Trickster and the Plums (§12 of the Trickster Cycle)

translation based on the interlinear text of Oliver LaMère

Version 1

Hočąk Syllabic Text with an English Interlinear Translation

(269) He washed his coonskin blanket, and again he also washed his box. Thus he did, and he looked into the water, and unexpectedly, he saw things that were red. (270) He looked over them carefully, and unexpectedly, there were many plums, a whole bunch of them in the water. He dove in and tried to get some, but all he got was a hand full of gravel. (271) He did it again and again. As he did it, he bumped against a rock there, and banged his head. This knocked him unconscious. He floated up. He came to. He was flat on his back in the water when he regained consciousness. (272) After he came to and got his eyes open, there unexpectedly, on top of the bank were a great many plums. Only then, seeing this reflection there in the water, did he know. (273) "Hohó, yes, what a foolish thing I am, and I ought to have known better. I have put myself in pain," he was saying. He got out and he ate a lot of plums there. (274) When he was through, he put a belt around his coonskin, and having put some inside it, he went downstream.1

colorized: M. Effa
Prunes nigra

Version 2

by Little Eagle

retold by Richard Dieterle

Long ago there lived on earth the one who is called Wakjąkága. Wherever he went he did foolish things and made people laugh. He lived nowhere in particular, but wandered over the face of the earth. Wakjąkága had much power, but he was very foolish, and only rarely was he wise. He not only understood the languages of all the tribes, but he communicate with the birds and animals.

One day when he was walking through a forest, he came upon some people who were eating a red fruit. It looked delicious and it made him hungry. So Wakjąkága asked the people what it was that they were eating and where he might find some for himself. They told him that the fruit was called a kąč (plum), and that it could be found along the nearby creek just up the way. Then they said that there are so many of them upstream that the light from them turns the sky red. In truth, the sun was just then setting and that was why the sky had turned red.

Sure enough, Wakjąkága went just a short distance upstream and there he saw a great many plums growing there right at his feet. Immediately, he jumped down head first to get them. Instead, all he got was a bump on the head and a mouth full of sand. He almost broke his neck. And again, Trickster dove in to get the plums that he clearly saw there, but again he banged his head on the bottom. Once more he tried, and again the same thing happened to him. So he said to himself, "I must weigh myself down with a heavy stone so I don't come bobbing back up before I can search properly." Thus, he tied a heavy stone around his neck and, for a fourth time, he entered the water. He was under for a very long time, when he realized that he needed to get back up for air. The stone had so much weight that he nearly drown, but he was able to drag himself and the rock to the shore. All he had to show were clams and pebbles. He struggled up the bank, and leaned against a small tree, exhausted. Then he looked up, and there, unexpectedly, he saw plums hanging above him from the tree. "Hohó!," exclaimed Trickster, "no wonder people call me foolish. I almost drowned for nothing. The red plums that I saw at the bottom of the creek were only the reflections of those in the tree," he said.2

Commentary. "plums" — there's a reason why this fruit has been chosen for a story that reflects upon reflections: it is one of the few fruits that have a shiny skin sufficient to serve, however weakly, as a mirror. Being a curved surface, it is a distorting mirror that tricks the eye.

"this reflection there in the water" — here the confusion is up vs. down. This is a rare confusion indeed among normal people. However, there is a case in which many people are deceived: the blue sky reflected off a clear lake will make the lake seem to be blue. Water, like any mirror, has a real systematic distortion: the reversal of left and right. All images by reflection are distorted and unreal at least in this respect, yet they can easily fool the eye into thinking otherwise.

"Wakjąkága"the text has Wau-kja-kagah.

"turns the sky red" — for the Hočągara, the sky is a literal vault. Just as a lodge's ceiling could reflect light, so it seems theoretically possible that the vault of the sky could reflect light from earth provided that it was bright enough. The Sun is such a light, and when it touches down upon earth, it seems reasonable to suppose that its light is reflecting off of the celestial vault where it too touches down on earth, exactly as a fire in a lodge illuminates by reflection those parts of the interior nearest it.

"bobbing back up" — this is actually a repetition of the reflection theme: just as water bounces back up the light that falls on it, so water will also bounce back up the human body that falls into it. Disturbances in the current can make for exceptions for both light and humans, but otherwise there is here an odd symmetry.

"a heavy stone" — among the natural mirrors are certain stones. This includes most crystals, and most particularly obsidian. However, a heavy stone almost never presents a reflective surface, and here it is used to make the human body, normally "reflected" back up to the surface in water, resistant to this process, thus forming an odd isomorphism between heavy rocks in water and sinking human bodies.

