Turtle (Kečągéga)

by Richard L. Dieterle


Like other zoonymous beings, Turtle appears to be the spirit chief of the animals bearing his name. As a consequence he has some of the attributes of turtles even when he is in human form. Turtle can submerge himself under water for periods so long that spectators think that he has died.1 Like all turtles, he is also very homely looking.2 Turtle probably excels in wrestling,3 because turtles are so well balanced and hard to tip over. Because turtles have long claws, Turtle is portrayed as being able to hold on to a ledge when all others have lost their grip.4

Although there is no Turtle Clan among the Hočągara, they, or at least the Lower Moiety, style themselves as the "People of Turtle," and assert that Turtle was the first man of the Hočąk nation.5 Offerings of tobacco are made to Turtle in warbundle feasts and blessing in war are asked of him.6 The white deerskin offering contains a schematic outline of a turtle [inset].7

After the failure of Trickster, the Creator sent Turtle down to earth to teach men how to live and to rescue them from the depredations of the evil spirits. However, when Turtle arrived, he created a special knife which proved to be an omen of things to come, for soon afterwards he led the humans on the first warparty and thereby taught mankind the arts of war. So instead of rescuing mankind from the depredations of evil spirits and giving humanity life as Earthmaker wanted, he increased their casualties by introducing an institution of death. For this folly, Earthmaker recalled him to heaven and placed him at his left side.8

Turtle cannot really be called a "war god," although as the one who instituted war, his nature is intimately bound up with it. Turtles in general have a special relationship to war not merely on account of their natural armor, but because among the Hočąk arrowheads were made from the claws of the snapping turtle.9 When Turtle walks, he makes a jingling sound because his leggings have little bells sewn on them.10 Before the introduction of metals, these noise makers were probably gourd rattles which were used by messengers when they came to challenge people to a contest. Turtle, as the inventor of war, is the challenger par excellance. The real role of Turtle is seen clearly when the Giants, their gourds rattling, come to challenge him and his friends to a whole panoply of lethal games. Like the Icelandic Þórr (Thor), Turtle is in his natural element when he battles the Giants in sport and warfare, and like Þórr, Turtle concentrates on checking the hubris of the evil spirits when their power has grown too strong. Turtle is almost always successful against the Giants, but he fails to rid earth of evil because of a defect in his own character: he is forever causing disputes. The chief way in which Turtle causes disputes to arise is by a total disregard for justice: he is ever making claims to things that clearly do not belong to him, whether it be war honors, women, or even personal virtues. In "The Race for the Chief's Daughter," when the contestants in a race see Turtle they call him a "trouble maker."11 In contemporary society, those who are overly aggressive and confrontational are criticized by being compared to Turtle.12 It is this trait that lies at the root of the institution of war, and must necessarily find some expression in its founder.

Unlike typical war gods, Turtle himself is not particularly warlike in temperament. In dangerous situations, Turtle often tries to shirk his duty and seek safety, although he does this in a deceptive way so that he will still have a chance of winning some recognition. In "Grandfather's Two Families," Turtle gets himself chosen as one of two runners in a race against the Giants, but at the last minute ducks out leaving his friend in the lurch.13 When the spirits went after a determined enemy, Turtle arranged to disappear just before the battle, and reappear just as it ended.14 Although he is usually brave, and always assertive, his nerve often fails him.15

As a warleader, Turtle is hopelessly incompetent. This comes from his penchant for disorder, one of the cardinal attributes of conflict. Perhaps we can say war is never so true to itself as when things go wrong. Turtle has no respect for the established conventions of tradition which must be followed for success in any enterprise. When he decided to lead a warparty to help the humans, he forgot to issue invitations to respected warriors. When he sounded the war drum only a few answered its call. When he led them out, it was without inspiration or plan, and the results were casualties so steep that it defeated the purpose of waging war in the first place.16 So it is that Turtle often makes bad situations worse.

