Lake Winnebago Origin Myth

Waukon G. Smith

retold by Richard L. Dieterle

One day while Trickster was walking through the woods, he chanced upon Bear. "I am very anxious to go see Earthmaker," he told Bear, "do you have any idea how I can get to where he lives?" "Well, there's only one way that I know of," said Bear, "and that is to die." "All right," said Trickster, "then die I must!" So he walked into a village and went to where a large number of warriors were taking archery practice, and sang,

Shoot me! Shoot me!
You are not good enough to hit me;
Shoot me! Shoot me!


They shot him with so many arrows that he resembled a porcupine. However, Earthmaker had fashioned Trickster so that he could not be killed. Trickster wandered up a hill and knelt looking over the edge of a cliff. He pitied himself, and wept so many tears that it seemed like a rainstorm. Soon a whole reservoir filled with his tears. This became Te Xetera, "Big Lake" (Lake Winnebago).1

Commentary. "Bear" — why is Trickster asking Bear about what amounts to a suicide attempt (leaving this world)? Bears, among all creatures in the northern climes, are best known for hibernating. There are two ways in which hibernation is associated with death. When a bear hibernates, its metabolic processes slow down to such an extent that the animal hardly seems to be alive. Since the bear deliberately enters into this cadaverous condition, it is rather like suicide.

Secondly, hunting bears is most often and successfully done when they are trying to hibernate. The hunter, having found the den, flushes the bear out with his bear-dog, then shoots the bear dead with arrows. This hunting technique is very similar to Trickster taunting the bowmen, except that the roles are in part reversed. It is the hunter and his dog that taunts the bear to emerge from his den and attack them. Here, however, Trickster reverses the roles, and taunts the archers, but, of course, unlike the mortal bear, he does not die.

"a porcupine" — porcupine quills are typically homologized to arrows (see the Commentary to "Porcupine and His Brothers"). We come to understand that if the porcupine did not have these "arrows" he would be nothing more than a squirrel. The latter animal is homologized to humans as they exist by nature, without weapons. Porcupine's quills give him arrows with which he can ward off dangerous animals that neither squirrels nor naked humans could overcome. As always with Trickster, everything is reversed: the porcupine quills, the arrows, are all pointed the wrong way. Yet Trickster is here rendered into the symbol of invulnerability, the being whom even the most dangerous predator cannot kill. His quills symbolize his inherent invulnerability, which he innately possessed all along. He becomes an inverted porcupine, who is invulnerable, not because of his inverted "quills", but in spite of them.

"a hill" — at this point, Trickster begins to replicate, with his usual reversal, the procedure by which someone seeks a blessing from the Spirits in order to achieve Life, either in the form of longevity, or through the double negative of killing the enemy in war. The petitioner typically seeks high ground, inasmuch as a hill or cliff is closer to heaven, and form a kind of Cosmic Mountain or spiritual Center where the various worlds meet and can better communicate with one another.2 The plaintive petitioner's cry to the Spirits, stressing their morality by blackening their faces, the color black symbolizing death, and the procedure of blackening the face being an element in the process of mourning another person's death. Here the vision seekers are emphasizing their mortality, which is precisely what Trickster cannot do. He is not seeking Life, but Death. Unlike a mortal, who seeks the pity of the Spirits on account of his mortality, Trickster weeps, with a face uncharcoaled, on account of his immortality, so that he might become mortal. The Spirits, including Earthmaker, will not "bless" him with mortality, because they do not pity him for being like them.

"he pitied himself" — the ordinary vision seeker's cries are designed to evoke the pity of the Spirits, but Trickster himself just is a Spirit, so he can only pity himself.

"a whole reservoir filled" — Trickster's creation of Lake Winnebago is modeled on Earthmaker's creation of Earth's bodies of water, including the Ocean Sea, from his own tears. Earthmaker's tears arise from his want of company, but Trickster, ever backwards, cries because he wants to separate from Earthmaker's creatures.

Comparative Material. Much of this story plays off the concluding myth of the Hare Cycle, The Necessity for Death. Their parallels can be tabulated:

The Necessity for Death Lake Winnebago Origin Myth
Hare feels grief because human beings must die Trickster feels grief because he himself cannot cease living
One of Hare's chief opponents is Bear Trickster seeks Bear out for advice
Hare laments that humans are not made like him (with immortality) Trickster laments that he is not made like humans (with mortality)
It is by his bow and arrows that Hare succeeds in securing life for the humans It is by the humans' bows and arrows by which Trickster hopes to part with his own inalienable life
Hare seems to succeed because he has made himself so human Trickster fails in this case precisely because he is so unlike humans
Hare thinks always of his mission Trickster thinks only of returning to Earthmaker regardless of the outcome of his mission

The failed attempt of the immortal Chiron to die in Greek mythology is very similar to this Trickster story,3 although Chiron and Trickster are in most ways diametrical opposites.

