Nightspirits (Hąhĕ́, "Nights")

by Richard L. Dieterle

BAE 37, Plate 47   BAE 37, Plate 48
Deerskin Offerings to the Nightspirits

The sacrificial emblem of the Hok'áwas Mąnį́na, "Those Who Walk in Darkness," is four black, parallel vertical lines, or a wavy black line, as seen in the illustrations above. Like the Thunderbirds with whom they intermarry, the Nightspirits appear before humans in the shape and aspect of men. They are as much responsible for the black of night as Sun is for the light of day, since darkness spreads as the Nightspirits walk about the world.1 When the Nightspirits walk fast, dawn comes swiftly. The oldest Nightspirits walk the slowest, and their white hair may be seen in the twilight that follows after them. The elders carry canes, and if a passing Nightspirit points his cane at anyone still asleep, that person will not live to see the sun.2

The Night Soldiers are especially warlike and to show them disrespect would mean certain death. In the early history of the earth, the Night Soldiers used to bare many scars on their faces from being speared by the cranes with whom they constantly warred. However, when the Thunderbirds first visited them, they entered the fray with the newly invented Thunderbird Warclub, with which they decisively defeated and subdued the cranes. Like Thunderbirds, the Nightspirits like to kill and eat Waterspirits, whom they call "beavers."3 Despite their warrior prowess, they consider their sisters to be so wakącąk that the women are permitted to walk in front of them.4 Nightspirit women have the power to create such cold that they can even freeze a Thunderbird. Like the Thunders, however, some Nightspirit women have man-eating proclivities, but such practices are aberrations abhorred by most Nightspirits. Nightspirit women travel from their spirit village on the eastern shore of the earth-circling ocean by simply walking on its waters, a feat the Thunderbirds are unable to accomplish. Nevertheless, the Thunders sailed across the eastern ocean to the spirit village of the Nights at the edge of the world by placing themselves inside bladders made of bear skin. There they married Nightspirit women and returned with them to the other side of the ocean by stepping in their wives' first four footprints as they walked on the waters.5 A human once married a Nightspirit woman, but fighting soon broke out with the Waterspirit woman she had as a co-wife From this unpleasant experience, humans learned to be monogamous.6

In their village in the east whence night arises, stands the Night Soldiers' Lodge. Before the lodge is a tree of incomparable beauty, an incorruptible evergreen with leaves untouched by death. The Night Soldiers Lodge is ankle deep in pure white feathers,7 and not far distant is a Creation Lodge full of the offerings made to them by human beings. From this stock they grant vision seekers blessings of war and of life.8 A mortal, Jobenągiwįxka, was once summoned to this Creation Lodge by a special messenger. There he saw a long lodge facing east covered with a giant buffalo skin. As he waded in through white feathers up to his knees, he saw a row of kettles stretching as far as he could see. With this he was blessed.9 The spirits called "Happy Nights" are especially powerful in their war blessings, but they also control certain plants through which they can dispense the blessings of medicine.10 The nature of the happiness of these Nights is obscure, but many of their plants are said to be misused for "fun" (wišgac), leading to the conclusion that they may be intoxicating.11 In ancient times offerings of tobacco, red feathers, and white deerskins could be put on the roof of a lodge and the Nightspirits would receive them as they passed over in the darkness.12

Other Nightspirits are known as "Those with the Rounded Wood." These possessed the Nąrųgízᵋra, "the Rounded Wood," a baton rounded on one end with a tuft of white feathers at the other. In the Sore Eyes Dance, a model of the Rounded Wood was made as an invitation stick (nanóxą). Long ago, a man named "Little Painted Turtle" nearly fasted himself to death. To give him a great blessing, the Night Soldiers took him out over a deep place in the Ocean Sea where they dropped the Nąrųgízᵋra so that it sunk to the bottom. There the human was able to retrieve it, and was therefore blessed with this artifact, which was efficacious in war.13 The nanóxą invitation sticks modeled on it are either painted black as the night, or are made red, the color of Light-and-Life. Those with the Rounded Wood created the Sore Eyes Dance now used in honor of the Nightspirits. Once at high noon, a faster was crying to the Spirits, when suddenly darkness fell over the place, and Nightspirits came to him as a great flock of black-breasted birds. They taught him all the songs that belong to this rite as well as all the procedures of its ceremony. In addition, they gave him valuable medicinal plants.14

