Moiety Origin Myth

by Solomon Longtail, Buffalo Clan

(303) There once was a village of Winnebagoes. The chief lived there. He ruled over all the people of that village. They did just what he asked them to do. One day a war-party started with his consent.

Now, this chief had four daughters and two sons. The old man said to his older son, "Young men of your age generally fast, and go out to the woods and pray that some great spirit may bless them; but you have never done what people of your age are accustomed to do."

It was the custom in the olden time that he who returned with a scalp should be given a wampum belt as a prize. This he had to give to one of his sisters.

The young man, the older of the two brothers, went on a warpath. When the members of the warpath came back, he was the third of those who had taken a scalp. When Indians return from a warpath, they generally march through the village with the scalps suspended from poles. While they were thus marching through the village, the old chief saw his son, the third in the line. So he made fun of him, and said, "As old as I am, if I were to go on the warpath, I should come back the first; and if I should go, my sisters would march around the village with the first prize." The young man felt hurt, and walked out of the ranks, homeward. When he got home, his mother had his meal ready for him, which she had cut into chunks and put into a wooden bowl. The dish was set before the young man. Before he had taken anything, the father came in, and, taking some ashes, threw some into the dish. The boy did not eat anything. Four times war-parties started out, but only at the fourth time did the boy come home first. He did not eat anything at that time. Even on the return of the fourth expedition, the father made fun of the young man. When he arrived home, the father again threw ashes into his food. Then the young man took his blanket and wrapped himself in it, covering his head; and he sat down and said not a word. As he was lying down, he thought of his father's actions. He thought that his father did not like him, and he preferred to die rather than to live. He went away toward the wilderness, taking his best clothing and bow and arrows, and blackened his face every morning. He wanted to die. He traveled four days, running all the time. Then he came to a village on the morning of the fifth day. It was just about sunrise when he came to the village. It was foggy. He went up on a hill. When he got there, he saw the village lying underneath. He saw the long pole that stood in front of the chief's house. When he first started from his home, he had made up his mind to die in the wilderness; but when he saw the village, he hated to go there and be killed. But he remembered that he had intended to go to the wilderness to die; so he grew brave again, and went to the (304) chief's house. He put on his best clothes and marched towards the camp.

While mourning, the perspiration had trickled over his blackened face and made long streaks. Then he went and stood in front of the chief's house. The house of the chief, in the olden days, had a shed supported on four forked tree-stumps. While he was standing at the door of the house, the chief's youngest daughter was just coming out; and when she saw this man standing in front of the door early in the morning, she screamed at the top of her voice. Then her father said, "What is the matter? Why are you yelling ?" And she replied, "My brother is standing at the door." Her brother had been buried a day before that. (When a chief or any member of his family dies, the whole village generally mourns.) The old man said, "Tell him to come in." So they invited him in. As he walked, every one in the lodge looked at him, and noticed that he looked exactly like the dead person; his clothing was the same, and his movements were the same. The old man then told the public crier to announce to the people of the village that his son had come to life again; that the women should comb their hair, paint themselves, and be joyful and happy, as before. Then they sent for the partner of the boy who had died. They told him that his partner had come to life again.

In the old days the chief's house had a scaffold in the rear, on which the chief's son always slept. This scaffold was supported on four tree stumps, and was about four feet from the ground, so that a little ladder was required to ascend to it.

Then the old chief talked to his son, and said to him, "Whenever you want to go anywhere, let your sister (waicgĕ́ra) and aunt (cų́wį), know of it, because in this part of the world three, four, or even five pairs of moccasins would not last very long. They will make you all you need to carry on a trip."

The young man was a very lively, swift hunter. When he did not want to hunt, he would kill a few deer. One night his partner came home late in the evening, and said, "Partner, I have just been notified that a party are going out traveling, and they told me to tell some person about it, so I have come to tell you." — "All right!" was the answer. The next day, as it was just getting dark, his partner came around again, and said, "They have already gone." So both struck out on the trail immediately. They had determined upon a place to meet, and there they overtook the other members of the expedition.