Turtle does not lust after battle like the Greek war god Ares, yet he does have an inordinate appetite for the honors that war bestows upon its heroes. With Turtle status is not a matter of substance, but only show: Turtle doesn't care if he earns the honor, he only wishes to gain the recognition and respect that goes along with it. In a battle against two Red Waterspirits, Turtle was actually killed, but when he was revived by the Twins, he immediately claimed first war honors simply because it looked as if he had killed the Waterspirits rather than the other way around.17 In a race around the world, Turtle doubled back, creating the impression that he had passed all the other runners. On the basis of that, he demanded the victor's prize.18

Although Turtle is not much of a success in war, he quite often excels in other contests, although he is much aided by his willingness to bend the rules. In a game with the Spirit of Gamboling himself, Turtle caused him to fail by suddenly taking in a deep breath that disturbed the game pieces.19 In another game, the object was to toss turtles into the air so that half landed upright and half landed on their backs; but Turtle wrecked his opponent's throw by yelling, "Upright!" and causing all of them to land on their feet.20 In athletic contests, Turtle also excels. He plays a rugged game of lacrosse, and no one can beat him at wrestling. Needless to say (since his claws are used as arrowheads), he is good at archery.21

In many ways Turtle is something of a dandy, a quality that people often tease him about.22 Even though in one source he is said to be married,23 Turtle is the most notorious womanizer among all the spirits. More than once he has lined up with other spirits to be chosen as a husband. When the woman points to her chosen husband, Turtle will jump in front and claim to all that he was the one that she picked. He seldom accepts the rejection with grace, and trouble often ensues as a result.24 Once when Turtle was rejected by a particularly arrogant woman, he turned her into a skunk.25 Turtle also likes to make his friends think that he is on intimate terms with women who in fact want nothing to do with him.26

Turtle's antics are often the butt of humor, and like his elder brother Wakjąkaga (Trickster), he has no small resemblance to other trickster figures, save that he rarely establishes new institutions (apart from war). Turtle has a reputation even among his friends for being deceptive and tricky. Those who were racing after Turtle in "The Race for the Chief's Daughter," cautioned one another, that Turtle is "very tricky." It turned out that he had stationed red turtles along the race route to impersonate him so that it would look like he was actually well out in front of his competitors.27 In another story, Turtle tricks several bears into an ambush during a hunt.28 The fact that turtles are aquatic helps align Turtle with the typically devious Waterspirits. One of Turtle's best friends is the Waterspirit Traveler.29

Despite all his negative qualities, Turtle is a much beloved figure. No matter how tough things become, or how extreme the situation, Turtle never loses his sense of humor. Humor is the most salient trait of Turtle: not only is Turtle the butt of humor for his ridiculous mistakes, but he himself is always making jokes and turning the serious into the laughable. Before he throws two Giants across the ocean, he makes them eat grass, a humorous hint that they should practice an herbivorous diet and lead the more sedate life that goes with it.30


Links: Turtle Spirits, The Sons of Earthmaker, Spirits, The Cosmic Ages of the Hočągara, Cosmography, Herešgúnina, Giants, Otter, The Forked Man, Waterspirits, Trickster, Bladder, Hare, Earthmaker, The Twins, Gottschall, Minks, Storms as He Walks, Sleets as He Walks, Bird Spirits, Snowbirds, Kaǧi, Bears, Frogs, Pigeon Hawk, Traveler, Witches, Pretty Woman, Skunks, Rock Spirits, Bear Spirits, Snakes.


Stories: featuring Turtle as a character: The Mission of the Five Sons of Earthmaker, Turtle's Warparty, Turtle and the Giant, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, Turtle and the Merchant, Redhorn's Father, Redhorn's Sons, Turtle and the Witches, The Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Trickster Soils the Princess, Morning Star and His Friend, Grandfather's Two Families, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Kunu's Warpath, Redhorn Contests the Giants, Redhorn and His Brothers Marry, The Skunk Origin Myth, The Hočąk Migration Myth, Porcupine and His Brothers, The Creation of Man, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, The Father of the Twins Attempts to Flee, The Chief of the Heroka, The Spirit of Gambling, The Nannyberry Picker, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, The Markings on the Moon (v. 2), The Green Man, The Hočągara Contest the Giants, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Coughing Up of the Black Hawks, The Petition to Earthmaker, The Origins of the Milky Way; mentioning turtles (other than Turtle): Turtle's Warparty, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, Redhorn Contests the Giants, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Porcupine and His Brothers, Redhorn's Sons, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, The Healing Blessing, The Spider's Eyes.