"clams" — the čugísą, the clam or oyster, may have shells whose interiors are shiny, and therefore can function as mirrors. However, such a mirror, being concave, will have a highly distortive effect. The čugísą that we call the "oyster" not only has a reflective shell, but also occasionally produces a pearl, whose spherical surface is a mirror whose convex distortion is the opposite of its shell. The čugísą has culinary associations, since the word also means "spoon," inasmuch as such shells were furnished with wooden handles and used as an eating utensil. Both the plum and the čugísą unite the context of the natural mirror and food.

"Trickster" — sometimes Trickster is the master of the trick, other times he is its victim. As a god of trickery, he must be both the mastermind of the trick and its victim, since his essence is the trick and he must be able to exemplify it in its every aspect. The divine nature of the Trickster enters into every reflective image in nature, since all such images are distortions (left/right, up/down), which is to say, they trick the eye. The extreme foolishness of Trickster is merely an emphatic expression of the inborn human tendency to move from illusion to delusion. Without this tendency, magicians would have no profession.

Comparative Material. The Omaha trickster cycle has a story that is a strong parallel to this episode. "Ictinike traveled till he reached the bank of a stream, and then he went along the bank. Beneath the water there appeared to be a great many plums, and they were red. "Oh!" said he, as he undressed; and, putting aside his miserable attire of raccoon skins, he dived down after the plums. But he seized a large handful of dirt. On returning to land and viewing what he had behold it was a lot of dirt! Again he looked at the water and there were the plums. So he dived again and with a similar result. Having returned the fourth time with nothing but dirt, he chanced to raise his eyes to a cliff above the stream, and there were many plum trees filled with fruit, which caused the branches to hang down over the stream. It was the reflection of these m the water that had deceived him. Then he put on his clothing, ascended the cliff, and gathered the plums, with which he filled one corner of his robe."4

The story is also found among the neighboring Menominee. One day Manabush came to a stream. There he saw a myriad of cherries floating on its surface, so he jumped into the water to get as many as he could before they floated away. However, he landed on a large submerged rock, which was very painful. He pulled himself out of the water and lay on his back to recuperate, but when he looked up, he saw that above him were the fruit laden branches of a cherry tree. At least in consolation for his foolishness, he was able to get his fill of cherries from the tree itself.5

The Assiniboine have a parallel to the episode of the reflected plums in one of the stories about their own trickster figure:

Fisher has escaped with some of Sitcóⁿski's meat. Sitcóⁿski sees Fisher in the water, dives after him, but misses him. He discovers that it is only Fisher's reflection, and finds Fisher on a tree. Fisher offers to give him some meat if he shuts his eyes and opens his mouth, then drops a knife and kills him.

Inktumni plunges into the water to get berries, but the real berries are above him and he has been deceived by their reflection.6

Sitcóⁿski is the same as Inktumni.

For the episode in which Trickster dives into the lake because he is fooled by a reflection, see the corresponding Oto myth summarized in the Markings on the Moon.

Another Oto myth is very like the Hočąk. "Once while Īśṫhíṇke was traveling through the country he came to the banks of a creek where the water looked so clear and cool that he hastily took off his clothes for a swim. Just as he was about to plunge in, he saw some fine large plums resting on the sandy bottom. They looked so ripe and juicy that they made him feel hungry. He dived in and reached bottom, but as he stretched out his hand for the plums, they disappeared, leaving him nothing but a handful of sand. He came up on the bank again, greatly mystified, and looked into the water. There again on the sandy bottom were the fine large plums. As Īśṫhíṇke was about to plunge in a second time, his attention was directed to a plum lying on the bank. This he took and ate, finding it very good. When he looked around him, he saw plenty of plums on trees. Then he laughed at himself, for he had seen before only their reflection in the water.7

The Cree have a rather different story, but of the same basic type. Wisagatchak was traveling along one day and ran across a beaver cutting cottonwood trees. The beaver, caught away from the river, feigned death. Wisagatchak really thought that he was dead, and fastening his fire kit to its tail, slung him over his shoulder. When he got a chance, he built a fire, but while he was making his preparations for a meal, the beaver made good his escape, with the fire kit still tied to his tail. Wisagatchak pleaded for the beaver to return his kit, and finally the beaver gave it a good toss so that it landed in the lower branches of a tree. However, Wisagatchak thought that it landed in the water, as he saw only its reflection. So he dove in, but much to his consternation, he couldn't find anything. He floated to the top, and only then did he notice that it was actually hanging from a tree. This whole affair made him really angry, so he found the beaver's lodge and entered inside to take his revenge. Unfortunately for him, he fell fast asleep, giving the beaver family an opportunity to cover him in mud and sticks like a dam. While he was thus encased, they abused him mightily, then fled into the river before he could get completely free.8

Dorsey and Kroeber have an Arapaho version:

Nih’āⁿçaⁿ was traveling down a stream. As he walked along on the bank he saw something red in the water. They were red plums. He wanted them badly. Taking off his clothes, he dived in and felt over the bottom with his hands; but he could find nothing, and the current carried him down-stream and to the surface again. He thought. He took stones and tied them to his wrists and ankles so that they should weigh him down in the water. Then he dived again; he felt over the bottom, but could find nothing. When his breath gave out he tried to come up, but could not. He was nearly dead, when at last the stones on one side fell off and he barely rose to the surface sideways and got a little air. As he revived, floating on his back, he saw the plums hanging on the tree above him. He said to himself : "You fool!" He scolded himself a long time. Then he got up, took off the stones, threw them away, and went and ate the plums.9

"The myth of Nix'aⁿt's diving for the reflection of fruit in the water, and of his adventures with the Bear-Women, is found among the Gros Ventre as among the Arapaho, with only the following differences. Nix'aⁿt found berries, not plums."10

A story is told of Old Man, a trickster figure among the Blackfeet. One day Old Man saw the reflection of berries in the water. He dove in, but could not find the berries, so he tied rocks to his ankles and jumped in again. This time he almost drowned. Exhausted, he collapsed under the shade of some bushes; but when he looked up, there he saw the berries dangling above him. He got so mad that he clubbed the tree until every berry was knocked to the ground. This is why, ever since, people hit such bushes with sticks to collect the berries.11

This is the Cheyenne version of the story. "As Wihio was walking along the river bank he looked down into the water and saw there many plums. He said, "Good; there are many plums down there, and I can get all I want to eat." He took off his leggings, jumped into the water, and felt around for the plums as long as he could hold his breath, for the water was deep, but he could feel nothing. He got up on the bank and again looked into the water and saw the plums, and said, "I must have dived in the wrong place." He dived in again and felt about for the plums, but still could not reach them and came up again. Then he got a large stone and tied it around his neck so that he could stay longer under water, and again jumped in. That time he was nearly drowned, but at last he managed to get free from the stone and to crawl out. He lay down on his back on the bank to get his breath and rest, and as he looked up he saw above him the plum bush full of fruit. What he had seen in the water was the reflection of the plums."12

The nearby Kickapoo have a parallel to this story in which the fruit is replaced by an animal. One day Wiza'ka'a came to a deep creek were he saw a deer under the water. He was hungry, so he decided to grab the deer. He jumped in and felt around for the animal but could not seem to get a grip on him. Then Wiza'ka'a thought of tying a stone around his neck and jumping in. Soon he found himself drowning, and after quite a struggle, managed to get the stone off his neck. When he struggled to the shore, there he saw a deer standing in the grass nearby. Only then did he realize that he had seen a mere reflection in the water.13

The reflection story has an interesting version among the Chiricahua Apache. Coyote had cooked a mess of prairie dogs, but while he was sleeping, Mountain Lion stole all the good ones. Coyote was so furious that he threw the remainder in every direction. He then went to take a drink, when he looked in the water and saw a prairie dog. He thought to himself that it would be good eating so he dove in after it, but all he got for his trouble was a belly full of water. Then he lay down on his back to rest and suddenly noticed the prairie dog that had landed in the branches above. He had to confess to himself that he was quite the fool.14

The version of the Jicarilla Apache doesn't involve food at all.

Coyote was going along at night. It was the time of a full moon. He was going to cross some water. He didn't know the reflection of the moon was on the water. He passed over. He turned around and saw something yellow in the water. He thought of a stone about which he had often heard. He thought, "That must be the 'yellow bead' about which the people are always talking. They say it is very valuable. Someone must have lost it. I'll get it and wear it." He jumped in the water. He put his hand down but couldn't feel anything. "I must have the wrong place." He came out and sat on the edge. He marked the place with his eye carefully. Then he dove and tried to find it. He stayed under a long time. He couldn't find it. He felt a stone. He picked it up and arose with it. He looked at it. It was a common stone, and the one he had gone after was still in the water. He went away and returned with a stick. He put the stick down at the right spot and reached down with the other hand to be sure he wouldn't miss it. But he couldn't find anything. He kept this up with first one hand and then the other till his hands were cold. Then he gave up.15 

In a Hopi story we have this story blended with the next, but greatly transformed and juxtaposed. After Coyote stole Fox's prairie dog meal [story], Fox went after him with the intent of killing him. When he found him, Coyote was pretending that he was holding up an overhanging cliff — "You fool," he said to Fox, "can't you see that if I let go, this overhang with crush us both. Hold this up while I go get a log to use as a prop." Fox foolishly obliged, and Coyote was long gone before Fox realized that he'd been had. So Fox followed his trail and came upon Coyote while he was sitting by a tree stump overlooking a stream. The sun was setting and made a red reflection on the water. Fox was about to seize Coyote when his victim suddenly said, "You fool, can't you see the fine red meat in the water? Better get it before it floats away! I'll hold your tail while you get in there and pull it up." So Fox obliged, but while he was under, Coyote tied a heavy rock to his tail, and Fox drowned.16

