The Pointing Man (§5 of the Trickster Cycle)

Version 1

Hočąk Syllabic Text with an Interlinear Translation

(93) Then Trickster went to a particular place. There, as he went along, he came in sight of a lake there. So he came towards the edge of the lake. (94) He came nearer. To his surprise, near the edge of the lake someone was standing. There he went. He stood there wearing a black shirt. There he went. To his surprise, he was pointing across the lake. (95) He went to him there and he said, "Koté! my younger brother, what are you pointing at?" (96) After he said it, he was not answered. Again he did not (answer). "My younger brother, what are you pointing at?" Useless. Again he asked the third time, "My younger brother, what is it that you are pointing at?" It was useless. There no person said a thing like he thought he would. (97) Again the fourth time he asked him, but he did not now answer him. Thus he continued pointing across. Thus it was. "Well, hahó. We'll do that. What? Me too. (98) Likewise, I can point for a long time once I have put on the black shirt," he said. He put on a black shirt. Thus he did and he quickly stepped along side of him. (99) Also where he was pointing, there Trickster pointed. Thus he stood indefinitely. In the course of time, Trickster's arm got tired. He said, "My younger brother, so let's be done with this," said he, but he was still not answering. (100) Again a second time he said, when he could not hold on any longer, "My younger brother, so let's be done with this. My arm is tired," he said, but he was not answered. Thus he said repeatedly, but he was never answered. (101) "My younger brother, I am hungry. Let's eat, then we'll begin again. I will kill a very fine animal. (102) Whatever one you like, I will kill one of that kind. So let's quit," he had said, but he received no answer. "Howa, what am I saying? This one, one whose heart has slipped through him, the thing he is doing, I am doing too," he said. (103) He walked away from him. When he looked back at him, to his astonishment, he was a stump. When he had said that it was pointing, he had been referring to one whose branch had extended out. (104) There he said, "Hohó! it is because of this the people have called me "foolish." It is even as they have said," he said. And away he walked.1

Version 2

by Oliver LaMère

Hočąk-English Interlinear Text

The following is not so much another variant as another narrative of the same story. It was given in the course of a homily presented in the Christian Peyote service.

(18) Wakjąkága (Trickster) went on. There he saw a man standing by the creek. He was pointing across the creek. He wore a black blanket, and when Trickster talked to him, he did not answer back. (19) Again he spoke, but he would not answer. "Ho! What will we do?" he said, and he put on a black coat, and since the other was pointing across, so did he. All day long he did that. Then in the evening, when he looked around, that one was a stump. And so, "Hohó!" he said, and, "If I had looked before I had done this, I would have been alright. No wonder they call me 'Foolish One' (Wakjąkága)."

We Hočągara are the same. (20) We never look at anything there is without acting right then and there, and we even think to ourselves that we know all about it.2

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Version 3

"Wak-chung-kaka [Wakjąkaga] was walking one day beside the water when he saw a chief standing there dressed all in black with a shining disk on his breast, and the chief was pointing across the water. He stood quite still, and always pointed steadily across the water. Wak-chung-kaka spoke to him, but the chief never moved or answered; he still pointed steadily across the water. Wak-chung-kaka spoke to him again, and still there was no answer. Four times he spoke to him, and then at last Wak-chung-kaka grew angry and said, 'I can point too, and I can point longer than you." So Wak-chung-kaka set down his bundle and opened it and dressed himself all in black like the chief, and hung a disk on his breast and stood there beside the chief, pointing across the water. But when he had stood thus for a great time without moving, Wak-chung-kaka began to be weary of this, and he looked around at the chief, and behold! it was only the blackened stump of a burned tree with a white spot that the fire had not touched."3

Commentary. "the edge of the lake" — Trickster's frequent association with water has to do with the intrinsically undefined nature of that substance, which has no form or definition of its own, but takes on that of its container; similarly, Trickster is a walking exemplar of disorganization and chaos who can only be shaped by his surroundings and circumstances rather than his own intrinsic nature or his own initiative. It is not surprising, therefore, that Waterspirits, the spiritual underlying reality of the substance of water, are also noted for being tricky. The overlap between the Waterspirit and Trickster is made almost explicit in the story of "The Elk's Skull," where he tricks people into thinking that he is an Elk-Waterspirit.

