Red Cloud's Death

by Richard L. Dieterle

There was a village near Grotto Rock in Nįšakisųjᵋra (Wisconsin Dells). And in this village lived a man named "Red Cloud" (Mąxišucka) who was blessed with Life. When there was sickness, there was no one whom he could not cure. And when men argued, it was he who made peace among them. And again, the Spirits also blessed him with many songs. When the drum sounded for a warparty, he would not answer its call. And of all the creatures of the various kinds that there were, none of these would he harm. He never went on the hunt, but ate only of the products of the earth. Berries, nuts, corn, wild rice and roots, these were his food. He knew of all those plants that were good for medicine, and spent many days seeking them out in the wilderness. He came to learn of many new medicine plants. When the Sun was low in the western sky, Red Cloud would scale Grotto Rock, and there on its summit, sing Sun Songs as thanks to this Spirit. And as he sang, swallows would circle above his head like a wreath. It was like nothing. And all his life, Red Cloud wanted for nothing.

In the course of time he grew old and feeble. One day he climbed Grotto Rock. It was all he could do to reach the top, and when he had arrived, he sat there exhausted. Then, unexpectedly, a great storm arose in the west. As hard as winds blow, this wind was even more so. It blew out the camp fires, and when it rained it drove everyone to shelter. They said, "Ho! Red Cloud is on Grotto Rock. Let us go there and bring him to safety.," they said. And four of the strongest warriors set out in the face of great rain and wind to scale the cliff. As they climbed the cliff, a great flash of lightning struck the summit. The crash of its thunder was like nothing. When the men reached the top, there they saw that all that was left of Red Cloud was ashes.

Nearby, the next day, they were holding the Four Nights Wake (Honąra Jobohąra), when they looked up at Sugar Bowl Rock and saw the swallows circling around part of the summit, just the way they had over Red Cloud's head. The Storm had blown his ashes across the river and they had landed upon the face of the opposite cliff, and there where they had landed, an image of his head appeared. Now his ashes had blended with all the living things that were growing there. Thus the Spirits had made him one with the things he had loved, and left his image to overlook his people forever.1

Sugar Bowl Island with Indian Head Rock at the Upper Right
Grotto Rock is to the Right

Commentary. "Grotto Rock" — a cliff formation opposite Sugar Bowl Island on the Wisconsin River in the Dells.

"Nįšakisųjᵋra" — for nįš-hakisųc-ra, where -ra is the definite article. Nįš means, "cliffs" and suc means, "to touch, press upon." Hakisųc is for ha-ki-sųc, where ha- is a superessive applicative. "This is a grammatical element of the verb unknown in English. It is mostly translated as 'on something' or 'over something'." (Helmbrecht-Lehmann) The infix -ki- represents the reflexive, so hakisųc means, "touching, pressing upon themselves." So the name of the Dells is, "Cliffs Pressing in upon Themselves." This is seen well in the photo above, where the rock formations look like a series of cliffs pressing against one another.

"Life" — the Spirits usually bless people with Life or War Powers (or both), often with specificity. Those blessed with Life usually live long, and may have the power to extend the lives of others.

"Mąxišucka" a name in the Thunderbird Clan, from mąxi, "cloud, sky"; šuc, "red"; and -ka, the definite article used for personal names.

"he would not answer its call" — the Thunderbird Clan holds the sovereignty, since they govern the fire. They therefore supply the chief of the tribe or band. The Thunderbird Chief is the Peace Chief, he never goes on the Warpath and is the peacemaker of the tribe. Red Cloud is not a chief, yet his  lifestyle is an expression of the ideology behind the Peace Chief's role. Earthmaker, the Creator of Things, has the same philosophy. In many ways Red Cloud and the Chief of the tribe are Earthmaker-on-earth. Earthmaker is the embodiment of Light-and-Life (Hąp), and the Sun (Hąpwira) is its literal manifestation.

"summit" — when the Sun sets it is poised at the boundary between the Upper World and Earth, Red Cloud is seated upon the Earth at is boundary with the Upper World. The Sun has reached the interstitial state by going from up to down, and Red Cloud has achieved a mirror interstitial situation by going from down to up.

"Sun Songs" — there were also Sun Songs for the rising Sun. The melody of such a song was preserved by George LaMère, whose stage name was Hotonga. He sang this song, the "Sunrise Song," to the composer Charles Sanford Skilton in 1919, who then orchestrated it, and included it in his Suite Primeval (1920). The link leads to the complete score for the "Sunrise Song." See the Commentary to "Hotonga."

  Marlin Harms
  The American Cliff Swallow

"swallows" — the Wisconsin Dells afford the American Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) the ideal environment for its nesting sites, which are located in the crevices of cliff faces which are so abundant in the region. They are often seen circling above cliffs as they feed on insects. This is probably the inspiration for the circular motion described in the story. Since Red Cloud's head is destined to become part of the summit of the cliff, Cliff Swallows circling above his head serve to foreshadow his fate. In the Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, both aspects of Venus are characterized by having Bank Swallows flying ahead of them wherever they go.

"circle" — the circle is the holy shape since it has neither beginning nor end, and therefore is an image of eternity.

"west" — in the region the weather generally move west to east, however there may be symbolism here because the west is the land of the Thunderbirds who bring the storm and its lightning.