On the warpath it is customary for each person to fall in line in the order of his arrival at the meeting-place. A certain distance must also be observed between him and the next person. (305) No person was permitted under any circumstances to pass in front of those ahead of him. When resting, it was the custom to look in the direction from which they had been coming.

As the two partners had come last, they were the last in line. Then the head warrior's nephew — the one who serves him — was told to count the number of men in the party. This he did, and found the expected number. "The whole party is here," he said. Then the head warrior got up, and said, "Follow me !" and they all got up but one. Now one man was lying on his belly, who did not get up when the others did. Then some one said, "Who is that lying down?" And a few looked down on this fellow, and they saw it was the chief's son — a very unusual thing among Indians. So one of the party said, "Say, that is this prisoner we have." This he said jokingly. Some of the others heard this remark about the so-called prisoner, and they said, "Stop saying that! for we don't know who that prisoner is. He may be our protection." Then they started to travel again. They traveled all night until morning. Then the warrior told his nephew to take the war-bundle and place it on the ground carefully and gently. Thereupon the head warrior arose and spoke. "Friends, I want to say something to you. Our chief's son is along with us, and he has only one pair of moccasins with him. We shall each of us have to give him one pair of ours." Every one consented, and the chief's son thus had plenty to wear. Then they traveled again four days and four nights. When day dawned, the old chief arose, and said, "I am going to appoint one of you to go and kill an enemy for me." So he took a handful of tobacco and walked up to an Indian named White-Eagle-Feather (Wicáwixšepsgagá). White-Eagle-Feather took the tobacco, and said, "You all know that I am the only one that can kill a man in the middle of his own village." The man that passed the tobacco around went to all the others, offering them the same; but they all refused. When he came to the two who had joked about the so-called prisoner, they also refused, but added, "Give it to the prisoner we have." They passed it to him, and he said, "Hąhó, all right! I am willing to follow suit to what White-Eagle-Feather said, and I will also bring you the scalp of one who wears a medal () around his neck." Then these two started. Then the two men ran along all day until noon, when they came to a large rock; and White-Eagle-Feather said, "Here is the place where I usually sharpen my knife to cut the scalps of our enemies." And then they began to whet their knives on the rock. "Don't get too smooth an edge on your knife, but get a rough one, because you can cut the scalp off better," said White-Eagle-Feather. They traveled until sundown, and then they came to the village of their enemies. It was a very large village. They came up a long hill, and looked down upon the village. (306) White-Eagle-Feather said, "I can stand up erect and look at them, but they cannot see me." He looked out to find the chief's lodge. The chief's son said and did everything that White-Eagle-Feather said and did. In the evening they went down toward the village, and traveled all night among them, just as if they belonged there. They stayed until morning in front of the chief's house. The sun had come to the top of the trees. Then two people came out of the chief's lodge. Each of the two Winnebagoes then gave a war-whoop and attacked the two that had come out. The young chief killed his man first, scalped him, and took his medal, and said to White-Eagle-Feather, "I am going." White-Eagle-Feather joined him, and together they ran through the heart of the village. They ran together quite leisurely. After a while they were pursued, and the pursuers were gaining on them. White-Eagle-Feather made a jump or two and got ahead of the young man, and said, "Young man, I am going. Do the best you can." The enemy was getting nearer and nearer. As the enemy was thus gaining upon them, the two were running westward, away from the enemy's camp. White-Eagle-Feather kept ahead of him, so that there were soon two hills between them. The two hills were a long distance apart, and the young chief took a spurt and ran as well as he could. Before White-Eagle-Feather got to the third hill, the young chief had overtaken him, and in passing he said, "Young man, they are gaining upon us. I am going." With that, he sped away. In running they had circled all around the village, toward the direction in which they had entered. They traveled together all the time. White-Eagle-Feather had, up to then, been the only person who had been able to enter the enemy's village and return to his own camp safely. The young chief seemed, however, to be just as great and nimble as himself. When they came in sight of their band, the members who had been watching for them saw them running on the prairie. "Hohó!" they said, "White-Eagle-Feather is coming!" Such was the shout. And it was White-Eagle-Feather behind the young chief. The young chief slowed up then, and White-Eagle-Feather caught up with him. Now they were running side by side. They were then in plain sight of their band, and White-Eagle-Feather said to the young chief, "The way we shall do is this: if I get in first, I shall call for my first prize; then, when you get in, you can call for yours. That is the way we generally do here." So the young chief said, " I am going to get the first prize," and he ran as well as he could. The young chief got there first. The pipe was lighted, and held up to him to smoke. He took only three or four puffs, and called for the first prize. So they brought it to him, and put the wampum around him. Then White-Eagle-Feather entered. After both had finished smoking, White-Eagle-Feather arose, and said, "I wish to tell you all something. As long as I have been with you, for these many years, I have been the only one who has been able to enter the village of the enemy. (307) Whenever a man went along with me, he was killed, and I was the only one that returned. For that reason I always thought I was the bravest man. I have changed my mind now. This young man here has been made fun of because he was a stranger to us; but I say he is the bravest man among us, and I shall make friends with him." Then the young chief arose, and said, "Friend, the great spirits above, on this earth, and below the earth, call me 'the Yankton' (Ihąktuhą́ga). My name is not Prisoner-Man. White-Eagle-Feather wants to make friends with me, and I am going to make friends with him."