In times not long past, Nightspirits used to bless fasting neophytes with visions of the future.15 In the past people blessed by the Nights performed "Nightspirit tricks" during the Sore Eye Dance in honor of the Nights, a feast which lasted five sleepless nights. The holiest of the "Night-blessed children" could stick their hands into boiling water without getting scalded, and they could take live coals into their mouths with impunity and blow them out like a flash of lightning.16 A hint of how this is possible is indicated by Gilmore. Used for this purpose was the narrow-leaved purple cone flower (Echinacea angustifolia).

It was said that jugglers bathed their hands and arms in the juice of this plant so that they could take out a piece of meat from a boiling kettle with the bare hand without suffering pain, to the wonderment of onlookers. A Winnebago said he had often used the plant to make his mouth insensible to heat, so that for show he could take a live coal into his mouth. Burns were bathed with the juice to give relief from the pain, and the plant was used in the steam bath to render the great heat endurable.17

Echinacea was generally used as a pain killer.

Some important human beings have been reincarnated Nightspirits. Ciwoit’éhiga was thought to be a son of a Nightspirit princess who descended to earth to live as a human being. He was blessed with the knowledge of the Nightspirit Songs, which can be sung during the warbundle feasts.18 Fourth Universe, the founder of the Black Bear Subclan, was originally a Nightspirit. At the end of his life he disappeared in a storm, but left behind a white flowered plant with strong curative powers.19

The Nightspirit Dance (The Sore Eyes Dance)

The rite is sometimes called Rexcácas Haní Waši, on account of its use of the rexcácas, or tambourine, drum; but the Nightspirit Dance (Hąhĕ́ Waši) is most commonly known as Hišjá Xiri Waši, "the Sore Eyes Dance." The Sore Eyes Dance is so-called because it is performed for five consecutive nights during which no one is allowed to sleep. It is usually conducted in conjunction with the Four Nights' Wake, but may be organized independently by the Feast Giver at his inclination. Because of its connection to the Four Nights' Wake, it is sometimes called, Wanaxi’ų, "To Do for the Ghost," or Wanaxik’ų Hąhĕ Waši, "the Nightspirit Dance for One's Ghost."20 The participants in this rite expect to obtain for themselves Light-and-Life (Hąp) by grace of the Nightspirits.

The Feast Giver is responsible for supplying the food and the gifts of calico clothing distributed to each participant. The Feast Giver extends invitations to four other leaders who have been blessed by the Nightspirits. These leaders are called Waroǧíra ("Councilors, Forbidders"), and each is tasked with impersonating one of the Four Directions. They bring with them their relatives, both men and women, whom they lead through the actions of the ritual, and they themselves make speeches and sing songs. The nephews of the Feast Giver extend the invitation to participate in the ceremony by presenting each leader with a baton known as a nąnóxą. These batons are either painted black (the color of night) with fluffy white feathers attached, or are painted red (the color of Light-and-Life) with red feathers and a tobacco pouch secured to one end. They are also known as "Chief's Sticks," and as "the Rounded Wood" (Nąrųgízᵋra). Whoever leads a procession during the ritual must hold one of these batons.