"a black shirt" — it is interesting that Trickster sees the stump as a man dressed in black, since Wood Spirits are said to be dressed completely in black when they assume human form.4 Trickster, in assuming for himself the garb appropriate to a Wood Spirit, creates an irony inasmuch as he is standing next to the kind of object which Wood Spirits typically inhabit, but which, being a dead stump, it cannot be inhabited by Wood Spirits.

"pointing" — this is an action in which one person draws the attention of another person to something in his field of view. However, ironically, this may be the essence of Trickster's problem: having taken in the scene of the apparition of a pointing man, he has failed to really draw his own attention to the object that he is viewing. Trickster looks at this object but does not see it. There is no one to point out the relevant details that would inform him of its true nature, and Trickster himself here shows us that it is not he who is able to point these out for himself. He does not take the hint from his own interpretation to free himself from his ironic misidentification.

"eat" — in nature, the only cause of fire is a lightning strike. The tree is blackened from having been burnt, and was at one time struck by lightning. It is said that when the Thunderbirds strike at anything with their lightning weapon, they "eat" it. So the elements of the tree that were consumed in the blaze were eaten by the Thunders. Trickster suggests that he kill an animal that they can share as a meal, but he is talking to a plant that has been killed and made a meal of by the Thunderbirds. These oppositions form an ironic set that extend Trickster's misidentification into new dimensions. Thunderbirds have a great aversion to Waterspirits and make them their favorite target and therefore their favorite food; but they also are inspired to strike Wood Spirits. Thunderbirds are also of such great power that they can hunt "tree-dwellers" as ordinary game animals.5 If a person marks a tree on its western side where a Wood Spirit is known to dwell, the Thunders will seek it out and kill it.6 

"one whose heart has slipped through him" — expressed by šorojᵋreižą, from šorojᵋre, "to pull out." This should not be confused with the metaphorical use in the West where the heart is treated as the seat of emotion, but in the Hočąk case, the heart is being treated as the seat of intellection. In other words, Trickster believes that his companion's lack of response implies that he is bereft of intellect, which is ironic, since it is Trickster who has not correctly perceived the nature of things, albeit a failure of input rather than output.

"a chief" — given that the tree has been burnt from a lightning strike, the fire that consumed most of it then ultimately derived from the Thunderbirds. Fire is the sacred possession of the Thunderbird Clan, the earthly counterpart to the heavenly Thunders. It is the stuff of sovereignty, and all fires are to be started from that of the Thunderbird Clan's chief's fire. Therefore, the tree, if it is taken to be a man, ought by having thus been blessed by the Thunders, to be a counterpart to the chief. By this line of reasoning, such a person should be a chief. It is therefore ironic that Trickster dresses in the same outfit with the same gorget insignia of office, since Wakjąkaga is not associated with fire, but with its opposite, water. That he should have the suit of a chief, the promulgator of order, when he himself is the promulgator of disorder, ill-definition, and formlessness. The chief stands at the center of things, even with respect to his dwelling; whereas Trickster is ever on the periphery like an orphan who has no defined status and no clear identity. Trickster is of the substance that puts out fire, he is the agent that extinguishes sovereignty and the order that it implies.

Trickster is an embodiment of irony: he is the opposite of what his context implies. This extends down to the core of his nature: he was created to be an exemplar and founder of an ordered way of life that would define the moral path of life for all who came after him, but instead he proved to be the personification of disorder itself, so much so that any worthwhile thing that he instituted or created was the product of sheer accident. A fool is someone who acts opposite to forms of conduct that yield good results, usually due to intellectual deficiency. The fool therefore does the opposite of what the context would imply, thus making foolishness isomorphic with irony. They are both isomorphic with trickery, since trickery involves creating an illusory context that is the opposite of what is actually the case, such that it leads to a bad result due to intellectual deficiency.

"a shining disk" — this is a gorget, or chief's medallion, given by the U.S. government in recognition of man's status as a chief.