'lightning" — this is shot from the eyes of Thunderbirds when they blink. The forward front of a lightning bolt is a red hot rock known as a "thunderstone." Much of the myth congeals on this confluence of beliefs. Red Cloud is, as his name shows, a member of the Thunderbird Clan. "Red cloud" is ambiguous in import between the red cloud of the sunset or sunrise, and the "red" cloud whence the thunderbolt issues. When something is struck with lightning, it is said to have been "eaten" by the Thunderbirds, so when the Thunderbirds strike Red Cloud, they have taken him up and "swallowed" him. He has become one with them, which is appropriate enough for a member of a clan especially connected to these cloud deities. However, all this is not without its paradox. The arch-enemies of the Thunderbirds are the Waterspirits. The Thunderbirds represent the dark clouds, but the Waterspirits are their opposites, so that the Waterspirit Bluehorn is said to be the blue sky, and the Waterspirits frequently sun themselves on cloudless days. Therefore, it would seem, that the Sun, which is the supreme light, has a greater affinity to the Waterspirits; but this overlooks the fact that it is within the Thunderbirds that the light of the same magnitude subsists as resides in the Sun. This is the radiant lightning. So in this respect, the Thunderbirds would seem to be most akin to the Sun. As the Sun sets in the west and dies at the edge of the world, so Red Cloud becomes one with the hottest, most brilliant light of those most akin to his nature, and is drawn up into the clouds.

"an image of his head" — this is the stone head that we still see today in the upper corner of the Sugar Bowl rock formation. The actual bolt of the lightning is the thunderstone. Where lightning has struck, such stones may be found, it is said, sometimes embedded in the ground. Yet, here we have an image that has been generated where the ashes landed. He is now the lithic product of the lighting strike. He has become the thunderstone. His body has become two kinds of foods: one the physical essence that was eaten by the Thunderbirds, and the excrement of fire, ashes, which are the food of the plant life to which Red Cloud had so devoted his own existence. The nutriment ingested by the Thunderbirds now is made into new thunderstones, so that Red Cloud becomes the stone dwelling in the clouds and the stone counterpart excreted by the clouds. His body has gone to the literal heaven of the Thunderbirds, as is appropriate to members of his clan, and there to perhaps subsist as a thunderstone; but the ashes of his body generate an image in stone: for nąǧírak is both a soul and an image (as seen in reflection). It is in the head that the life soul, the nąǧírak, resides. Paradoxically, his body goes up to the abode of the Thunders, but his nąǧírak resides here on earth, and both body and soul become immortal stone, the former becoming the thunderstone body that contains the essential light of the Sun, and the latter the stone head nąǧírak that reflects the light of the of his beloved setting Sun. Inasmuch as light and sound can represent one another in Hocąk symbolism, the solar reflection from his stone head, where his soul-image resides, becomes his eternal Sun Song.

Comparative Material. Red Cloud is the counterpart in many ways of the Greek Orpheus. He too was noted for song, being the son of the Muse Kalliope, and flocks of birds also circled over Orpheus’ head as he sang.2 Orpheus was closely affiliated with the solar god Apollo, and in a somewhat inverted version of Red Cloud, Orpheus would scale Mt. Pangaion to worship the rising Sun.3 After his visit to the Underworld, he instituted the "Orphic Way of Life," which forbade the sacrifice and eating of meat.4 He met his end when he was torn to pieces by wild Maenads.5 Another account says that Zeus struck him with lightning for teaching the secrets of the Mysteries.6 It was said that Zeus placed his lyre in the heavens as a constellation.7 His head was buried in a Temple of Dionysos,8 where it sometimes prophesied until it was silenced by Apollo.9 Where his bones were laid to rest in a tomb, there the nightingales would nest and sing.10

Links: Swallows.

Stories: mentioning swallows: The Origin of the Cliff Swallow, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head; featuring Sun as a character: Sun and the Big Eater, Grandfather's Two Families, The Big Eater, The Children of the Sun, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Hare Burns His Buttocks, The Birth of the Twins, The Man who was Blessed by the Sun, The Origins of the Milky Way; in which fire plays a role: The Creation Council, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Message the Fireballs Brought, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, The Four Steps of the Cougar, East Shakes the Messenger, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, North Shakes His Gourd, The Descent of the Drum (v. 2), The Man Whose Wife was Captured (v. 2), see Young Man Gambles Often (Commentary); set in the Wisconsin Dells: The Twin Sisters, White Flower, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, Heną́ga and Star Girl, Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon, Sunset Point, The Story of the Medicine Rite, Mighty Thunder; mentioning the Sugar Bowl and/or Indian Head Rock: Heną́ga and Star Girl.

Themes: a man is accompanied by a flock of swallows: The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head; an old man is, or becomes, a rock: The Raccoon Coat, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, The Seer, The Big Stone; cf., ascending to heaven in a storm: The Shawnee Prophet and His AscensionThe Man Who Fell from the Sky, cf. Hare Retrieves a Stolen ScalpThe Glory of the Morning.


1 "The Legend of the Indian Head," in Captain Don Saunders, Driftwood and Debris: Riverside Tales of the Dells of Old Wisconsin by the River Guides, 2d ed. (Wisconsin Dells: Wisconsin Dells Events, 1959) 78-79.
2 Simonides 27.
3 Pseudo-Eratosthenes, Catasterismi 3.26.8.
4 Carl Kerényi, The Heroes of the Greeks (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974 [1959]) 284.
5 Pseudo-Eratosthenes, Catasterismi 24.
6 Pausanias, Periegeta 9.30.5.
7 Kerényi, The Heroes of the Greeks, 286.
8 Philostratus, Heroicus 5.3.
9 Philostratus, Vita Apollonii 4.14
10 Pausanias, Periegeta 9.30.6.