster's Indian Record, vol. 1, #1, p. 2, col. 1.

2 Walter James Hoffman, The Menominee Indians, in the Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1892-1893 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896) 14:205.

3 Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1956) 14-18.

4 Hoffman, The Menominee Indians, 14:203-205.

5 Walter Funmaker, The Winnebago Black Bear Subclan: a Defended Culture (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Minnesota: December, 1986 [MnU-D 86-361]) 51-57, 180. Informant: One Who Wins of the Winnebago Bear Clan.

6 Pliny Warriner, "Legend of the Winnebagoes," Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin for the Year 1854 (Madison: State Historical Society, 1855) 1:86-93 [Appendix 6]. Originally published in the Buffalo [New York] Journal, September 15, 1829. The informant was an unnamed Hocąk chief.

7 Jasper Blowsnake and Paul Radin, "A Semi-Historical Account of the War of the Winnebago and the Foxes," Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1914) 192-207. Told by Jasper Blowsnake in June, 1908. This is reprinted in Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 11-17.

8 Paul Radin, The Story of Big Walker, in Notebook Winnebago IV, #7, Freeman #3860 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Story 7h: 1-7.

9 Paul Radin, How White Thunder Killed Two Chippewas, Notebooks, Winnebago IV, #7, Freeman #3860 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Story 7g: 159-161.

10 Captain Jonathan Carver, Travels through the Interior Parts of North America, in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768 (Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1956 [1784]) 37.

11 Charles E. Brown, Wisconsin Indian Place Legends (Madison: Works Progress Administration, 1936) 10. Paul Radin, "Short Tales," Winnebago Notebooks, Winnebago IV, No. 7i (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #18, "The Elk Crossing the Stream."

12 Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher (New York: D. Appleton Co., 1927) 179-185.

13 Nile Behncke, "Winnebagoland Legends," Wisconsin Archeologist, 20, #2 (1939): 31-32.

14 "The Epic of the Twins, Part Three," in Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. A Study in Comparative Literature, Part I (Basil: Ethnographical Museum, Basil Switzerland, 1954) 58-74.

15 Waukon G. Smith (Thunderbird Clan), "Origin Story of Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin," in David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 25.