In a Zapotec version collected by Paul Radin, the victim mistakes a reflection of the moon for a wheel of cheese. "Rabbit, instead of going where coyote was (waiting), on the contrary, went in another direction and ate up the cheese alone. After coyote had gotten tired of waiting for him he went to look for him. After two days he met rabbit sitting at the opening of a well. "Say, friend," he said to him, "what are you doing here?" "Why did you deceive me?" "Say, my friend, that man followed me even here. He came to seize the cheese. Out of fear (I threw it in here); look, see, there it is?" As it was then night and there was a moon in the middle of the sky, unquestionably one saw the reflection of the moon over the water. It looked like an entire cheese. When coyote saw the reflection of the moon over the water he believed that certainly it was a cheese that he saw. Then he spoke to rabbit, "How can we get it out?" Then rabbit said, "Tie yourself to the end (head) of this rope. I will lower you slowly and then when you have seized the cheese I will pull you up." "Good," said coyote. Then that very person tied the rope around his stomach and began to lower him. When he was in about halfway down the well rabbit purposely let go the rope and he fell to the (bottom of) the well. While rabbit was dying of laughter, poor coyote perished there from swallowing (taking) too much water."17

In a very similar Mayan version, the plums are replaced by the moon. One day Hare was going about and no matter where he went, Coyote was always following him around. Now Coyote was a rather dull-witted guy, so Hare decided to play a trick on him. He stopped at a pool and began drinking. Coyote came up immediately and asked, "What are you doing Hare?" "I'm trying to drink down this pond — can't you see all that cheese down there? Maybe if you helped me, since you're so much bigger, we can reach the bottom." So Coyote began drinking as quickly as he could. Meanwhile, Hare went off for a walk. Coyote kept drinking and drinking until his stomach began to swell and his entire abdomen ached beyond description. Finally, he had to quit. He left in agony, wondering how he could ever have gotten to the cheese at the bottom of the pond.18

Links: Trickster, The Sons of Earthmaker.

Links within the Trickster Cycle: §11. Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb, §13. Trickster and the Mothers.

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; mentioning plums: Mijistéga and the Sauks, Migistéga’s Magic.

Themes: ...


1 Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1956) 26-27. The original text is in "Wakdjukaga," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3897 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, ca. 1912) Winnebago V, #7: 269-274.

2 Little Eagle, "The Legend of Sunset Point," 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) 74.

4 Rev. James O. Dorsey, "¢egiha Texts," Contributions to North American Ethnology, 6 (1890): 562. Radin, The Trickster, 129, #14-15.

5 Dorothy Moulding Brown, Manabush: Menomini Tales, Wisconsin Folklore Booklets (Madison: 1948) 4. The same story is told in Walter James Hoffman, Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, XIV (1892-1893), 164.

6 Radin, The Trickster, 98-99, #12-13. These tales are collected in R. H. Lowie, The Assiniboine, in The Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1909) 4:239-244.

7 Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian (Norwood: The Plimpton Press, 1930) 19: 175-176.

8 "Wisagatchak's Adventure with the Beaver," in Frank Russell, Explorations in the Far North (Iowa City: the State University of Iowa, 1898) 213-214.

9 "49. Nih’āⁿçaⁿ and the Bear Women," in George A. Dorsey and Alfred L. Kroeber, Traditions of the Arapaho (Chicago: Field Columbian Museum, 1903) 101.

10 "13. Nix'aⁿt and the Bear-Women," in Alfred L. Kroeber, Gros Ventre Myths and Tales (1907) 70.

11 Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians, compiled and translated by Clark Wissler and D. C. Duvall (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995 [1908]) Story 12, p. 29.

12 George Bird Grinnell, Cheyenne Campfires (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926) 282-283.

13 Kickapoo Tales, collected by William Jones, trs. by Truman Michelson. Publications of the American Ethnological Society (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1915) IX:13-14.

14 Morris Edward Opler, Myths and Tales of the Chiricahua Apache Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994 [1942]) 39.

15 §62. Coyote Dives after the Moon's Image," in Morris Edward Opler, "Myths and tales of the Jicarilla Apache Indians," Memoirs of the American Folk-lore Society, 31 (1938): 332.

16 Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz (edd.), American Indian Trickster Tales (New York: Penguin-Putnam, Inc., 1998) 37-38. 

17 Paul Radin, Zapotec Texts: Dialect of Juchitan-Tehauno, International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 12, #3. (July, 1946): 152-172 [159-160].

18 Glenn Welker, "Rabbit and The Coyote" at the Indigenous Peoples Literature Website,