Tree Spirits

by Richard L. Dieterle

The Hocągara consider trees to be shrines, and pines most of all. The tallest of these are believed to be the original trees that Earthmaker planted from heaven.1 The tallest tree is said to be Wazicąk ("Great Pine") which Hare found at the edge of the earth.2 Others say that the first tree was an oak of perfectly smooth bark. It acted as an Island Weight in the south, with three other trees performing the same function at the other cardinal points. They were created to counteract the ceaseless motion of the primordial earth. In the Medicine Rite, it is said that Earthmaker created four immense trees to stem this ceaseless motion. He cast them down from heaven, but they shattered into the myriad of trees that we now find scattered over the face of the earth.3 Some say that the first tree was a natural ladder that reached to the abode of Earthmaker at its apex.4 In the Medicine Rite, they say that the tree most cherished by Earthmaker is a white oak found in the exact center of the world. Scrapings were taken from it for use in the rite.5 Because trees therefore constitute a sacred link and path of communication between mortals and the world of Earthmaker, tobacco offerings were often laid at their trunks.6 Certain trees have a special sacred status. The most important of these is waxšúc, the red cedar (juniper) [inset]. Alice Fletcher said of one such tree,

To the south of this sacred spot [a circular clearing at the top of a promontory], stood a large cedar tree, now partly blown down. This was the sacred tree on which miraculous impersonation of visions lit; and here the spirits tarried as they passed from one resing ploace to another going over the country.7

The leaves of red cedar were used as a purifying incense. When the first chief's lodge was constructed at Red Banks, the Deer Clan purified it with smoke from red cedar leaves.8 In the important dog sacrifice to Disease Giver, the bones of the offering must be buried at the base of a tree, and the ground around it must be purified with juniper smoke.9 The Medicine Rite says that the left side of the ladder leading to heaven is like polished red cedar.10 Hare once used a cedar log to strike a tall, thin evil spirit. The result was the creation of modern ants out of his shattered body.11 A closely related conifer is the white cedar (waziparasge, "broad pine") or arbor vitæ. When the Thunderbirds assume human form, they grace their brows with wreaths of the waziparasge.12 Another conifer with sacred symbolism inherent in its structure is the jack pine (wazíhųcge, "bear pine") [picture of tree. The cones and needles of this tree are always found in pairs [see drawing], so the tree is associated with somatic duality. This is why the Forked Man won his wife by climbing up an inverted jack pine where the chief's daughter lived.13 Among hardwood trees, the oak has a special religious significance. The Chief of Trees is an oak that grows in the abode of Earthmaker. Its roots never dry up, nor do its leaves ever wilt. The oak twigs used to convey tobacco in the Medicine Rite are mystically transported from this tree by the agency of daylight.14 The first tree created by Earthmaker was a smooth bark oak located in the south. It is this oak that aided Moon and Bluehorn (Evening Star) when they contested the Evil Spirit (or Morning Star) by giving them wood from its own body so that they could make a holy fire.15 Because the oak tree is struck so often by lightning, it is strongly associated with the Thunders. When the Thunderbird Clan was founded, the first four clansmen descended from heaven onto an oak tree where they built the first fire, the flame of sovereignty.16 The poplar tree also has a special importance. Near the Spiritland in which Earthmaker himself resides is a forest of incomparable beauty made up of perfect trees. This is the forest of Waškežą ("Poplar").17 The important trees are associated with certain colors and the six directions (four cardinal points, up and down). This is set down in a poem apparently from Philip Longtail:

North: Pine — "yellow heart";
West: Willow leaves blue;
South: Cedar — ruddy hued,
From whose bark the flame is born;
East: Poplar, downy white,
In the dawn of the gladsome year;

For the realm above, of the juniper,
That climbs to the summits clear;
And of Laurel root, for the realm below,
Deep hid in the cañons drear.18

Little is known of the symbolic import of laurel root.

Trees are valued for their sap, fruit, and nuts. Once a woman became so obsessed with the delicious taste of walnuts that she refused to share them. In the end, she was transformed into a giant walnut tree.19 Once an old woman, who had no luck an obtaining enough maple sap was blessed by a Maple Tree Spirit with a ball of its sap. With this she scoured the inner rim of her boiling kettle, and ever after no matter how little the sap was in the kettle, it always expanded to her mark.20

Trees are the only things on earth that can live forever,21 although some say that in the end, even they too must die.22 Once a young man fasted to obtain immortality, the one thing that the spirits could not grant him. Instead, they let him die, and turned him into a tree, as only a tree among earthly creations can live forever.23 When Earthmaker created them, like everything else, he made them male and female. The larger and more powerful trees are male, the rest are female.24 Every tree, whether male or female, contains within it a spirit. The tree is actually the body of the spirit, and like a Waterspirit, a Tree Spirit can bless a person by giving him parts of his own body.25 It is possible for a man to be blessed with the power to converse with the trees who can tell him much valuable information.26 The Hocąk term for wood and for trees is one and the same, ną, so Tree Spirits could be termed "Wood Spirits,"27 were it not for the fact that this term is conventionally used for the Wakącųna, who are small, dangerous, cat-like spirits that inhabit certain trees.28 They are apparently distinct from the spirit of the tree itself. (see Wood Spirits.)