Comparative Material. This story has something of a parallel among the Maya. The Popol Vul relates the story of the Twins, Hun-Apu and Xbalanque. They were going into the underworld to play ball with the gods there. "After crossing a river of blood, they came to the palace of the Lords of Xibalba, where they espied two seated figures in front of them. Thinking that they recognized in them Hun-Came and Vukub-Came, they saluted them in a becoming manner, only to discover to their mortification that they were addressing fifurcs of wood. This incident excited the ribald jeers of the Xibalbans, who scoffed at the brothers."7

The Natchez have a tar baby version of this tale. All the animals got together to dig a well, but while the hard work was going on, Rabbit chose to loaf. When the well was done, it was decided that only those who had worked on its construction could drink from it. So rabbit disguised himself as a squirrel and drank his fill. But the squirrel skin that he used soon lost its pliability and he could not continue to use it. Rabbit was able to sneak up at night and get water, but his tracks were evident the next day, so the guardians constructed a scarecrow out of tar pitch. When Rabbit showed up the next night, he confronted the tar baby and said, "Who are you?" but he got no answer. "If you do not answer me, I'll slug you," he said. Again the tar baby said nothing, so Rabbit hit him hard, only to find that his arm stuck fast to his target. Then Rabbit said, "If you don't let go of my arm, I'll kick you," but the tar baby held fast to his arm. So then he kicked the tar baby, but now his leg was also held fast. By the next morning, the well watchers found Rabbit stuck to the tar baby, so they took him prisoner.8

The Creek also have a tar baby version. Someone had been stealing peas from a man's garden, so he constructed a tar baby. One night Rabbit came by for some peas and saw someone standing in the garden. He asked him who he was, but received no reply. "Answer me or I will hit you," warned Rabbit. Still no reply. So Rabbit socked him hard, but found his fist stuck in his opponent. So he warned him again, but getting no reply, he hit him with his other fist. Now he was stuck in him with both hands. Then he kicked him with first is right foot, then his left, but both times he was held fast. The next morning the farmer found in stuck fast to the tar baby. He pulled him free and tied him to a stake with the intent of killing him with scalding water. While the farmer was gone, Wolf chanced to pass by. "Why are you tied to a stake?" he asked Rabbit. "I couldn't eat all the pigs that were demanded of me, so the farmer is going to kill me." "Well," replied Wolf, "I can do that for you." So Wolf untied Rabbit and began eating all the pigs. When the farmer returned, he saw Wolf up to his old tricks, so he poured the scalding water on him.9

The Hitchiti tell a couple of versions of this tale. In one, Rabbit was stealing vegetables from the peoples' gardens. So the people resolved to capture him by fashioning a tar baby and setting it between a row of peas. When Rabbit encountered it, he told it to get out of this way. When it said nothing, Rabbit struck it repeatedly, but every time he got stuck fast. "Well," said Rabbit, "I was only joking. Let's be friends." The tar baby, of course, said nothing and held him fast. The next day the man in charge of the garden came by and beat Rabbit to death. In another variant, Rabbit runs afoul of the Master of Waters by stealing water from him. When Rabbit is caught in the tar baby, the Master of Waters demands to know if it was he who was stealing water from him. Rabbit says it was not he, and the Master of Waters made him swear that he would tell him if he should find out. Upon hearing the promise, Rabbit was released and was never seen there again.10

The Osage version is very much more like Brer Rabbit (see below). "Men dig a well and go home. Rabbit comes to get a drink. The men see Rabbit's tracks and study what to do. Rabbit comes again. When the men see the tracks again, they draw a picture of a girl and leave it near the well. When they go, Rabbit returns and sees the picture. He asks the girl for a drink, but she says nothing and he threatens her. Rabbit hits the girl with his right foot and it sticks fast. Then he hits her with his left foot and afterwards he kicks the girl with his right leg and then his left leg. All stick fast, and Rabbit then bites the girl and his mouth sticks. The men come back and see Rabbit stuck to the girl's picture. They throw Rabbit and the girl's picture away."11

This story has a famous counterpart in the Uncle Remus collection of African-American folktales: the story of Brer Rabbit and the tar baby. In this story, the two nemeses of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear, construct a human figure made entirely of tar — a "tar baby." Brer Rabbit comes along and says hello to the tar baby, but of course gets no answer. He becomes angry and demands an answer, but the tar baby is naturally silent. Finally, he gets so enraged from the apparent insult tendered him, that he takes a punch at the tar baby, and ends up completely entangled in tar. He is left looking at least as foolish as Trickster.12

Links: Trickster, Wood Spirits, Tree Spirits, The Sons of Earthmaker.

