by Richard L. Dieterle

The very word for snake, waką́, enshrines their sacred status, since the word also means "holy."1 In ritual, they are sometimes called "Spirit Walkers."2 It is said that Earthmaker created snakes first of all animals. In primordial times, Earthmaker used serpents like giant ropes to help cinch down the world, which rotated without cease after its creation.3 In other contexts, serpents are used as supports, forming the poles of structures,4 including the sacred first Medicine Rite Lodge.5 Earthmaker charged serpents with the special task of warding off evil from the habitations of man.6 They also function as the servants and special messengers not only of spirits generally, but of Earthmaker himself.7

Because they are messengers of Earthmaker, snakes have a special relationship with waiką (sacred stories). It is only when the snakes crawl into their holes and "close the door," that people are allowed to tell waiką.8 At other times of the year, when snakes live above ground, telling a waiką will offend the story's spirit, which may transform itself into a snake and bite the raconteur. If a sacred feast falls during the season when snakes are active, the appropriate priest can tell the waiką without offending its spirit.9

Besides the telling of waiką out of season, snakes can be inadvertantly summoned by other means. Gilmore tells us, "Winnebago children sometimes made whistles of the stems, but the older people warned them not to do so lest snakes should come."10

Among serpents the rattlesnake [inset] enjoys a special status. If the spirit of the rattlesnake is angered it will exact a terrible retribution on the offender,11 usually in the form of disease.12 Sometimes objects can be made to magically turn into rattlesnakes. One waiką attests to the magical power of certain arrows to suddenly transform into yellow rattlers.13

Serpents can sometimes be vehicles for the will of evil spirits. The enemies of Holy One sent a hoard of snakes against him, serpents who were to entwine his body and by such means put him to death. However, Holy One put on shoes made of turtle shells, and with these he trampled to death so many snakes that the army of serpents fell back in retreat.14 Turtle himself had an incident with a giant blue snake. This serpent stretched himself across the entire width of the Little Mississippi River (the Wisconsin River) and would not let Turtle's boat pass. Turtle rowed his boat to its maximum speed and cut this snake completely in two.15 Wears White Feather on his Head, who is also known as "Wears a Sparrow Coat," is another spirit who was attacked by snakes. As chief of the white cranes, he was naturally in conflict with serpents. They tested him by emerging from the floor of his lodge two at a time for several nights running, but he killed every snake that attacked him. Soon the serpents gave up. Wears White Feather and his kinsmen ate the heads of all the serpents that they had dispatched.16 Once a Menominee insulted Lincoln's grandfather. The old man had the power to take a wooden model of a snake and by pushing it in the direction of his intended victim, cause his enemy to be bitten by a snake. The grandfather caused a large spirit snake with hair on its back to ambush and kill this Menominee while he was pursuing a deer.16a

Because serpents are wákącąk, it is therefore strictly forbidden to kill or eat them. Nevertheless, certain powerful spirits such as Thunderbirds regularly eat snakes,17 and the Twins killed and ate serpents under the supposition that they were eels.18 On another occasion, the Twins thought them to be garfish.19 A group of Omahas was said to have eaten a Spirit Snake, but as a result of this transgression, they became what they ate.20

Spirit Serpents can, of course, assume many guises. The one which the Omahas ate had four limbs like the serpent of the Garden of Eden. Once the Chief of the Snake Spirits came to earth in the form of a man called "Black Dog." A woman of his village had gone off to the Snake's Den with a Snake clansman, and there she had turned into a serpent from the waist down. Black Dog jumped into the water nearby, and emerged as a snake with horns and four legs. He brought the woman back, and in time she transformed back into a full human being.21

Snakes sometimes figure in blessings. K'erexúsak'a recieved a blessing from the Thunders in the form of a dried, upright, yellow snake that had numeorus hairs jutting out from its skin in different directions. This snake clearly symbolized the lightning and was deemed too powerful a war blessing for him to accept.22 Another man, who was later blessed by the sun, was first blessed by a yellow snake. This snake, whose associations suggest a connection to the sun's rays, also blessed the man with the power to draw blood in medical procedures.23

At Trempealeau Mountain, where rattlesnakes swarm, the hill top is used for rites associated with Snake Spirits. A dance is held before duck hunting season to obtain blessings from Snake Spirits for skill in hunting.24