The Feast Giver sets out two snare drums and two gourds and pours an offering of tobacco on each of them. An offering is made into the fire for the Nights who are called, "Those of the Rounded Wood." When everyone arrives outside the lodge, the Feast Giver goes out, then enters singing the Starting Songs and making a circuit of the lodge. He states the purpose of the feast, and how the lodge recalls that of the Night Soldiers. The relatives come in one by one, doing a circuit of the lodge, then stopping to greet the four Councilors before sitting themselves. They seated themselves sequentially, going withershins, east, north, west, south, this last being designated "the end of the Road." The last one to enter addressed the assembly and recounts briefly the story of the founding of the rite. The first one who was seated now arises and sings the Pipe Lighting Song, then smokes an offering, blowing smoke in the four directions withershins. The tobacco is referred to as, "the Instrument with which to Ask for Light-and-Life." This process is repeated at each station of the four Directions. The first one seated then rises again and tells the story of the origins of the rounded wood and how his ancestor obtained it from the Night Soldiers. He speaks of the valuable plant-medicines they gave him, and how they must never abuse them by using them for recreation. The two women who are to lead the processions now take the batons, one in each hand, then after the appropriate songs, lead the East Band in a counterclockwise circuit around the lodge, where they stop and form a circle in front of each of the bands representing the Four Directions. The North impersonator arose and gave a speech, then the two virgins holding the batons led them in the same fashion around the lodge. As they set out, the gourd holders arose first, then the drummers, then the Feast Giver, and finally, everyone who wanted to join the procession did so. Again for circles were made by the procession at each of the cardinal points. Then the gourds and drums were placed before the West Band. He makes a speech, then sings the Starting Song, after which he makes a circuit in just the way his predecessor did, following after the two virgins, and stopping to form circles at the four Directions. Then they give over the instruments to the South Band, whose lead arises to make a speech in which he recounts how the Night Soldiers blessed his ancestor with knowledge of the chants. After singing the Starting Songs, the two women lead his band in a circuit where they do all that the previous bands had done before them.

Then the Feast Giver stands up and makes a speech of gratitude in which he announces that the feast kettles will be brought to the center of the lodge, one kettle for each band. Then the leader of the East Bands stands and gives a brief speech in which he greets the other seats. Finally, all the bands sing their own songs simultaneously, causing a cacophony in which the loudest voices, it is said, will be the ones destined to acquire a warpath. While the Feast Giver played the drum, they all exited in single fire, each band taking its kettle. Outside they celebrated with dance and song and feasted on the food provided by their host. The Feast Giver would hand his baton to the head of the East Band, who would then be responsible for the next day's feast. Then those present who had the power would do Night Tricks, like blowing hot coals out of their mouth like lightning, and reaching into boiling kettle for food without being scalded.21

Nightspirit Songs

Walking on, the Nights are coming.
I am not able to bless, How could I bless?
Then they came walking, The Nights are coming.

—Charles Bonaparte

It was I that said that to him.
I drum, See one.
This is him, Say to him now.
The naked one that is here crying the distance,
Bless him now.
Say it to him, Bless him now.

—Charles Bonaparte

I am he that is walking, I am walking, see me.
You are to be that way they planned.
You said to him, "Human this earth," you said.
Human you were to be named, I was the one that said to you.
The one we meant, That is what he means.

—Charles Bonaparte

The earth was in four parts.
The day sat in four parts.

—Charles Bonaparte22

Links: Spirits, Thunderbirds, Sun, Day, Crane, Moon, Cosmography, Iron Spirits, Tobacco, The Thunderbird Warclub, Bird Spirits, Bears, Polaris, Martens, The Redhorn Panel of Picture Cave. An American Star Map.