Links within the Trickster Cycle: §4. Trickster's Adventures in the Ocean, §6. Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks.

Stories: featuring Trickster as a character: The Trickster Cycle, Trickster Gets Pregnant, Trickster's Warpath, Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, The Mission of the Five Sons of Earthmaker, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Trickster Soils the Princess, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Trickster Concludes His Mission, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster, The Elk's Skull, Trickster and the Plums, Trickster and the Mothers, The Markings on the Moon, The Spirit of Gambling, The Woman who Became an Ant, The Green Man, The Red Man, Trickster Takes Little Fox for a Ride, Trickster Loses His Meal, Trickster's Tail, A Mink Tricks Trickster, Trickster's Penis, Trickster Loses Most of His Penis, The Scenting Contest, The Bungling Host, Mink Soils the Princess, Trickster and the Children, Trickster and the Eagle, Trickster and the Geese, Trickster and the Dancers, Trickster and the Honey, Trickster's Adventures in the Ocean, Trickster's Buffalo Hunt, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb, Trickster Visits His Family, The Coughing Up of the Black Hawks, The Petition to Earthmaker, Waruǧápara, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, 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 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, Waruǧápara, The Chief of the Heroka, The Red Man, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Annihilation of the Hočągara I, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Blessing of the Bow, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Spirit of Gambling, Peace of Mind Regained, The Necessity for Death; involving tree stumps: The Twins Cycle, The Two Brothers, The Two Boys, The Were-fish, The Spirit of Maple Bluff, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name.

Themes: traveling over the whole earth: Deer Clan Origin Myth, Trickster and the Dancers, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Necessity for Death, Death Enters the World, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, The Twins Disobey Their Father, The Twins Get into Hot Water, The Twins Cycle, The Two Boys, The Lost Blanket, The Two Brothers, Bluehorn's Nephews; someone is confronted by a man dressed completely in black: Visit of the Woodspirit, Turtle's Warparty; Trickster mistakes the covering of vegetation for human clothing: Trickster and the Dancers; Trickster thinks that people are ignoring him while performing a certain activity, so he competes with them in this activity only to learn later that the "people" were actually just vegetation seen at a distance: Trickster and the Dancers.


1 Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1956) 13-14. The telling by Felix White, Sr. is almost identical. See Kathleen Ann Danker, The Winnebago Narratives of Felix White, Sr.: Style, Structure and Function (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, May, 1985 [8521450]) 157-161.

2 Oliver LaMère, Untitled, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3862 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Winnebago I, #3: 18-20. An English translation is found in Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 376-377.

3 Natalie Curtis Burlin, The Indians' Book: an Offering by the American Indians of Indian Lore, Musical and Narrative, to Form a Record of the Songs and Legends of Their Race (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1907) 245.

4 Fanny D. Bergen, "Some Customs and Beliefs of the Winnebago Indians," The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 9 (1896): 52-53.

5 Paul Radin, "The Dipper," Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3850, #3896, & #3897 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebooks #50: 149-150.

6 "The Story of Pete Dupeé," in W. C. McKern, Winnebago Notebook (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Museum, 1927) 207-218 [218].

7 Lewis Spence, The Myths of Mexico and Peru (London: G. G. Harrap, 1913) Chapter V.

8 "33. The Tar Baby," in John Reed Swanton, Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians, Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 88 (1929): 258-259.

9 "75. The Tar Baby," in Swanton, Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians, 68.

10 "33-34. The Tar Baby," in Swanton, Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians, 110-111.

11 "20. The Rabbit and the Picture," in George A. Dorsey, "Traditions of the Osage," Field Columbian Museum, Anthropological Series, 7, #1 (Feb., 1904): 54-55.

12 Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus, His Songs and Saying. The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1886) 23-25.