Sometimes a Tree Spirit can be dangerous. An evil spirit once sent a man out to collect bark off a tree, an enterprise that had been fatal to everyone who had ever tried it. This tree would suddenly shed its heavy bark which fell with such weight and force that it killed whomever it landed upon.29 Trickster believed that he was attacked by a Tree Spirit that never made himself manifest except by the creaking of his branches. This noise made Trickster so mad that he climbed the tree and attempted to break it at a fork in the branches, but for his trouble all he managed to do is get himself caught in the fork.30 On another occasion a Tree Spirit was kind enough to announce that if anyone ate a bulb that grew on its bush, that it would function as an overpowering laxative. Trickster, true to form, thought that he was a greater spirit and that he could therefore eat it with impunity. He was wrong.31

Stumps of trees are important symbols. In the Twins Cycle, the dominant twin is named "Stump," but elsewhere he is called "(Little) Ghost." Little Ghost says that his grandmother is a stump.32 His twin brother is named "Flesh," the idea being that soul and body are twins. Therefore, the stump is a symbol of the soul (see the Commentary to The Birth of the Twins). The stumps that occur in stories are invariably hollow. The outermost portion of a creature, for animals the skin, defines its form, and is therefore associated with its soul. Thus a bird is often reconstituted from a single feather (see 1, 2, 3),33 and White Wolf can reconstitute himself from his own skin, even after it had been made into bracelets.34 A hollow stump is the rind or outer form of a dead tree, and therefore is the botanic counterpart of its soul. A humorous association of the two is seen when a turkey buzzard, whose associations are with death, drops Trickster into a hollow stump. Women find him and try to dig him out. When they make an opening in the shell of the stump, Trickster covers the hole with his raccoon skin blanket, thus making his (and the raccoon's) outer form a counterpart to that of the stump's shell.35 Hollow stumps are often the repositories of water, a substance in which souls like to reside. In many stories a Raccoon Spirit enters a hollow stump pursued by hunters, who find inside not a raccoon, but a fish. Eating this fish turns one of them into a Fish Spirit, and he disappears into the nearest lake.36 Thus a stump becomes a porthole to metamorphosis.

Links: Wood Spirits, Spirits, The Wazija, Earthmaker, Waterspirits, Disease Giver, Hare, Trickster, Raccoons, Fish Spirits.

Willard Leroy Metcalf, The Red Oak  

Stories: 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 Man Who Lost His Children to a 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 Pointing Man, 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, Waruǧábᵉra, The Chief of the Heroka, The Red Man, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Blessing of the Bow, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Spirit of Gambling, Peace of Mind Regained, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, The Necessity for Death, The Story of the Medicine Rite; involving tree stumps: The Twins Cycle, The Two Brothers, The Two Boys, The Pointing Man, The Were-fish, The Spirit of Maple Bluff, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name; mentioning oak: Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, The Oak Tree and the Man Who was Blessed by the Heroka, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Children of the Sun, Turtle's Warparty, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, Old Man and Wears White Feather, Waruǧábᵉra, The Creation Council, The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna, Young Man Gambles Often, Morning Star and His Friend (v. 2), Sun and the Big Eater, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, The Roaster, Little Human Head, The Shaggy Man, Wears White Feather on His Head, Peace of Mind Regained, The Dipper (leaves); mentioning red cedar (juniper, waxšúc): The Journey to Spiritland (vv. 4, 5) (used to ascend to Spiritland), The Seer (sacrificial knife), A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga (sacrificial knife), Redhorn's Sons (coronet of Thunders, lodge), Aracgéga's Blessings (coronet of Thunders), The Twins Disobey Their Father (trees found on cliffs of Thunders), Partridge's Older Brother (smoke fatal to evil spirit), Hawk Clan Origin Myth (purifying smoke), The Creation Council (purifying smoke), The Dipper (incense), Sun and the Big Eater (arrow), The Brown Squirrel (arrow), Hare Kills a Man with a Cane (log used as weapon); mentioning basswood: The Children of the Sun, Redhorn's Father, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 3), The Big Stone, The Fox-Hocąk War, Hare Burns His Buttocks, The King Bird, Hare Kills Wildcat, Turtle's Warparty, The Birth of the Twins, The Messengers of Hare, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store; mentioning willows: The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4), The Lame Friend, Holy One and His Brother, Partridge's Older Brother; about Wood Spirits (Wakącųna): Visit of the Woodspirit, The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Completion Song Origin, The Twins Disobey Their Father (v. 2).