Links: Trickster, Bear (III), Earthmaker, Lake Winnebago.

Stories: in which Trickster is a character: The Trickster Cycle, Trickster Gets Pregnant, Trickster's Warpath, Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, 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, The Elk's Skull, Trickster and the Plums, 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, Waruǧábᵉra, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge; featuring Bear as a character: Hare Visits His Grandfather Bear, Bear Offers Himself as Food, Hocąk Clans Origin Myth, The Hocąk Migration Myth, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, Hare Establishes Bear Hunting, Bear Clan Origin Myth, The Woman Who Fought the Bear; mentioning (spirit) bears (other than were-bears): White Bear, Blue Bear, Black Bear, Red Bear, Bear Clan Origin Myth, The Shaggy Man, Bear Offers Himself as Food, Hare Visits His Grandfather Bear, Grandmother Packs the Bear Meat, The Spotted Grizzly Man, Hare Establishes Bear Hunting, The Woman Who Fought the Bear, Brass and Red Bear Boy, Redhorn's Sons, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, The Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Hocąk Clans Origin Myth, The Messengers of Hare, Bird Clan Origin Myth, The Hocąk Migration Myth, Red Man, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, Lifting Up the Bear Heads, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, The Two Boys, Creation of the World (v. 5), Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, The Brown Squirrel, Snowshoe Strings, Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, The Spider's Eyes, Little Priest's Game, Little Priest, How He went out as a Soldier, Morning Star and His Friend (v. 2), How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Trickster's Tail, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Warbundle Maker, cf. Fourth Universe; mentioning Earthmaker: The Creation of the World, The Creation of Man, The Commandments of Earthmaker, The Twins Get into Hot Water, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Lost Blanket, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna, The First Snakes, Tobacco Origin Myth, The Creation Council, The Gray Wolf Origin Myth, The Journey to Spiritland, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, The Seven Maidens, The Descent of the Drum, Thunder Cloud Marries Again, The Spider's Eyes, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Fourth Universe, Šųgepaga, The Fatal House, The Twin Sisters, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Elk Clan Origin Myth, Deer Clan Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, The Masaxe War, The Two Children, Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Petition to Earthmaker, The Gift of Shooting, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Stone Heart, The Wild Rose, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Lame Friend, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed, The Hocąk Migration Myth, The Necessity for Death, Hocąk Clans Origin Myth, The War among the Animals, Blue Mounds, Lost Lake, The Hocągara Migrate South, The Spirit of Gambling, Turtle and the Giant, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, The Hocągara Contest the Giants, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, Bird Origin Myth, Black and White Moons, Redhorn's Sons, Holy Song, The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, Death Enters the World, Man and His Three Dogs, Trickster Concludes His Mission, Story of the Thunder Names, The Origins of the Milky Way, Trickster and the Dancers, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, The Creation of Evil, The Blessing of Kerexųsaka, Song to Earthmaker, The Blessing of the Bow, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, The Origin of the Cliff Swallow; about the origins of bodies of water: Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, Lost Lake, Heną́ga and Star Girl; set at Lake Winnebago (Te Xete): The First Fox and Sauk 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 Fox-Hocąk War, Holy Song, First Contact (v. 2), Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, The Two Children (?).

In many ways the opposite of this story is The Necessity for Death.

Themes: a body of water is created by tears falling from above: The Creation of the World, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Holy One and His Brother, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed (v. 1); a song taunting a predator to kill or eat the singer: Hare Gets Swallowed, Wolves and Humans; (attempted) suicide: The Osage Massacre.


1 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.

2 "Mountains are often looked on as the place where sky and earth meet, a 'central point' therefore, the point through which the Axis Mundi goes, a region impregnated with the sacred, a spot where one can pass from one cosmic zone to another." Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, 99-100. See also, Eliade, Shamanism, 266-269. On the relationship between the mountain and the tree, he remarks, "... the symbolism of the World Tree is complementary to that of the Central Mountain. Sometimes the two symbols coincide; usually they complete each other. But both are merely more developed mythical formulations of the Cosmic Axis (World Pillar, etc.)." Eliade, Shamanism, 269. For the concept of the Centre and its associated symbolism, see Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, 81, 367-387; Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion. The Significance of Religious Myth, Symbolism, and Ritual within Life and Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1959) 40-42, 49, 57-58, 64-65; Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969) 42-43; William C. Beane and William G. Doty, edd., Myths, Rites, Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader, 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Row, 1975) 2:373; Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales (London: Thames & Hudson, 1961) Ch. VII.

3 Apollodorus 2.5.4.