Little Fox (Wašerekéniga)
by Richard L. Dieterle
Little Fox is a character which has been mistakenly identified with Coyote (see below). In those stories in which he appears, he plays roles that are certainly consistent with the nature of foxes. In Hočąk thought, what stands out most about foxes is their eternal state of want, a condition reflected in their emaciated physique. No story better illustrates this than "Little Fox and the Corpse." One winter, Little Fox was starving. He picked up the smell of a human corpse which he found laid out on a platform in an abandoned village. This corpse could speak, and asked Little Fox what he smelled like. Little Fox replied that he smelled just like beef jerky wrapped in bear fat. For this he was rewarded with a feast of bear meat and corn. He plied the corpse for food all winter long, and never lacked for the finest cuisine. When the season of want had passed and spring was in the air, Little Fox told the corpse what he really smelled like, and the corpse leapt up from his place of rest and chased after him. Little Fox jumped into a hole, but the tip of his tail protruded above ground, and the corpse bit it off. A white tailed deer (others say an elk) came along and offered Little Fox the tip of its tail. This is why deer have short tails and foxes have tails tipped in white.1
During another hungry winter, Little Fox was living with Trickster, Blue Jay, and Nit. Starvation drove Trickster to remake himself into a woman with a vagina of elk liver. All three of his friends tried him out and made him pregnant. In accord with their plan, Trickster went to a prosperous village and courted the son of the chief. Her success led to a time of plenty for "her" and her friends. However, while playing around, Trickster's elk liver fell off, and Little Fox along with the others had to run for his life.2
Again, Trickster was looking for a human village in which to lead an easy life. He encountered Little Fox and decided to trick him into helping him. He said, "Let's play Keen Scenter." Little Fox agreed, and they began to test the air for the scent of a human village. Trickster pretended to have picked up a scent, and this made Little Fox redouble his efforts. In the end, Little Fox finally did smell something, and they headed in the direction indicated. There they found a village and lived for quite some time.3
Little Fox was planning to trick Trickster, but the latter beat him to it. Trickster induced Mouse to run and tell Little Fox about a great scavenging opportunity. Little Fox ran out to the outskirts of the village where he was a son-in-law, and saw there an animal that seemed to be a deer or elk. Mouse wanted Little Fox to tow the animal someplace where they could satisfy their greedy appetite to the exclusion of everyone else. So she tied Little Fox's tail to the animal and told him to pull. The animal was in fact a sleeping horse, and when it was awakened, it panicked and dragged Little Fox in tow right to the house of its master. All the while Trickster yelled, "Look how disgracefully our son-in-law is acting!" After this humiliation, Little Fox never showed his face around human habitations again.4
Is Little Fox the same as Coyote? Owing to Oliver LaMère's translation of his name (Wašerekéniga) as "Coyote," the status of Little Fox ought to be controversial.5 However, in another story translated by LaMère,6 we encounter the more common name for Coyote, Mánįkasìgenįka ("Little Coyote"), from manįkasik, "coyote."7 This is a slightly shortened form of the standard mąnįkaksik.8 The standard name for the fox is wacereké. The suffix -ke/-ge is often added to the name of animals, and we do find in Webster's list of 1885 the shortest form of this word, wašere. He also has Tewašere, "Fox Lake."9 George in his wordlist (1885) has wašerekera (wah-sher-a-ker-rah), "fox," and for the name of the Fox River, he gives us Wašerakeranįšąnąk (Wah-shar-rah-ker-rah-ne-shun-nuck).10 Dorsey presents this same term, wacereke, for what he calls the "prairie fox,"11 which in more contemporary sources is said to denote foxes generally.12 In one of our oldest sources (1854) we find the personal name Wašerakéka, "Fox,"13 and elsewhere the usual name for the Fox tribe is Wašerekéra.14 The only ambiguity found was in the early source of words compiled by Dr. Gatschet, where it is said that wašereké=zi means "coyote, fox." However, he himself recognizes that zi means "yellow," leaving us with the conundrum of how a gray animal like the coyote could have a name suggesting its coat is, in full or part, yellow.15 In fact, just this name, wašerekezira (wah-sher-a-ker-=ze-dah), was given by George for the "yellow fox" by which he meant what we now call the "red fox."16 That Gatschet is eccentric in his usage is confirmed when he alone claims that the word for wolf (šųkčąk) also denotes coyotes.