Then they went home from the camp. It took six days to reach their village. They danced with their two scalps. Thus they danced all summer. After a while, the young chief married. White-Eagle-Feather also married. Both had sons. Both lived together in the same lodge. When enemies intended to come to the village, these two men in their dreams would have knowledge of it, and make preparations to defend themselves. Then the great spirits told this young chief to go home to his brother and sister, because the two of them, who were both younger than himself, were sick and pining for him. (He had been away from his people for many years.) He returned home with White-Eagle-Feather. When they got there, in the night, the old man said, "Oh, my son!" but the old woman took a wooden poker and hit him with it, saying, "You have no son. You abused your own son, and made him leave us for a long time. Whenever an enemy came, he knew it beforehand through his dreams, and was able to warn the people, and they were able to make preparations to meet the enemy." He stayed with his people for four years, and after that he induced the two tribes to move together. From that time on, the members of White-Eagle-Feather's band formed part of the Winnebago tribe. It was really the two parts [moieties] of the Winnebago tribe that had thus come together.1

Commentary. "wampum belt" — other stories refer to an incarnate spirit cooking the heads of Giants to produce wampum from their brains. In both cases, when the head of an enemy is taken into the victor's society (partly symbolized by being cooked), it is equated with wampum. This equation is exemplified in the gift of the wampum to his clan family. So the bringing back of an enemy head = the acquisition of wampum.

"waicgĕ́ra" — literally, "younger sister," said by a male. — Radin

"cų́wį" — literally, "father's sister." — Radin

"medal" — the reference is to medals that have frequently been distributed among the chiefs of Indian tribes. — Radin

"moieties" — a moiety is a basic subdivision of a tribe. Among the Hocągara it is necessarily composed of a set of clans. What particularly defines a moiety division is exogamy: no one marries within his or her own moiety. There is a single odd exception: the Wolf Clan may marry within its own clan, otherwise, it observes the strictures applying to the prohibition to marry within one's own moiety. Among the Hocągara, the two moieties were subdivided into two halves, forming a quadripartite system exemplifying the sacred number four.

The Upper Moiety was divided into the First Thunderbird Family and the Second Thunderbird Family, the latter also known as the Air Family. The first consisted of the Thunderbird Clan; the second consists of the Eagle, Hawk (Warrior), and Pigeon Clans.2 The Thunder Clan stands to the other Bird Clans as the Thunderbirds themselves stand to the visible birds of nature. The Lower Moiety was subdivided into the Land Family and the Water Family, corresponding in nature to terrestrial animals as opposed to aquatic animals, the amphibians being included in the latter. The Land Family clans are the Bear, Wolf, Elk, Deer, and Buffalo; the Water Family consists of the Waterspirit, Snake, and Fish Clans.3

