Turtle Spirits

by Richard L. Dieterle

Turtle is the chief of all creatures that bear his name. His claim to fame, however, is not as chief of turtles, but as one of the four or five spirits that Earthmaker sent down to earth to rescue mankind from the rampage of the evil spirits. Unfortunately, Turtle's basic nature interfered with his ability to succeed in his divinely appointed role, and he soon had the world engaged in conflict and warfare.1 He is famous for carrying a double-bladed knife on the warpath, but it was he who first used snapping turtle claws as arrowheads when he accidentally shot off one of his claws.2 Ever after, the Hocągara have always used turtle claws as arrowheads. Nevertheless, having failed in his mission of pacification, Earthmaker recalled Turtle and gave him charge over an underworld paradise where live only those who have been killed in action.3 For more on Turtle, see the article Turtle.

It is said that in primordial times, turtles had long legs, an attribute that they received as a reward for doing good works. To settle a dispute among a turtle, a wolf, and a meadow lark, it was decided that they would race towards a place where there was some yellow soil, and that they were to bring a sample back with them to show that they had reached the midway point. The turtle cheated, bringing back sand from a creek. As a result, turtles lost their long legs. The turtle was so ashamed that he contracted into his shell, a habit of their kind ever since.4 Earthmaker wanted a turtle to oversee his creation, but the stubbiness of the turtle's legs meant that he could not see his surrounding well enough to carry out this duty. Therefore, Earthmaker recalled him.5

The oldest of Turtle's brothers is Soft Shelled Turtle. He is strikingly handsome and a very good hunter. Once Turtle decided that his younger brother needed a wife, so he went off to get one for him. However, when Soft Shelled Turtle was away, Turtle impersonated him and slept with his new bride. When Soft Shelled Turtle returned, Turtle persuaded him that his bride was of loose morals and that someone else had just walked in and slept with her, so Soft Shelled Turtle invited her to leave. This happened twice more. Finally, Turtle and his wife decided only a princess (yųgiwi) would do, so they brought back the chief's daughter. However, Turtle acted like she was his bride. This time Soft Shelled Turtle turned the tables. While he and Turtle were at a Medicine Dance, Soft Shelled Turtle snuck back to the lodge. There he impersonated Turtle, sleeping both with the princess and Turtle's own wife. The princess indignantly walked out after the real Turtle returned. Later Soft Shelled Turtle married her, the chief greatly appreciating his new son-in-law's hunting prowess.6 Soft Shelled Turtle and Rough Edge Shell Turtle later accompanied Turtle on his most famous warparty. On the evening of the first night they were selected to do the hunting, and each returned with a bear.7

Little Red Turtle, also known as "Red Breasted Turtle," is Turtle's youngest brother. He is very clever, and is able to kill deer by use of trickery alone. However, a Bear Spirit in the guise of a man, kept taking his quarry away from him, until Turtle intervened and killed this enemy.8 In the fighting against the ursine race, Turtle and Little Red Turtle hid in a lake and fought from there; but the enemy brought in a bird that drank up the entire lake, leaving Little Red Turtle and his elder brother completely exposed. However, Squirrel rescued them by shooting the bird in the stomach so that all the water that he drank refilled the reservoir.9 Little Red Turtle, the youngest brother of Turtle, seems to be the chief of red (breasted) turtles (kešúcga). Red turtles have proven to be a big help to Turtle in his (mis-)adventures. Once, when Turtle was trying to cheat in a race, a red turtle stationed himself in advance of the runners in hope that he would be mistaken for Turtle himself. However, the racers, indignant at the transparent fraud, stamped him down in the mud.10 Turtle had better luck when he used eight red turtles as dice in a game against the Giants. When he threw the "dice" they naturally obeyed his instructions, allowing Turtle to win the game.11

Oval Turtle is one of Turtle's younger brothers. When Turtle tried to create the illusion that he had won the race around the world, Oval Turtle stepped up and tried to claim the prize on his behalf. The prize, the chief's daughter, wasn't about to surrender herself so easily when the outcome was more than just a little in doubt, so Turtle had to seize her himself.12

Turtle prizes his own kind above all others when going on the warpath. In a raid, Turtle prefers stealth beyond great fighting ability. In this turtles are beyond compare: they travel slowly, quietly, and are well camouflaged, so the enemy could never be expected to detect them in advance.13

The Table below shows the variety of turtles and Turtle Spirits that appear in the literature:

Turtle Spirits Where Found
Turtle (Kecągéga) See Turtle, and below.

Little Red Turtle (= Red Breasted Turtle) (Késuckéka)

little red turtles

Turtle's Warparty

The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Redhorn's Sons, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Redhorn Contests the Giants

Oval Turtle The Race for the Chief's Daughter
Red Breasted Turtle (= Little Red Turtle) Porcupine and His Brothers
Rough Edge Shelled Turtle (Kegíša) Turtle's Warparty
Soft Shelled Turtle Turtle's Warparty, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married
Unspecified Turtle Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, The Spider's Eyes

Links: Turtle, The Sons of Earthmaker.

Stories: 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, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, The Mesquaki Magician; 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 Hocąk 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, The Markings on the Moon (v. 2), The Green Man, The Hocągara Contest the Giants, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth.

Themes: turtles used as implements in a game of chance: Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, The Roaster.


1 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.

2 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 38.

3 Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. A Study in Comparative Literature, Part I (Basil: Ethnographical Museum, Basil Switzerland, 1954) 66-70. Informant: Sam Blowsnake of the Thunderbird Clan, ca. 1912.

4 Capt. Don Saunders, When the Moon is a Silver Canoe. Legends of the Wisconsin Dells (Wisconsin Dells, Wisc.: Don Saunders, 1947) 8-9.

5 Joi StCyr, Why Spider has Eight Eyes, in David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 96.

6 Paul Radin, "A Trickster Exploit," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook 54: 50-134.

7 Paul Radin, "Turtle's Warparty," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #28-#29: 1-143.

8 Radin, "Turtle's Warparty," Notebook #28.

9 Radin, "Turtle's Warparty," Notebook #28; Paul Radin, "Porcupine," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #11: 1-43.

10 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 115-118.

11 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 123-129.

12 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 115-118.

13 Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, 115-118.