In that part of the Trickster Cycle translated by John Baptiste, Wašerekéniga is always translated as "Little Fox," and is taken to be a fox. It is only in works by LaMère that "Little Fox" is a name for a coyote. Yet many American Indian tribes refer to the coyote as "little wolf." Could it be that this is the source of Wašerekéniga being called "Coyote"? As against this, however, nįk, "little," is often used in the names of story characters as a diminutive, as we see in Mánįkasìgenįka, "Little Coyote." It is obvious enough that the coyote could be called "little wolf" since its size is a bit smaller than the typical wolf; but could it at all accurately be termed "little fox"? The scientific data collected by Environment Canada makes the size relation between the fox and the coyote abundantly clear: "Adult foxes weigh between 3.6 and 6.8 kg and range in length between 90 and 112 cm, of which about one-third is tail. ... Slimmer and smaller than the wolf, the male coyote weighs from 9 to 23 kg, has an overall length of 120150 cm (including a 3040 cm tail), and stands 5866 cm high at the shoulder." Far from being little version of a fox, the coyote is actually a good deal larger than any fox. Therefore, the "little" appended to the word "fox" is a diminutive, not a way of forming a general term denoting the larger coyote. In the story about Little Fox entitled "Coyote and the Ghost," a corpse breaks off the end of Coyote's tail, but that piece is replaced when an elk gives him his own tail. The elk's tail is white. In Sam Blowsnake's version of this story, Čiakšigega, a deer, gives him the tip of his white tail, and that is why this deer has had a short tail and the "coyote" has had a tail with a white tip. The coyote has a black tip to its tail. It's the tail of the red fox that has a white tip. Consequently, the character called "Little Fox" in this story is a fox, not a coyote.
Links: Foxes, Trickster, Mice, Horses, Wolf & Dog Spirits, Coyote, Ghosts, Blue Jay, Lice, Deer Spirits.
Stories: in which Little Fox is a character: Trickster Takes Little Fox for a Ride, Little Fox and the Ghost, Little Fox Goes on the Warpath, The Scenting Contest, Trickster Gets Pregnant; mentioning foxes: Trickster Takes Little Fox for a Ride, Little Fox and the Ghost, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, Redhorn's Father, Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, The Scenting Contest, Trickster Gets Pregnant, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans (v. 3), Little Fox Goes on the Warpath, Holy One and His Brother; mentioning coyotes: Wojijé, The Raccoon Coat, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Redhorn's Sons, Redhorn Contests the Giants, Trickster and the Eagle; in which Trickster is 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; 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; mentioning mice: The War among the Animals, Trickster Takes Coyote for a Ride, Fable of the Mouse, Waruǧábᵉra, Hare Kills Wildcat, Ocean Duck, The Two Boys, The Lost Blanket; mentioning horses: The Big Eater, Thunderbird and White Horse, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, Sun and the Big Eater, Rich Man, Boy, and Horse, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, The Horse Spirit of Eagle Heights, Trickster Takes Little Fox for a Ride, James’ Horse, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, The Boy who Flew, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, They Owe a Bullet, The Man Whose Wife was Captured (v. 2).
Themes: Trickster fools Little Fox: Trickster Takes Little Fox for a Ride, The Scenting Contest.
1 Charlie Houghton, Coyote is Invited to a Feast, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Winnebago III, #9, Freeman #3894 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1909?) 147- 159.
2 Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1956) 21-24. The original text is in "Wakdjukaga," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3897 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Winnebago V, #7: 186-224.
3 Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1956) 40-41. The original text is in "Wakdjukaga," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3897 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Winnebago V, #7: 404-413.
4 "Wakdjukaga," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3897 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1912) Winnebago V, #7: 548-566. A translation has been published in Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1956) 50-52.
5 These stories are: Trickster Takes Little Fox for a Ride, Little Fox and the Ghost, Trickster Gets Pregnant.
6 "Morning Star and His Friend." See in particular the Hočąk text.
7 Marino, s. v.
8 as in the Hocąk Wajizaci Language and Culture Program.
9 Words collected by W. N. Webster of Oshkosh under the direction of Reuben G. Thwaites, July 1, 1885. Found in Thomas J. George, Winnebago Vocabulary, 4989 Winnebago (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, 1885) last (unnumbered) page.
In the oldest list (1833) we have the hapaxlegomenon for "a fox" as čarakuja (cha-ra-kuj-a), however, this could be a corruption of [wa]šerekižą. List of Winnebago Words from Ebr. Bingham's Account Book, 1831-33. Contained in Thomas J. George, Winnebago Vocabulary, 4989 Winnebago (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, 1885). Originally from the collections of the [Wisconsin] State Historical Society.
10 Thomas J. George, Winnebago Vocabulary, 4989 Winnebago (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, 1885). Informants: Big Bear of Friendship, Wisconsin, and Big Thunder.
He calls the gray fox ("silver fox"), hočąwašerekera (o-tchaah-wah-shanaker-rah).
11 James Owen Dorsey, Winnebago-English Vocabulary and Winnebago Verbal Notes, 4800 Dorsey Papers: Winnebago (3.3.2) 321 [old no. 1226] (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, 1888) 82 pp.
12 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 ); Capt. Don Saunders, When the Moon is a Silver Canoe. Legends of the Wisconsin Dells (Wisconsin Dells, Wisc.: Don Saunders, 1947) 71-74.
13 Thomas Foster, Foster's Indian Record and Historical Data (Washington, D. C.: 1876-1877) vol. 1, #2: p. 4, coll. 3-4 ("abandon" - "beckon"); vol. 1, #3: p. 4, coll. 2-4 ("bed" - "chafe").
14 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 ) 11-17.
15 Albert Samuel Gatschet, "Hočank hit’e," in Linguistic and Ethnological Material on the Winnebago, Manuscript 1989-a (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives, 1889, 1890-1891). Informants: Michael and Reuben David St. Cyr.
16 George, Winnebago Vocabulary.