Parallels with “Worúxega

Common Elements Moiety Origins Worúxega
A man, for the sake of honor, kills another person. The son of the chief goes on the warpath and kills an enemy, but does not win the first war honor.   A man kills his wife for extreme infidelity.
However, he is denigrated for his actions in spite of his virtue. His father ridicules and denigrates him.   He is sensible of having committed a crime.
He feels despair and flees his village to die in the wilderness. He feels despair and flees his village to die in the wilderness.   He feels despair and flees his village to die in the wilderness.
He works his way to the top of a hill, there to die. He works his way to the top of a hill, there to die.   He works his way to the top of a hill, there to die.
He sees the signs of a foreign people nearby. He sees a village not far below. He and his friend track a warparty. He sees tracks of a warparty.
He goes down the hill and joins up with the foreigners. He enters the village. They catch up to the warparty He joins the warparty.
They think that he is, in some sense, a ghost. Since he resembles the chief's son who just died, so they think that he is his ghost come back to life.   They think he is a ghost.
They refer to him by a denigrating name that implies he is from the outside world. Some members of the warparty denigrate him by calling him "prisoner." Some in the warparty denigrate him and call him "ghost."
The warleader appoints the foremost warrior and the new man to close on the enemy.   The warleader appoints White Eagle Feather, the most outstanding warrior, and the chief's son to kill the enemy. The warleader appoints the foremost warrior and the new man ("Ghost") to be scouts.
The two ran a long ways but the new man kept up.   The two ran a long ways but the chief's son kept up. The two ran a long ways but the new man kept up.
Everything that the warrior did, the new man also did.   Everything that White Eagle Feather did, the chief's son also did. Everything that the warrior did, the new man also did.
They possess holy powers.   White Eagle Feather says that he has the power of invisibility. They both change into animal forms repeatedly.
Using their holy powers, they enter into the village.   They enter the village. They are undetected. They change into birds, and enter the village.
They kill and behead two of the enemy who came towards them.   They kill and scalp the chief and a relative who come out of the lodge. They ambush two men and behead them.
They are pursued.   They are pursued. They are pursued.
They evade their pursuers.   They outran their pursuit. They turned into snakes and evade the pursuit.
Upon their return, the new man is recognized as the foremost warrior.   Upon their return, the chief's son received the first war honors. When they returned, the warrior heaped praise upon Worúxega saying that he was superior to all.
The warrior makes friends with the new man.   White Eagle Feather makes friends with the new man. The great warrior makes friends with Worúxega.
The new man marries into this community and is personally close to his friend.   White Eagle Feather and the new man live together in the same lodge and are married. Worúxega marries the warrior's sister.
The holiness of the two friends is made known.   These two friends could presage the coming of enemies. How Worúxega became holy is recounted.
The friends move to the new man's village.   The friends move to the new man's village. The friends move to Worúxega village.
His antagonists there do not condemn him.   The father is repentant. The father is glad to see his son again. The brothers-in-law are forgiving (except the youngest).
Someone acquainted with the new man's holiness tells his antagonist of the character of his holiness, and its reality is demonstrated.   The mother says that his father failed to respect his son's holiness, as he could foresee an enemy attack. The warrior says that Worúxega cannot be killed. The youngest brother-in-law proves it by failing to shoot him.
The warrior's tribe joins up with the new man's tribe while still retaining its identity.   The two tribes move together. They are the two moieties of today, The other tribe frequently joins up with the Hocągara.

The divergences are so striking that there is some hesitation in saying that they are two versions of the same myth, but the core story in both can be extracted and is sufficient to establish that they are at least stories on the same subject.

