The Serpents of Trempealeau

by Howard M. Jones

The following serves as a kind of preamble to the story. Winona, which we reached a couple of hours later, lies on a flat of land among the bluffs and out into the river. "The Indians told," he recounted, "that the Trempealeau hills used to fill that hole in the line of bluffs which is now Winona but through powerful 'medicine' were transplanted to where you see them.1 So the Sioux called them Pah-hah-dah, 'the mountain separated by water.'

Trempealeau Mountain  

But the Winnebagoes, more prosaically minded, dubbed them—or rather it—Hay-nee-ah-cheh, or the Soaking Mountain,2 which the first Frenchmen translated as 'La Montagne qui trempe de l'eau.'

"They say the Winnebagoes," he resumed, "before the wild duck hunts opened, used to hold a dance to propitiate Wakon, the god of hunting, on those hill-tops, so that they might bring home much game. You can see they are pre-eminently an altar-place—what a site for a cathedral they would make! And there is another tale that the Great Spirit set the island apart as a home for rattlesnakes—they used to swarm there, and I suppose the medicine men replenished their bags at Trempealeau."3

Commentary. "Winona" — this is a Dakota birth order name, meaning "first born female," and the site of a permanent Dakota village in Minnesota, which the Hocągara called, Hoska Cinąkra, "Prairie Village."4 The present city of Winona, Minnesota, is built near this site.

"Hay-nee-ah-cheh" — this would be for Xeniaja (< Xe-ni-haja), which would mean, "the Mountain that Overlooks the Waters." Jipson gives a rather more elaborated version, Xeniajanąkeja, where -nąk-eja merely means, "at the ...". He gives the meaning, "Hill in the Water." However, Jipson also says, "Trempealeau River, Nee-ja-nee-shanak-ra [Niją Nišanąkra], the Flooding Stream. Also known as Ho-gooch-ra [Hogucra], Fish Shooting River (where fish are shot with arrows)." In the Hocąk translation of the book of Genesis, "flood" is rendered as niją, where means "to surround." Consequently, it seems more likely that the mountain is called Xeniją, "Mountain Surrounded by Water." Since the river is called niją as well, the name of the mountain is essentially, "Mountain of Flood (River)" or "Mountain of Trempealeau (River)." Concerning the town of Trempealeau, he says that it is, "now called Hoo-k'such-ra [Hu-ksac-ra] meaning "Stiff Legs," named after one of the early settlers."5

"trempe de l'eau" — evidently the original must have been, trempe à l'eau.

"propitiate" — propitiation, in the sense of appeasing (the wrath of) a deity, is not a common idea in Hocąk religion. Offerings are made more on the model of a business transaction. The offering is accepted and the favor bestowed in return. For this model, see Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle. Blessings are otherwise achieved by making oneself pitiable in order to appeal to the compassion of the spirits.

"Wakon" — this is for Waką, "Snake." It seems doubtful that there was such a god. Given that it is a site where rattlesnakes are abundant, blessings may have been sought from Wakązika, "Yellow Snake," the spirit chief of the rattlesnakes. It seems more likely that priest conducted religious rites to snakes and Snake Spirits generally. Its density of snake population would make it holy in regards to serpents. It seems reasonable that blessings could be obtained for hunters from Snake Spirits, since serpents are themselves skilled hunters. Jipson adds that the mountain, "figured in many ancient Winnebago legends as an abode of spirits. Since 1850, an important trapping ground for the Winnebagoes."6

"god of hunting" — the principal deity of the hunt is Herokaga, the Chief of the Heroka, diminutive spirits of the bow and arrow. However, there are many spirits that can give blessings for hunting, and Snake Spirits can certainly be among these.

"hill-tops" — the apex of a hill or mountain could serve as a ritual site, for which see Blue Bear.

"they used to swarm there" — Dr. Bunnell noted the abundance of rattlesnakes at Trempealeau.

In consideration of the sacredness of the trust no snakes have been killed by Indians on those bluffs, and the bluffs are still called by the Winnebagoes, in commemoration of the tradition, "Wah-kon-ne-shan-i-gah" [Wakąnįšąnįka], or the "Sacred Snake Bluffs on the River," and to the Sioux, "Maya-hin-ca-sin-ta-dan," which may be interpreted as "Rattlesnake Bluffs." The rattlesnakes are still there, though some of the bones and pottery of the ancestral dead have been removed, while the rattlesnakes were in their winter caverns.7

The Hocąk name, Wakąnįšąnįka (< nįšą-nįk-ka), actually means, "Serpents of the Little River."

