The Man Who Lost His Children to a Wood Spirit
by Julia DeCora
"The Winnebago Indians believe in a great many supernatural beings. To them even moths and crickets possess souls. My great aunt was a high authority on folk-lore, so we children were very fortunate in hearing stories about giants and spirits. She believed in all of her tales just as firmly as we did. There was sure to be a most satisfactory answer to every question that we asked. One summer evening all of us children gathered around a fire in the yard where are aunt sat roasting ears of corn, and we begged her to tell us a story. She refused to do so, saying in her kindly way, “My little grandchildren, it is not right for me to tell you fairy tales in the summer for your grandfathers, the snakes, do not like it. I shall be sure to step on a snake if I tell you a tale at this time of the year.” Knowing when she made up her mind to do or not to do a thing, all our persuasions were thrown away, we changed our tactics. We asked one another about various spirits and their habits and then we would give a wrong answer purposely. She sat watching the motion of our lips awhile, for she was deaf, then she warned us to be careful how we talked about certain spirits that dwelt in large trees. This was a chance and we took it. A few more questions on wood spirits brought a story of a man who sold himself to one of these spirit animals."
"These spirits help people but it is always on conditions, as in the case of the man who sold himself to one of these animals. The man is still living but all his children have died.
When he was a young man he fasted for a great many days and one night a warrior in black buckskin dress came to him in a dream and told him that if he promised to give all his children to him, he should be a successful hunter; he was very young and there was little prospect of his having any children so he readily promised. The black stranger disappeared and the young man washed from his face the charcoal which marked him as fasting. His father was a[n]xious to test his son’s newly given power so they started out on a deer hunt.
The deer came in herds to be killed by the youth. At last the father was frightened at the terrible success of his son but they could not do anything to stop him.
In [the] course of time the successful hunter married and they had a son, of whom he was devotedly fond. When the child was a few years old, the black spirit appeared to the father and reminded him of his rash promise made years before. In a few weeks the child became sick and died and all his neighbors said that a wood spirit “took the soul of the little boy to live with him under the ground.”
The unhappy couple had a great many children but when they got to be about three years of age they would die.
One time the man was ill with chills, and while delirious, he told my aunt this same story, only he said that there were two spirits and they always appeared to him before the death of one of his children."1
Commentary. "the snakes" — it was a fundamental belief that sacred stories, which were called waiką́, could only be told in the cold half of the year, which was defined as the time that the snakes went into their holes to hibernate. If someone told a story during the time when serpents were about, they would be sure to be bitten by one of them. The odd connection between serpents and sacred stories may have something to do with the fact that waiką́ has an assonance with waką́, "sacred power," and probably derives from this word. The word for snake is also waką́, probably derived from the fact that as skin shedders, they seem to resurrect themselves, a trait that shows their very great waką́.
"these spirits" — she is referring to Wood Spirits. She explains, "A wood spirit is very much like a black cat but he had the power of changing himself into a man. He is one of the most malignant spirits and we were taught from infancy to pacify his unreasonable outbursts of rage." Julia has more to say on the rite used to placate Wood Spirits at "A Rite to Appease a Wood Spirit."
"black" — in their natural state, Wood Spirits are black, cat-like animals with eyes that glow in the night (much as felines have). It is therefore natural for a Wood Spirit to maintain his dark appearance. Black has the same connotations almost everywhere: the color of night is often the color used to represent death in symbolism, and Wood Spirits are perveyors of ill: it is even said that to dream of them in sleep is to find oneself in mortal danger.
"dream" — a person having attained puberty was expected to attempt to secure blessings from Spirits. This was accomplished by "crying to the Spirits." The crying was an attempt to evoke pity from the Spirits to whom his pleadings were directed. To make himself more pitiable, the supplicant would put charcoal on his face, as one does in mourning. The fasting was also designed to move the Spirits, but it also had the benefit, if done rigorously enough, to induce the waking visions, or "dream" (hą̄té) that constituted the medium in which the various Spirits would present themselves. One had to be on guard to defend against the blessings of Bad Spirits that had conditions attached to them that made simultaneously a curse. Parents were supposed to assess the blessing and advise the dreamer on whether he should accept it. Both sexes at puberty were expected to cry to the Spirits to get a dream, but dreams were also sought by men who were trying to obtain special supernatural powers, and by a Warleader seeking guidance and power with respect to a military expedition.
"his father" — his father was derelict in his duty, since it is his responsibility to advise his son on whether he should accept an offer of empowerment from what is, in fact, a Bad Spirit. Normally, the father would attempt to discourage a son or daughter from accepting anything from a Bad Spirits, as such blessings usually entail a "catch" that can lead to disaster. However, the young man's father was more intent upon finding his own personal benefit from having a son who could bring home a plentiful bounty of meat for the family to consume.
"under the ground" — their nocturnal abode is in the branches of large trees, but during the day they apparently have a subterranean Spiritland where they receive sacrifices. Normally, given that they inhabit an Upper World in the branches of trees, one might expect their Spiritland to be in the Above World. However, Thunderbirds we must deduce, since lightning strikes trees seemingly in preference to anything else, are natural enemies of Wood Spirits, which puts the tree dwellers in the same position as the Waterspirits, who are denizens of the underworld.
Comparative Material. ...
Links: Tree Spirits, Spirits, Trickster, Earthmaker.
Stories: about Wood Spirits (Wakącųna): Visit of the Woodspirit, The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Completion Song Origin, The Twins Disobey Their Father (v. 2); mentioning trees or Tree Spirits: The Creation of the World, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Children of the Sun, Visit of the Wood Spirit, The Boy who would be Immortal, The Commandments of Earthmaker, The Woman who Became a Walnut Tree, The Old Woman and the Maple Tree Spirit, The Oak Tree and the Man Who was Blessed by the Heroka, The Pointing Man, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster, The Baldness of the Buzzard, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb, Trickster Loses His Meal, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 2), Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Waruǧábᵉra, The Chief of the Heroka, The Red Man, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Blessing of the Bow, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Spirit of Gambling, Peace of Mind Regained, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, The Necessity for Death, The Story of the Medicine Rite.
Themes: someone is confronted by a man dressed completely in black: The Pointing Man, Visit of the Woodspirit, Turtle's Warparty; a person who fasts receives blessings from the spirits: The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, The Nightspirits Bless Jobenągiwįxka, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, Redhorn's Sons, The Boy Who Became a Robin, The Woman Who Fought the Bear, The Seer, Maize Comes to the Hocągara, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Boy who would be Immortal, The Thunderbird, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, The Waterspirit Guardian of the Intaglio Mound, Great Walker's Medicine, Šųgepaga, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna, Heną́ga and Star Girl, A Man's Revenge, Aracgéga's Blessings, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, The Man who was Blessed by the Sun, The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, The Man who Defied Disease Giver, White Thunder's Warpath, Black Otter's Warpath, A Man and His Three Dogs, The Oak Tree and the Man Who was Blessed by the Heroka, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, The Diving Contest, The Plant Blessing of Earth, Holy Song, The Tap the Head Medicine, The Blessing of Šokeboka, The Completion Song Origin, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, The Nightspirits Bless Ciwoit’éhiga, Sunset Point, Song to Earthmaker, First Contact (v. 1), The Horse Spirit of Eagle Heights.
1 Julia DeCora, “Indian Superstitions,” Talks and Thoughts, Hampton Institution (July 1898).