Comparative Material: This bears a number of interesting point of similarity to an Hidatsa myth, which at least on its face, does not appear to be about moieties. Once there was a young man who showed no particular interest in matters of war. He never joined in warparties or warrior activities, so he was given the derisive name "Home Boy." His father urged him to make a name for himself, but the boy always stayed home. One day he finally acquired a vision which showed him that he was destined to achieve greatness as a warrior. So when the next Sun Dance was held, he danced among the warriors. His temerity brought shame to his family, who left the festivities with blankets over their heads. One day he joined in a dance of those going out on a warparty, so his friend told him that he must go out with them or be held in shame forever. He replied that he would be there in the form of a wolf. When the warparty went out, they saw a wolf running towards them along a ridge, occasionally glancing over its shoulder. The friend said, "That's Home Boy! I claim second war honors after whatever he achieves." The warparty laughed, but soon Home Boy was standing before them. He told them of all he had seen of the enemy. They agreed to his proposal when he said that he and his friend would go alone to scout out the enemy. They crept up on an old woman at the outskirts of the Sioux village, and he lanced and scalped her, while his friend counted coup. As they fled, the Sioux were close upon them. Home Boy bucked up his friend's stamina, and they made it back to the main party, where a great fight ensued in which Home Boy killed many of the enemy and counted coup. He returned in advance of the party, then went to his lodge, where his father expressed disappointment in him; but later when the whole warparty showed up, the warriors were full of praise for his exploits. The chief who had slighted him in the past, now offered him one of his new young wives, but Home Boy turned him down, saying that he had done everything purely for the glory of the chief's name. He never changed his own name, and his many future exploits turned it into a name always to be remembered with respect.4

Links: (none)

Stories: about the union of the two moieties: Bird Clan Origin Myth, Hocąk Clans Origin Myth; about scalping: The Woman's Scalp Medicine Bundle, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp, The Scalping Knife of Wakąšucka, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, Turtle's Warparty, White Fisher, Black Otter's Warpath, The Dog that became a Panther, Wazųka, Great Walker's Warpath, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, The Fox-Hocąk War.

Themes: a (step-)father is too demanding of his son: The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, The Boy Who Became a Robin, Origin of the Decorah Family; someone is rejected by at least one member of his family: Sun and the Big Eater, The Big Eater, The King Bird, Grandfather's Two Families, Kaǧiga and Lone Man, The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, The Story of the Medicine Rite; a young man, who later turns out to be holy, is criticized by his elders for not conducting his puberty fast: The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Origin of the Decorah Family; a young hero (becomes depressed and) sits in silence with a blanket over his head: Turtle's Warparty, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Necessity for Death; someone depressed by prospects at home goes (at a run) into the wilderness to die: White Wolf, Bluehorn's Nephews, Bluehorn Rescues His Sister; a young man becomes angry and runs off into the wilderness without knowing what he will do there: Redhorn's Father; a man is adopted into a family who live in a distant village: Sun and the Big Eater, The Big Eater, Grandfather's Two Families, Origin of the Decorah Family, The Captive Boys; men who wear a single eagle feather in their hair: Redhorn's Father, The Lost Blanket; a medallion necklace is symbolic of chieftainship: The Deer Clan Origin Myth; a holy young man is given an insulting name, but later makes known his true name (given to him by the sprints) in conjunction with a great feat: The Race for the Chief's Daughter; seeing the approach of an enemy warparty in a dream: The Dogs of the Chief's Son, Wazųka, The Dog that became a Panther, Porcupine and His Brothers; a man is blessed with the ability to foresee the approach of enemies: Wazųka, White Fisher, Black Otter's Warpath, The Dog that became a Panther, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I, Big Thunder Teaches Cap’ósgaga the Warpath, The Fleetfooted Man; scouts spy on the enemy (from a hill) without being seen: The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, White Thunder's Warpath, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, Worúxega; a warleader appoints men to do the killing in a planned attack: Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty; falsely claiming first war honors: The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty; one man finishes so far ahead of the competition in a foot race that he has time to smoke a pipe before they reach the finish line: Old Man and Wears White Feather, Sun and the Big Eater, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse; an old woman strikes a man with a poker for his misbehavior: Hare Burns His Buttocks.


1 Paul Radin, "Winnebago Tales," Journal of American Folklore, 22 (1909): 303-307. Informant: Soloman Long Tail.

2 Thomas Foster, Foster's Indian Record and Historical Data (Washington, D. C.: 1876-1877) vol. 1; #1, p. 4, coll. 1, 1. This is also confirmed by Radin Thunderbird Clan informant — Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 161 and nt 1.

3 Foster, Foster's Indian Record, 1; #1, p. 4, coll. 1, 1.

4 "Legend of Home Boy," in Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian, being a Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska. Ed. Frederick Webb Hodge. 20 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1907-1930) 4:165-171.