Dr. Albert Gatschet's List of Snakes (1888)25

Hocąk Name English Name Notes
waką́ snake
waką́ júsek, waką́ húnk ("king snake") garter snake
nújake water snake three - three and one-half feet, not harmful, worn around the neck
kšéke rattlesnake one kind, black and white, up to three feet
waką́zi, waką́si do. the other kind, bigger
kšéke neka jóx (= nákšena) "that rattlesnake is rattling." jóx, the noise.
waką́péxra, péǧra rattle of a snake  
péxra rattle, rattle of a snake, something inside to rattle with  
waką́ sep black snake attacks people; lives in water (see commentary)
waką́ serec bull snake five to six feet, don't bite
waką́ wóraxicke blowsnake prob. the "puff adder." Three feet long.
wakánaške frog  

The rattlesnake (kšéke) and the yellow snake (waką́zi), are recognized as two different kinds of rattlesnakes. From the description the kšéke is the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) and the waką́zi is the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).

Comparative Material: The practice of not telling sacred stories when the snakes are still about is observed elsewhere. This is said about the Arikara, who live at some distance from the Hocągara and who are linguistically unrelated.

Another custom associated with the oral tradition was a restriction on the season when certain stories could be told. The Arikara narrators represented in this collection of narratives agreed that in former times myths and tales were to be told only during the winter months. Some affirmed that if a person told a story during the summer, when snakes were not hibernating, he or she would be bitten by one. Two individuals, Alfred Mosette and Lillian Brave, insisted on observing the custom and generalized it to include a prohibiton on all storytelling during the nonwinter months. For Mr. Morsette the story telling period was approximately bounded by the first snow in the fall and the breakup of the ice on the Missouri River in early spring. For Mrs. Brave the timing was similar, but she insisted that the end of the winter period was actuallly marked in the February sky by the appearance of the constellaiton whose Arikara name is NAsaahaanu’ šiniinaáhNA "invalid being carried" [probably the Big Dipper]. No one can identify it any longer.26

This matches exactly what we find among the Hocągara.

Links: Earthmaker, Hare, Fish Clan Origins, Thunderbirds, Sleets as He Walks, Spirits, Turtle, The Twins.

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 Serpents of Trempealeau, 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; about (the origins of) the Hocąk clans: Hocąk Clans Origin Myth, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Eagle Clan Origin Myth, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Pigeon Clan Origins, Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth, Buffalo Clan Origin Myth, The Elk Clan Origin Myth, Deer Clan Origin Myth, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Snake Clan Origins, Fish Clan Origins; mentioning feasts: Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth (Chief Feast), The Creation Council (Eagle Feast), Hawk Clan Origin Myth (Eagle Feast), Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth (Waterspirit Feast), A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga (Mąką́wohą, Waną́cĕrehí), Bear Clan Origin Myth (Bear Feast), The Woman Who Fought the Bear (Bear Feast), Grandfather's Two Families (Bear Feast), Wolf Clan Origin Myth (Wolf Feast), Buffalo Clan Origin Myth (Buffalo Feast), The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits (Buffalo Feast), Buffalo Dance Origin Myth (Buffalo Feast), Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle (Buffalo Feast), The Blessing of Šokeboka (Feast to the Buffalo Tail), Snake Clan Origins (Snake Feast), Blessing of the Yellow Snake Chief (Snake Feast), Rattlesnake Ledge (Snake Feast), The Thunderbird (for the granting of a war weapon), Turtle's Warparty (War Weapons Feast, Warpath Feast), Porcupine and His Brothers (War Weapons Feast), Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega) (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), Big Thunder Teaches Cap’ósgaga the Warpath (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), White Thunder's Warpath (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), The Fox-Hocąk War (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), Šųgepaga (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), The Man Whose Wife was Captured (v. 2) (Warbundle Feast, Warpath Feast), Black Otter's Warpath (Warpath Feast), Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth (Warpath Feast), Kunu's Warpath (Warpath Feast), Trickster's Warpath (Warpath Feast), The Masaxe War (Warpath Feast), Redhorn's Sons (Warpath Feast, Fast-Breaking Feast), The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits (Fast-Breaking Feast), The Chief of the Heroka (Sick Offering Feast), The Dipper (Sick Offering Feast, Warclub Feast), The Four Slumbers Origin Myth (Four Slumbers Feast), The Journey to Spiritland (Four Slumbers Feast), The First Snakes (Snake Feast), Spear Shaft and Lacrosse (unspecified), Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts (unnamed).