Stories: mentioning Nightspirits: The Nightspirits Bless Jobenągiwįxka, The Nightspirits Bless Ciwoit’éhiga, The Origins of the Sore Eye Dance, The Rounded Wood Origin Myth, The Big Stone, How the Thunders Met the Nights, Fourth Universe, Battle of the Night Blessed Men and the Medicine Rite Men, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Ocean Duck, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Sun and the Big Eater; mentioning Thunderbirds: The Thunderbird, Waruǧábᵉra, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, Thunderbird and White Horse, Bluehorn's Nephews, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed (vv. 1, 2), The Man who was a Reincarnated Thunderbird, The Thunder Charm, The Lost Blanket, The Twins Disobey Their Father, The Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Story of the Thunder Names, The Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Eagle Clan Origin Myth, Pigeon Clan Origins, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Adventures of Redhorn's Sons, Brave Man, Ocean Duck, Turtle's Warparty, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, The Quail Hunter, Heną́ga and Star Girl, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Redhorn's Sons, The Dipper, The Stone that Became a Frog, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Redhorn Contests the Giants, The Sons of Redhorn Find Their Father, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Origin of the Hocąk Chief, The Spirit of Gambling, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Black Otter's Warpath, Aracgéga's Blessings, Kunu's Warpath, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, Black Otter’s Sacrifice to a Thunder, The Glory of the Morning, The Nightspirits Bless Ciwoit’éhiga, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Big Stone, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, Song to Earthmaker, The Origins of the Milky Way; about the interrelationship between Thunderbirds and Nightspirits: How the Thunders Met the Nights, Ocean Duck, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, The Big Stone, Sun and the Big Eater, The Nightspirits Bless Ciwoit’éhiga; about stars and other celestial bodies: The Dipper, Įcorúšika and His Brothers, The Seven Maidens, Morning Star and His Friend, Little Human Head, Turtle and the Witches, Sky Man, Wojijé, The Raccoon Coat, Sun and the Big Eater, The Big Eater, The Star Husband, Grandfather's Two Families, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, The Children of the Sun, Heną́ga and Star Girl, The Origins of the Milky Way, The Fall of the Stars; mentioning Warbundles: Waruǧábᵉra (Thunderbird), The Adventures of Redhorn's Sons (Thunderbird), Redhorn's Sons (Thunderbird), The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty (Thunderbird), The Warbundle of the Eight Generations (Thunderbird), Wanihéga Becomes a Sak’į (Thunderbird), Šųgepaga (Eagle), The Warbundle Maker (Eagle), The Masaxe War (Eagle?), Black Otter's Warpath (Bear?), The Blessing of a Bear Clansman (Bear), The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits (Buffalo), Paint Medicine Origin Myth (Hit’énųk’e Paint), The Blessing of Kerexųsaka (Sauk), Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store (Potawatomi), A Man's Revenge (enemy).

Rites: The Sore Eyes Dance.

Genealogy: Thunderbirds (+ Daughter of the Chief of the Nights).

Songs. Bladder, Song about the Older Brother (v. 2), Bladder, Song about the Older Brother (v. 3), Buffalo Dance Songs, Clan Songs, Bear Clan, Clan Songs, Bear Clan, Song for Returning, Clan Songs, Bear Clan, Song for Starting Out, Clan Song, Bear Clan, Song of the Youngest, Clan Songs, Buffalo Clan, Clan Songs, Buffalo Clan, The Four Songs of Hojanoka, Clan Songs—Deer Clan, Clan Songs—Wolf Clan, Clan Songs—Wonáǧire Wąkšik Clan, The Crawfish's Song, Duck Song, Farewell Songs, The Four Services Songs, Grandfather Sparrow's Rain Songs, Grizzly Bear Songs, Hare's Song to Grasshopper, Hare's Song to the Wągepanįgera, Hare's Song to Wildcat, Hawk's Song, Heroka Songs, Holy Song, Holy Song II, Little Fox's Death Song, Little Fox's Death Song (for the Warpath), Little Fox's Tail Song, Love Song I (female), Love Song II (female), Love Song III (female), The Mouse Song, Nightspirit Songs, The Quail's Song, Redman's Song, Slow Song of the Heroka, Soldier Dance Songs, Song for Calling the Buffalo, Song from the Water, Song from the Water (King Bird), The Song of Bluehorn's Sister, Hocąk Text — The Song of Sun Caught in a Net, The Song of the Boy Transformed into a Robin, Song of the Frog to Hare, Song of the Thunder Nestlings, The Song of Trickster's Baby, Song to Earthmaker, The Song to the Elephant, The Sun's Song to Hare, Three Warrior Songs, Turtle's Call for a Warparty (v. 1), Turtle's Call for a Warparty (v. 2), Turtle's Four Death Dance Songs, Twins, Ghost's Song (v. 1), Twins, Ghost's Song (v. 2), Twins, Ghost's Song (The Two Brothers), Twins, the Songs of Ghost and Flesh, Twins, Song of the Father-in-Law, Victory Song, Wailing Song, Warrior Song about Mącosepka, What a Turtle Sang in His Sleep, Wolf-Teasing Song of the Deer Spirits. Songs in the McKern collection: Waking Songs (27, 55, 56, 57, 58) War Song: The Black Grizzly (312), War Song: Dream Song (312), War Song: White Cloud (313), James’ Horse (313), Little Priest Songs (309), Little Priest's Song (316), Chipmunk Game Song (73), Patriotic Songs from World War I (105, 106, 175), Grave Site Song: "Coming Down the Path" (45), Songs of the Stick Ceremony (53).


