Trickster (Wakjąkága)

by Richard L. Dieterle

Wakjąkága was the first of the great demigods created by Earthmaker to rescue mankind. When Earthmaker had completed his creation, almost as an afterthought he made man, the weakest of all his creations. They were soon beset by evil spirits who assailed them without pity and were in danger of altogether destroying this last article of creation. So Earthmaker created Trickster in the image of a man, and charged him to go forth and teach the humans how they should live. Yet it is said that he was as worthless as an infant crawling about on all fours. So foolish was he that he did more damage than good. Consequently, Earthmaker recalled him and placed him at his right hand.1 Trickster rules over a heaven just below that of Earthmaker. There dwell all those who have died of old age and all those who have kept the Medicine Rite.2

Trickster is at least a negative role model among the Hočągara today, and people who behave in a foolish or hypocritical manner are often brought to task by having their actions compared to those of Trickster.3 Sometimes people who act selfishly also are said to be "playing Wakjąkága."4

Such are the basic facts about the Hočąk Trickster, but they do not really tell us very much about who or what he is. His very name has been something of a puzzle. The last syllable of Wakjąkaga is the familiar -ga, a definite article used to indicate a personal name, leaving wakjąka to mean "(to be) tricky, foolish." The sense of the word meaning "tricky" is actually attested in "The Pointing Man." (p. 103). The temptation has been to divide this word into wak and jąka. The form jąka, as we will see, could mean "foolish, tricky"; wak on the other hand immediately suggests wąk, the word denoting "humanoid being, human, man, male." The problem is how to account for the /ą/ in wąk transmuting to the non-nazalized /a/ of wak. So far no answer has been tendered to this problem. A further consideration casts doubt on this way of dividing wakjąka. In "Trickster and the Children," we have wanikjąka (w ni Ktt K) translated as, "you are tricky" (p. 49); in "The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head," it means, "you are foolish" (p. 56). This is the word wakjąka with -ni- ("you") inserted as an infix. However, note that it is not waknijąka, as one might expect from wak-jąka, but the word is treated as though it were wa-kjąka. The prefix wa- we know as the object of a verb as in, "to ... someone." However, kjąka is unattested.5 The stem jąk appears just once in Marino's dictionary, a work based on stems collected by Paul Radin, although there it is given as djuⁿk [ = jųk]. The discrepancy is easily accounted for. In his early work (ca. 1908) Radin often rendered /ą/ as /ų/, treating it as the "uh" sound in "but," an error that he soon corrected. For instance, he initially rendered Trickster's name as Wakdjuⁿkága, but later corrected it variously to Wakdjaⁿkága, Wakdjañkága, Wakdjaŋkága, and Wakdjąkága. The stem jąk means, "to play tricks," but is unattested as a free-standing word. Nevertheless, it has numerous expanded versions. The most obvious is the presumed kjąka. The standard word meaning, "to fool," gišjąke, comes from the stems, šjąk, šjąke, "to fool, be false," that seem to be themselves an expansion of jąk. This word is expressed in a variety of forms: gišjake, gišják’e ("to cheat"), gišjąke (Ki dtt Ke) ("to deceive"), kišjąke ("to swindle, cheat"), gišjągešge ("to fool"), and the emphatic gišjąšjąke (Ki dtt dtt Ke) ("to fool"). Other variants of this word suggest that the stem may derive from an earlier jǫk, whose /ǫ/ persists only as an allophone in Hočąk. Marino's dictionary has, gišjǫke, "to fool, he fools"; raišjǫke, "you (sg.) fool"; haišjǫke, "I fool"; higišjǫk heną, "he fooled me." This allophone is also found in Jasper Blowsnake's "The Birth of the Twins," where we have nišjǫkéra, "I fooled you" (p. 13); and in Sam Blowsnake's "Earthmaker Blesses Wecgícega" (p. 297), where we have gišjǫk’éregi, "they had fooled him." The stem jąk/jǫk may derive from, or derive from the same source as, its homonym, jąk, which means, "to wander, jump around, to balk (as with a horse)." This would suggest that idea of metaphorical deviousness could be akin to the idea of deviation from expected motion.

So Trickster's name seems to derive from a stem that means "to fool, to trick."6* Its expansion as jąká has the sense, "foolish, tricky"; and wakjąká means "trickster, fool," and in contemporary Hočąk, "clown" (Miner). In the slapstick humor of circus clowns, the clowns are both the perpetrators and victims of trickery. Their specialty is foolish behavior. Yet in ordinary life, it takes intellectual skill to trick someone, and conversely, the dupe is usually stupid. So the trickster and his dupe, the fool, are often complementary opposites. The paradox of Trickster is that he is both the one who fools and the one who is fooled, the mastermind and the idiot, merged into a single person. The solution to this apparent contradiction is surprisingly simple. Trickster is the spirit of foolishness. He not only exemplifies foolishness through his spiritual essence, but he is the originator of foolishness. As the paradigm he is the fool; as the original, he is the source, the cause, for foolishness. The spirit of foolishness, by its nature, will produce foolishness. The only way to induce foolishess from outside a person is by trickery, that is, "making a fool" of someone. So Trickster is not only a fool himself, but he makes fools. We see a model of this duality of exemplification and causation in the nature of Nightspirits. They not only exemplify the darkness that walks across the sky at night, they actually produce its substance, a kind of anti-light thought responsible for the blackness of night. In the pre-scientific mind, to be the essence of something, whether substantial or abstract, is often both to exemplify and to produce it, the dual expression of its nature. The Trickster paradox of being both superior in intellect and inferior at the same time, is mitigated the same way that it is among circus wakjąká. As "superior" and "inferior" are relative terms, so Trickster is normally able to fool only other clowns like Coyote, Mink, or Turtle.