"bags" — probably a reference to medicine and war bundles. Normally it is taboo to kill a snake, especially for a member of the Snake Clan, but snake skins can be taken provided they are used for sacred purposes (see Blessing of the Yellow Snake Chief), as L. H. Bunnell observes,

The prairie bull snakes, milk-snakes, blue racers, green snakes, common garter snakes, and all snakes of that class, are not to be feared. But the rattlesnakes (crotalits horridus) are still so numerous that it would be well if some public measure were inaugurated to destroy them. The swamp rattlesnake, or massasauga, is quite local in his habitat, occupying swampy creek meadows, but not those of the Mississippi bottoms, unless they are above the rise of flood-time. The massasauga is a very spiteful snake and will bite at every opportunity, but, being small, rarely reaching two feet in length, the quantity of venom he carries, and the height at which he can strike, does not allow of his being held in such perfect horror as the large, yellow rattlesnake of the Mississippi bluffs. For time beyond knowledge, the Dakotahs and Winnebagoes have held the yellow rattlesnakes as sacred—fearing them, but never killing them, except in rare instances, where a skin was required for use in a sacred dance or religious ceremony. The consequence was, that in some places, yellow rattlesnakes became so numerous as to make it dangerous for anyone to visit the localities of their dens, and, as these places became known to the Indians, they were pronounced sacred and avoided. The Trempealeau mountain and high bluffs of that range were terrifyingly alive with them at one time ...8

Snake skins so used could later be employed to secular purposes, as it has been noted that Waką Decorah (Wakąhaga, "Snake Skin") wore a snake skin turban on his head.9

An Imagined View of the French Fort and Hocąk Village at Trempealeau

Comparative Material. Dr. Bunnell records a Dakota tradition that when their warriors first landed at Trempealeau, they

stopped but for a moment at Pah-ha-dah, or Trempealeau, for just below they saw a short range of isolated bluffs, which they felt sure were taken from the upper portion of the range of what are modernly known as the "Barn Bluffs." The vacant space below Red Wing, they argued, justified their conclusion [that the terrain had been magically moved here from their own territory]. But they were about to land for examination, and perhaps for some slight refreshment, when their ears were assailed by the most persistent rattling of numerous rattlesnakes, or sin-tah-dah, they had ever heard. Upon inquiry they found that the bluffs were really a part of their old possessions, but that the remains of their ancestors should not again be disturbed from the mounds and ossuaries on the ridge, but be held sacred for all time. The snakes were magically sent by the good high priest, with the bluffs, to protect the remains from desecration.10

Barn Bluffs

Links: Snakes.

Stories: mentioning snakes: The First Snakes, The Woman who Married a Snake, Blessing of the Yellow Snake Chief, Snake Clan Origins, The Omahas who turned into Snakes, A Snake Song Origin Myth, The Story of the Medicine Rite, Rattlesnake Ledge, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Twins Disobey Their Father, The Two Boys, Wears White Feather on His Head, Creation of the World (vv. 2, 3, 4), The Magical Powers of Lincoln's Grandfather, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Waruǧábᵉra, The Green Man, Holy One and His Brother, The Man who was Blessed by the Sun, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, Turtle and the Merchant, The Lost Blanket, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth; set at Trempealeau (Xenįaja): The Story of the Medicine Rite; set on the Mississippi (Nį Kuse): The Two Children, Trickster Concludes His Mission, The Hocąk Migration Myth, Oto Origins, Bluehorn's Nephews, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, Keramaniš’aka's Blessing, The Story of the Medicine Rite, The Woman's Scalp Medicine Bundle, Black Otter's Warpath.

Themes: ...


1 This story is told by Dr. Bunnell. Witcheain [Wićíte ?], the daughter of Waubasha [Wapaśa], a chief among the Dakota, was infatuated with the warrior Chaska [Ćaské]. Chaska attempted to flee her affections, and was quartered among the Hocągara. The warriors of Remnechee [Ḣemnićaŋ], Chaska's father, and Wabasha met to fight the issue out, when through the magical power of the chief priest, whom Witcheain had enlisted, a terrible explosion was caused that cast a large region of Remnechee's land far downstream on the Mississippi. See the related story in the History of Wabasha County.

2 This history is taken from Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, Winona and its Environs on the Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Days (Winona, Minnesota: Jones & Kroeger, 1897) 114.

3 Howard M. Jones, “A Mississippi Holiday,” The Mid-west Quarterly, 3 (Oct. 1915-July 1916) 45-58 [53-54].

4 Norton William Jipson, Story of the Winnebagoes (Chicago: The Chicago Historical Society, 1923) 399, s.v. "Winona, Minn., Ho-ska-che-nuk-ra," from an old list by Lyman Draper, checked and emended by John Blackhawk.

5 Jipson, Story of the Winnebagoes, 399, s.v. "Trempealeau Mountain, Xa-nee-ā-ja-nak-ā-ja."

6 Jipson, Story of the Winnebagoes, 399, s.v. "Trempealeau Mountain, Xa-nee-ā-ja-nak-ā-ja."

7 Bunnell, Winona and its Environs, 115.

8 Bunnell, Winona and its Environs, 323. Publius Virgilius Lawson, "The Winnebago Tribe," Wisconsin Archaeologist, 6, #3 (July, 1907) 77-162 [134].

9 Edwin C. Bailey, Past and Present of Winneshiek County Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement. 2 vols. (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1913) 1: 26.

10 Bunnell, Winona and its Environs, 114-115.