Themes: one of the Hocąk (sub)clans originated from another tribe: Pigeon Clan Origins, Fish Clan Origins, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Fourth Universe; powerful spirits eat snakes (even though they are sacred): The Twins Disobey Their Father, How the Thunders Met the Nights; snakes are used as poles in the construction of a lodge: Waruǧábᵉra, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth; snakes are used like rope to bind things together: The Messengers of Hare (v. 2), The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (v. 1); someone is transformed from the waist down into a cold blooded creature: The Woman who Married a Snake, The King Bird; the youngest offspring is superior: The Mission of the Five Sons of Earthmaker, Young Man Gambles Often, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Twins Cycle, The Two Boys, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Children of the Sun, The Creation of the World (v. 12), The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Įcorúšika and His Brothers, The Raccoon Coat, Wojijé, How the Thunders Met the Nights, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, Sun and the Big Eater, The Story of the Medicine Rite, Buffalo Clan Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth (vv. 4, 7), Snake Clan Origins, South Enters the Medicine Lodge, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth.


1 Mary Carolyn Marino, A Dictionary of Winnebago: An Analysis and Reference Grammar of the Radin Lexical File (Ph.D. Thesis, University of California, Berkeley, December 14, 1968 [69-14,947]), s.v. waką; Kenneth L. Miner, Winnebago Field Lexicon (Kansas City: University of Kansas, June 1984), s.v. waką́.

2 Paul Radin, The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians. Bollingen Series V (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973 [1945]) 252-255.

3 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 164. Henry Schoolcraft, Information respecting the Historical Conditions and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1852-1854) 4:230 - 231. Radin, The Road of Life and Death, 252-255.

4 Paul Radin, "Winnebago Tales," Journal of American Folklore, 22 (1909): 288-300. Emil William Lenders, "The Myth of the 'Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah,' or the Sacred Warclub Bundle," Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 46 (1914): 404-420.

5 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 302-311.

6 Charles E. Brown, Lake Mendota Indian Legends (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1927) 5.

7 Dorothy Moulding Brown, "Indian Winter Legends," Wisconsin Archeologist 22, #4 (1941): 49-53 (49); Dorothy Moulding Brown, Indian Legends of Historic and Scenic Wisconsin, Wisconsin Folklore Booklets (Madison: 1947) 64; Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 234.

8 D. M. Brown, "Indian Winter Legends," 49; C. E. Brown, Lake Mendota Indian Legends, 5.

9 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]) 5; Walter Funmaker, The Winnebago Black Bear Subclan: a Defended Culture (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Minnesota: December, 1986 [MnU-D 86-361]) 31-32, 102-103.

10 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) 17.

11 Mary H. Eastman, Chicóra and Other Regions of the Conquerors and the Conquered (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, & Co., 1854) 22.

12 Schoolcraft, Information respecting the Indian Tribes of the United States, 4:238, #29.

13 Paul Radin, "The Blue Man," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook 55; Paul Radin, (untitled), Winnebago Notes (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Freeman #3858: 4-16.

14 Paul Radin, "The Story of Holy One," Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3859 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago IV, #4: 59-77 [= 969-987].

15 Charlie Houghton, Turtle and the Merchant, translation by Oliver LaMere; in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3894 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Winnebago III, #9: 2-29 = 132-146.

16 Paul Radin, "Wears White Feather on His Head," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #4: 1-50.

16a Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (1923), 259.

17 Paul Radin, "The Thunderbird," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #16. Paul Radin, "Ma ceniabera," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #21: 1-134.

18 Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. A Study in Comparative Literature, Part I (Basil: Ethnographical Museum, Basil Switzerland, 1954) 87-90. Informant: Sam Blowsnake of the Thunderbird Clan, ca. 1912.

19 Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic, I.58-74.

20 George Ricehill, [no title], in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3899 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, prior to 1909) Winnebago III, #19: 19b-2, 17-20.

21 Paul Radin, "The Young Woman who Married a Snake," Winnebago Notebooks, (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago IV, No. 7j: 1091-1093.

22 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 251-252.

23 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 250-251.

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

25 Albert Samuel Gatschet, Linguistic and Ethnological Material on the Winnebago, Manuscript 1989-a (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives, 1889, 1890-1891) 40-41. Informant: Reuben David St. Cyr.

26 Douglas R. Parks, Myths and Traditions of the Arikara Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996) 106-107.