Themes: trees talk to people and give them advice: Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb, The Children of the Sun, The Old Woman and the Maple Tree Spirit, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I; trees cause Trickster to suffer: Trickster Loses His Meal, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb; a person's body turns into a plant: Fourth Universe (white flower), White Flower (white flower), The Boy who would be Immortal (tree), The Woman who Became a Walnut Tree, cf. The Wild Rose, Deer Clan Origin Myth (v. 2); a person obsessively craves for himself what a tree possesses, and as a consequence is transformed into a tree: The Boy who would be Immortal, The Woman who Became a Walnut Tree.


1 Walter Funmaker, The Winnebago Black Bear Subclan: a Defended Culture (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Minnesota: December, 1986 [MnU-D 86-361]) 50.

2 Glenn Welker, "Some Adventures of the Little Hare," at

3 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.

4 Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. A Study in Comparative Literature, Part I (Basil: Ethnographical Museum, Basil Switzerland, 1954) 9.

5 Sam Blowsnake's Account of the Medicine Rite, in Amelia Susman, Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, Jan. 19, 1939) Book 10, 45-47.

6 Funmaker, The Winnebago Black Bear Subclan, 50.

7 Alice C. Fletcher, "Symbolic Earth Formations of the Winnebagoes," Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for 1883, 32 (1884): 396-397.

8 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 170-172.

9 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 484.

10 Paul Radin, "The Journey of the Ghost to Spiritland: As Told in the Medicine Rite," The Culture of the Winnebago as Described by Themselves (Baltimore: Special Publications of the Bollingen Foundation, #1, 1949) 60-72. Informant: Jasper Blowsnake, Thunderbird Clan.

11 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 102-103.

12 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 390-392; Charles Philip Hexom, Indian History of Winneshiek County (Decorah: A. K. Bailey & Sons, 1913) "Religion" (unpaginated) — Informant: Oliver LaMère, Bear Clan.

13 Paul Radin, "The Chief of the Heroka," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #33: 1-66.

14 Paul Radin, The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians. Bollingen Series V (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973 [1945]) 189.

15 Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic, I.24-41.

16 Sam Blowsnake (Thunderbird Clan), Crashing Thunder. The Autobiography of an American Indian, ed. Paul Radin (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983 [1926]) 33-40; Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 169; Charles E. Brown, Wisconsin Indian Place Legends (Madison: Works Progress Administration, 1936) 4-5.

17 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 104-105. His informant was Henry Cloud.

18 James Owen Dorsey, "Miscellaneous Winnebago Notes from Phillip Longtail, 1893 " (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives) 4800 Dorsey Papers: Winnebago 3.3.2 [325].

19 "Tale of the Woman who became a Walnut," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3892 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago III, #11a: 140a-140b.

20 Dorothy Moulding Brown, Indian Fireside Tales: Ka Gwe Do Say ... Sunrise Walker, Wisconsin Folklore Society Booklets (Madison: 1947) 36-37.

21 Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher (New York: D. Appleton Co., 1927) 203-205.

22 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 113-114.

23 Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher, 203-205.

24 Paul Radin, "A Wakjonkaga Myth," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #37: 5.

25 Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic, Part I.75-77.

26 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 7-9.

27 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]) 325-328, sv ną.

28 Fanny D. Bergen, "Some Customs and Beliefs of the Winnebago Indians," The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 9 (1896): 52-53. Thomas Foster, Foster's Indian Record and Historical Data (Washington, D. C.: 1876-1877) vol. 1, #2, p. 3, coll. 2-3.

29 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. Told by Joseph LaMère, Bear Clan, to Radin in the summer of 1908 and to Lenders in Aug.- Sept., 1909.

30 Radin, The Trickster, 31-32.

31 Radin, The Trickster, 25-28.

32 Alexander Longtail, "The Two Brothers, Waloga and Little Ghost," text with interlinear translation by James Owen Dorsey, 4800 Dorsey Papers: Winnebago 3.3.2 (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, October and November, 1893) Story V: 1-9, 16-19.

33 Radin, "Winnebago Tales," 288-300. Emil William Lenders, "The Myth of the 'Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah,' or the Sacred Warclub Bundle," 404-420.

34 Paul Radin, "White Wolf," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #10: 1-64.

35 Radin, The Trickster, 20-21.

36 Charles E. Brown, Lake Mendota Indian Legends (Madison: State Historical Museum, 1927) 2-3, 3-4; James Davie Butler, "Taychoperah, the Four Lakes Country," Wisconsin Historical Collections, 10 (1885): 64-89 [64-65]; the letters of Rev. William Hamilton, 4800 Dorsey Papers: Chiwere & Winnebago 3.3 [292] (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, ca. 1885).