Unlike many other trickster figures, Wakjąkága never establishes human traditions. This feature of the trickster has been transfered to Hare. Unlike his brother Hare, Trickster never establishes a single rite, nor even so much as a dance. Not a single human tradition owes its origin to Trickster. Consequently, to call Trickster a "Culture-Hero" is as foolish as Wakjąkága himself. He was indeed charged by Earthmaker to do such things, but he failed in his task and was therefore recalled. His single success is more securely assigned to Hare: he pushed the bad spirits of the upper world higher, those of the lower world he pushed deeper into the earth. Yet his mission was not really to create a zone of safety, but to set out the basic traditions by which humanity was to guide its actions. In this he explicitly failed. Trickster, in fact, is a guide for what not to do. In Trickster's Warpath, we are invited to contemplate how things would turn out if we did the opposite of every traditional procedure. Predictably, Trickster's violated warparth is a disaster, an object lesson in the soundness of tradition and all its correlaries.

Links: The Sons of Earthmaker, Hare, Earthmaker, Turtle, Bladder, Paradise Lost, Spirits, The Cosmic Ages of the Hočągara, Cosmography, One Legged One, Skunks, Raccoons, Minks, Owls, Little Fox, Horses, Wolf & Dog Spirits, Tree Spirits, Ducks, Bears, Chipmunks, Grasshoppers, Ants, Rock Spirits, Wood Spirits, Lice, The Twins, Martens, Fishers, Flint.

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 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, The Pointing Man, 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; cycles of other great soteriological spirits: Hare Cycle, Redhorn Cycle, Twins Cycle; about Trickster's penis: Trickster's Penis, Trickster Loses Most of His Penis.

Themes: spirits come to earth in order to rescue humanity from enemies who threaten their existence: The Mission of the Five Sons of Earthmaker, Bladder and His Brothers, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Grandfather's Two Families, The Hare Cycle, The Hočągara Contest the Giants, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Raccoon Coat, Redhorn's Sons, The Redhorn Cycle, The Roaster, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, The Spirit of Gambling, The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Trickster Cycle, Wojijé, Redhorn's Father; a great spirit changes his form in order to decieve someone: The Skunk Origin Myth (Turtle), The Baldness of the Buzzard, Trickster's Tail, Trickster Gets Pregnant, The Elks Skull, Trickster Soils the Princess, Old Man and Wears White Feather; a spirit assumes the form of another person: Old Man and Wears White Feather, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Trickster and the Mothers; a man's meal is stolen before he can eat it: Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, Trickster Loses His Meal, A Mink Tricks Trickster, A Raccoon Tricks Four Blind Men; Trickster hunts buffalo: Trickster's Buffalo Hunt, The Woman Who Became an Ant; Trickster defecates uncontrollably after taking a natural laxative: Trickster Soils the Princess, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb; trees cause Trickster to suffer: Trickster Loses His Meal, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb; a voice, which appears to be disembodied, speaks to Trickster: Trickster Loses Most of His Penis, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb; Trickster turns into a woman and goes courting: Trickster Gets Pregnant, Trickster Gets Pregnant; Trickster takes someone's clothes so that they are forced to return to their village naked: Trickster Soils the Princess, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster; Trickster is the victim of a trick: Trickster Soils the Princess, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster, The Baldness of the Buzzard, Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb, The Elk's Skull, A Mink Tricks Trickster, The Markings on the Moon; Trickster wins a contest by cheating: The Spirit of Gambling, The Green Man, The Scenting Contest; Trickster fools Coyote: Trickster Takes Coyote for a Ride, The Scenting Contest; animals insult Trickster as he sojourns on earth: Trickster's Warpath, Trickster Loses Most of His Penis, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (v. 4); Trickster mistakes the covering of vegetation for human clothing: Trickster and the Dancers, The Pointing Man; 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, The Pointing Man.


1 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 303.

2 Paul Radin, "A Wakjonkaga Myth," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #37, 1-70.

3 Walter Funmaker, The Winnebago Black Bear Subclan: a Defended Culture (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Minnesota: December, 1986 [MnU-D 86-361]) 107-108.

4 Kathleen Danker and Felix White, Sr., The Hollow of Echoes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978) 11.

5 the word wakja occurs in one of Felix White's stories with the meaning "foolish." Since White began learning Hočąk when he was eleven years old, it is appropriate to be skeptical that the word can drop the final /ka/ and convert the /ą/ to /a/, since this form is found nowhere else.

6 there are other words that express similar concepts. Rohoja means, "to trick"; hosage means, "illusion, tricky, deceptive, negation." These words are not especially common. The word wowąk, "silly, foolish, wild, bad," is used fairly often. When coupled with the word for mind, as waną’į́ wową́k, it means, "to be foolish, stupid, perhaps mentally disturbed" (Miner). Someone who is wowąk in the mind is mentally defective, but someone who is wanąǧówąk, or wową́k in the soul, is outright crazy. Such people may be held to be sacred in some way, but such disorders are not characteristic of the mind set of Trickster.