1 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 392.

2 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe 495; Capt. Don Saunders, When the Moon is a Silver Canoe: Legends of the Wisconsin Dells (Wisconsin Dells, Wisc.: Don Saunders, 1947) 8-9.

3 Paul Radin, "Mązeniabera," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #21: 1-134.

4 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 290-292.

5 Radin, "Mązeniabera."

6 Paul Radin, "The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #44: 1 - 74.

7 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 283, 285-295, 495.

8 Paul Radin, ed., Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of an American Indian (New York and London: Appleton and Co., l926) 25-26.

9 Sam Blowsnake, The Warbundle Feast of the Thunderbird Clan, in Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 428-433.

10 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 282, 286.

11 Jasper Blowsnake, "The Sore-Eye Dance (Hišjaxiri Waši)," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n. d.) Notebook 23, 1-195 (Syllabary with an interlinear translation) 110-111.

12 Radin, "The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy," Notebook #44.

13 Jasper Blowsnake, "The Sore-Eye Dance (Hišjaxiri Waši)," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n. d.) Notebook 23, 1-195 [107-109] (Syllabary with an interlinear translation). Jasper Blowsnake, "The Sore-Eye Dance (Hišjaxiri Waši)," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n. d.) Notebook 69, 1-37 [17] (phonetic text only).

14 Jasper Blowsnake, "The Sore-Eye Dance (Hišjaxiri Waši)," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n. d.) Notebook 23, 1-195 [77-81] (Syllabary with an interlinear translation). Jasper Blowsnake, "The Sore-Eye Dance (Hišjaxiri Waši)," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n. d.) Notebook 69, 1-37 [12-13] (phonetic text only).

15 Walter W. Funmaker, The Bear in Winnebago Culture: A Study in Cosmology and Society (Master Thesis, University of Minnesota: June, 1974 [MnU-M 74-29]) 58. His informant is his father Night Walker (b. 1905), a member of the Bear Clan.

16 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 282, 286-294.

17 Melvin Randolph Gilmore, Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, Thirty-Third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1911-12 (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1919) 106.

18 Blowsnake, The Warbundle Feast of the Thunderbird Clan, 428-433.

19 Walter Funmaker, The Winnebago Black Bear Subclan: a Defended Culture (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Minnesota: December, 1986 [MnU-D 86-361]]) 51-57, 180. Informant: One Who Wins of the Winnebago Bear Clan.

20 W. C. McKern, Winnebago Notebook (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Museum, 1927) 179, 180, 181.

21 Jasper Blowsnake, "The Sore-Eye Dance (Hišjaxiri Waši)," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n. d.) Notebook 23, 1-195 (Syllabary with an interlinear translation). Jasper Blowsnake, "The Sore-Eye Dance (Hišjaxiri Waši)," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n. d.) Notebook 69, 1-37 (phonetic text only). Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, The Thirty-Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1923]) 329-343.

22 Charles Bonaparte, "Night Spirits Songs," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago I, #3: 45, 48-51.