Themes: Turtle has a sacred, double-edged knife: Turtle and the Giant, Redhorn's Sons, The Chief of the Heroka, Turtle's Warparty, The Sons of Redhorn Find Their Father, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth; Turtle jingles as he walks from the small bells tied to his leggings: The Chief of the Heroka, Trickster Soils the Princess, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married; the Hočągara as the People of Turtle: Hočąk Migration Myth, The Creation of Man; Turtle interrupts his gambling game to go meet friends he says that he was expecting yesterday: Redhorn's Father, Trickster Soils the Princess, The Nannyberry Picker; bad women ridicule Turtle for his appearance: The Skunk Origin Myth, The Chief of the Heroka; Turtle courts a chief's daughter with his friend, but is rebuffed by being pushed off her platform bed: Trickster Soils the Princess, The Nannyberry Picker, The Father of the Twins Attempts to Flee; four brothers, Turtle, Porcupine, Squirrel, and Little Red Turtle, live together and go to war together: Turtle's Warparty, Porcupine and His Brothers; Turtle carries a number of people on his body: The Hočąk Migration Myth, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth; Turtle overhears ordinary conversations at a remote distance: Redhorn's Father, Turtle's Warparty; Turtle conceals himself completely except for the tip of his nose: Turtle's Warparty, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth; in contesting his enemies, Turtle remains submerged under water for a very long time: Redhorn Contests the Giants, Porcupine and His Brothers; Turtle agrees to avenge the losses of those who have petitioned his aid as a warrior: Trickster Soils the Princess, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Turtle and the Witches, Redhorn Contests the Giants; Turtle leads a warparty out immediately, without any planning or approval: Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Redhorn Contests the Giants; Turtle attacks from below: Turtle's Warparty, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth; Turtle and his brothers kill an enemy who had been harassing them but find out that he is a prince among the bears: Turtle's Warparty, Porcupine and His Brothers; Turtle acts improperly to influence in his favor the outcome of a game of chance: Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, The Spirit of Gambling, Redhorn Contests the Giants; Turtle wrongfully tries to take the chief's daughter who has been given (as a prize) to someone else to marry: The Chief of the Heroka, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth; Turtle is killed: The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Redhorn Contests the Giants; each son of Earthmaker is appointed to rule over his own paradise: Cosmography, Trickster Concludes His Mission, The Cosmic Ages of the Hočągara; the Twins rescue Turtle from certain death: The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth.


Genealogy: Traveler Genealogy.


Notes

1 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 123-129; Paul Radin, "Porcupine," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #11: 1-43.

2 Keeley Bassette (Waterspirit Clan) and Rita Sharpback (Buffalo Clan), "How Skunks Came to Be," in David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 93.

3 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 123-129.

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

5 David Lee Smith (Thunderbird Clan), "The Migration of the Ho-Chunk People," in David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 26-27; Emily L. Smith (Bear Clan), "Ma-ona and the Creation of the World," in Smith, loc. cit., 13-14.

6 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 494.

7 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 200.

8 Franz Boas (ed.), Handbook of American Indian Languages, in Smithsonian Institution, U. S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911) 1:965; Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 303; Oliver LaMère, "Winnebago Legends," Wisconsin Archeologist, ns 1, #2 (1920): 66-68 [68]. Oliver LaMère was a member of the Bear Clan.

9 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 38.

10 Paul Radin, "The Chief of the Heroka," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #33, p. 31; Paul Radin, "The Trickster Soils the Princess," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #47: 1-80.

11 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 116.

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

13 Paul Radin, "Morning Star (Wiragošge Xetera)," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society), #8: 1-93.

14 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 121; Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. A Study in Comparative Literature, Part I (Basil: Ethnographical Museum, Basil Switzerland, 1954) 95-97. Informant: Sam Blowsnake of the Thunderbird Clan, ca. 1912.

15 Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic, 95-97.

16 Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic, 123-124.

17 Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic, 95-97.

18 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 115-118.

19 Oliver LaMère and Harold B. Shinn, Winnebago Stories (New York, Chicago: Rand, McNally and Co., 1928) 75-86. Informant: Oliver LaMère of the Bear Clan.

20 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 123-129.

21 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 123-129.

22 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 134.

23 Paul Radin, "Wuwukih[i]ge," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #45; Radin, "The Chief of the Heroka," Notebook Notebook #33.

24 Paul Radin, "A Wakjonkaga Myth," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #37: 1-70. Informant: John Rave. Radin, "The Chief of the Heroka," Notebook Notebook #33.

25 Bassette and Sharpback, "How Skunks Came to Be," in Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe, 93.

26 Radin, "Wuwuki[i]hge," Notebook #45; Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic, 91-93.

27 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 116.

28 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 119.

29 Radin, "Wuwukih[i]ge," Notebook #45.

30 Radin, "Morning Star," Notebook #8: 1-93.