Origin of the Name "Milwaukee"

from the collection of W. C. McKern

Original manuscript pages: | 166 | 167 |

This is a Hocąk story about how the Sioux named Milwaukee.

(166) Before the white people came here, the Winnebago lived about here someplace. They lived on an island. The Sioux came along with many canoes, to make war on the Winnebago. They could see the island. The Sioux saw the Winnebago on this island. They arrived during the day, but waited in hiding until night. There were only a few Winnebago, they said to each other. When nighttime came, they prepared to go. They all got in canoes, but one old man and his son were delayed and remained for a time on the land. At that time the lake had no waves but was still. There was no wind. The waters then began to swing around, like a whirlpool. Faster and faster the waters turned. The Sioux tried to land then, but they could not do so. They knew something had happened to the water. The old man and his son, about to embark, noticed the disturbed waters. So the young man said, "There is something happening here; let's not get into the canoe." All the other Sioux were drowned. So only the old man and his son remained to tell the tale. That is the reason that the Sioux call it "Holy Water." (167) That is also the reason the Winnebago call it "Bad Lake."

That is all.1

Commentary. "Milwaukee" — at the very top of the page, McKern has

Mĭni wakʌ̃ — Milwaukee.
water | holy

In current orthography, this would be Miniwaką́, and in Lakota orthography, Miniwakáŋ. This is, of course, a pseudo-etymology.

"someplace" — at Red Banks on the Dore Peninsula in Wisconsin (near Green Bay).

"island" — it is true that they lived on Doty Island in Lake Winnebago, but no other account says that they lived on an island in Lake Michigan. In "Annihilation of the Hocągara I" (version 2), they say that they attacked the Fox from this island in Lake Winnebago, but the whole force was rubbed out in a storm.

"whirlpool" — the audience will know that the water behaved the way it did because of the actions of a Waterspirit deep below. In another story (The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake) where the Sioux are rubbed out while crossing a body of water to attack the Hocągara, the source of their demise is said explicitly to be a Waterspirit. The actions of this Waterspirit presuppose that the Hocągara had made due sacrifices to him, or that the Sioux had failed to propitiate him before they entered into his domain.

"holy" — this is yet another case in which "holy" does not necessarily imply that it is something good.

Comparative Material. This story is a transposition of what the Hocągara say about themselves in the "Annihilation of the Hocągara I" (version 3), where they say that they tried to cross Lake Michigan in a great expedition of 500 men against the Illini, but a storm arose, and all were lost. Presumably this is why they call Lake Michigan, "Bad Lake" (Te Šišik).

For a Noquet parallel, see this.

Links: Waterspirits.

Stories: about the (post-Columbian) history of the Hocągara: The Cosmic Ages of the Hocągara, The Hocągara Migrate South, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I, Annihilation of the Hocągara II, First Contact, Origin of the Decorah Family, The Glory of the Morning, The First Fox and Sauk War, The Fox-Hocąk War, The Masaxe War, The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, Black Otter's Warpath, Great Walker's Medicine, Great Walker's Warpath, The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, Little Priest's Game, The Spanish Fight, The Man who Fought against Forty, The Origin of Big Canoe's Name, Jarrot's Aborted Raid, They Owe a Bullet, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Origin of the Hocąk Name for "Chicago"; mentioning the Sioux (Šąhą): The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, Little Priest's Game, Berdache Origin Myth, Great Walker's Warpath, Potato Magic, The Masaxe War, White Flower, The Man who Fought against Forty, First Contact (vv. 2-3), The Omahas who turned into Snakes, The Love Blessing, Run for Your Life, The Scalping Knife of Wakąšucka, Introduction; set at Lake Michigan (Te Šišik): The Hocąk Arrival Myth, Buffalo Clan Origin Myth, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I (v. 3), Gatschet's Hocank hit’e ("Hocąk Origins").

This story is very similar to The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake.

Themes: descriptions of human warfare: Black Otter's Warpath, Annihilation of the Hocągara II, The Warbundle Maker, The First Fox and Sauk War, Great Walker's Medicine, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I, How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, Little Priest's Game, Wazųka, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, The Four Slumbers Origin Myth, Big Thunder Teaches Cap’ósgaga the Warpath, The Fox-Hocąk War, Great Walker's Warpath, White Fisher, The Lame Friend, White Thunder's Warpath, The Osage Massacre, A Man's Revenge, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, They Owe a Bullet, The Spanish Fight, The Man Whose Wife was Captured (v. 2), Tobacco Man and Married Man, The Scalping Knife of Wakąšucka.


1 W. C. McKern, Winnebago Notebook (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Museum, 1927) 166.