Witches

by Richard L. Dieterle


Witches, both male and female, are designated by the same term, "witch man" (manač).1 Although they may possess magic of a constructive nature, witches are mainly noted for their many evil powers. As in the Old Testament, the term for witch is synonymous with "poisoner" (wak'ą́wąx).2 Almost all witches become Night Wanderers (Hąhé-horajé), since the malevolent powers most often achieve their greatest efficacy at night, and the most paradigmatic of these powers is the ability to travel through the air during periods of darkness.

The potency of witchcraft derives ultimately from the blessings of certain spirits, most particularly Waterspirits, out of whose bodies powerful medicines can be made.3 The Nightspirits have been known to bless men with such powers. Once the Medicine Rite men, who have a reputation as masters of the dark arts, challenged those blessed by the Nightspirits to a context of magical power. The Medicine Rite men even shot claws at the Night blessed men, but no harm came to them. It was then that the Medicine Rite men conceded the superiority of those blessed by the Nightspirits.4 One can also acquire the powers of witchcraft by being an understudy to witches. Such men are able to bestow blessings themselves, and witches often get their start by obtaining powers granted by another witch. It is also said that if a witch can be captured despite all his powers, the witch is then obliged to tell his captor all the secrets of his art. By capturing a witch, one can therefore also acquire his powers.5

The power of sorcery is strongly bound up with the fluidity of form associated with water. Shape changing powers are an aqueous-like ability to flow from one physical form of being into another. This includes changes in scale. A witch may transform herself into a being of almost microscopic size. It is said, for instance, that the tubercles on weeds are the hidden sleeping places of witches.6 Wind also partakes of this metamorphic character. Thus a young sorcerer once killed a malevolent witch by giving the Heroka Shout into the fire and casting a holy arrow at him.7 Shape shifting among witch men can be almost overwhealming. A witch came to a man hiding in his father's grave house. He appeared in the form of a turkey, but when he changed back into his human form, the man grabbed him and and would not let go, despite the fact that he changed form many times and even once turned himself into a ghost.8

The power to accomplish such feats often resides in charms that the witch has acquired. Acquiring a part of the body of someone killed by a witch is one way that practitioners of the dark arts may augment their powers. However, such a charm must be obtained before the fourth day after the victim's burial.9 Charms may also find their way into the witch's cache through the blessings of the spirits. A particularly powerful witch may possess an entire bandoleer of such charms. One of these still exists. This blue bandoleer contains black bear claws, a wildcat paw, beards and feathers of the wild turkey [picture], the head of a horned owl [picture], a bull frog stuffed with down feathers, packets of medicine, and a plethora of bullets. The witch uses these charms in order to travel swiftly and incognito to covertly strike one of his enemies. In the course of his travels, the witch transforms himself into one animal after another. He may start out in the form of a frog, but having exhausted himself in that form, he will then transform himself into a black bear, next into a wildcat, and so forth, until he reaches his objective. Once there, the witch shoots a charm into his enemy that will cause him to waste away and die.10 The destruction of an enemy can also be effected by placing a dangerous charm on his person. A witch once deceived a man into believing that she had given him a good luck charm, when in fact it was actually a charm that so angered the Thunderbirds that it drew down upon him torrents of rain and life threatening thunderbolts.11

Supernatural power can often be expressed through means of medicine bundles. A witch once made powerful medicines from the body of a Waterspirit. These he put within medicine bundles, bundles that gave him the power to be a Night Wanderer and to sail through the air.12 Once the powerful Ioway witch, Čašex'įga, visited Keramaniš’aka in the dead of night. First he landed as a blackhawk, then immediately transformed into an owl, in which guise he spoke to Keramaniš’aka. Just as suddenly the owl became Čacex'įga once again, and the witch promised Keramaniš’aka his powers if he chose one of two bundles. The first was made of child's skin, and the second of a woman's scalp. He opened the first and examined the objects of power that it contained, but declined because they were too powerful. When he chose the woman's scalp bundle he obtained for himself all those powers that Čašex'įga had commanded.13

Some have obtained power through magical potions derived from plants. The four Anishinaabeg witches who could fly through the air at night, gained their power through the use of such potions. Great Walker attempted to obtain these potions, but the sorcerers would not yield them up. Instead they gave him a life-engendering greeting still used in the Medicine Rite to this day.14

Thus, it is not surprising that disease is often laid to the malefaction of witches.15 Once a hunter who refused to pay tribute to the witch men suddenly fell ill and died through their power of witchcraft.16 It may be in this way that wak'ąwąx is thought of as a kind of poisoning. It follows that those in possession of this power over the health of the body can also protect their own persons from injury as well as effect cures on others. It happened that the notorious witch Migistéga had incured the wrath of many men through his nefarious deeds. As a consequence, he was often set upon and stabbed, yet owing to his somatic powers, he was always able to cure himself.17

Magical paint can be used in witchraft. Once a woman obtained such paint from the bones of a Waterspirit. She could dip her forefinger into the paint and by merely pointing it at an animal, she could cause its death. When the Hočągara obtained this paint medicine, they put it in a warbundle and used it in combat.18 Migistéga is said once to have created red paint from flour, although the paint had no inherent powers of its own.19

Sometimes a witch may acquire a supernaturally endowed weapon. One witch had the power to shoot claws at his enemies, and when the projectile struck, the victim would live no longer than it took him to reach his own lodge.20

Of course, sometimes magic can be used for beneficent purposes. Peter White Eagle records that his father once met a Mesquaki witch man who by the use of magic formulae was able to induce the appearance of a hoard of turtles at the shore of Lake Wingra. They simply gathered them up and had a feast of turtle soup that night.21

In primordial times, witches lived apart in their own village. Just the same, they chose to molest the common people of nearby villages. Finally it got so bad that the people called Turtle to free them from this oppression. After Turtle vanquished the witches, they were presumably scattered, including some who are commemorated in the stars.22

Reverend Peter Jones gives a very interesting account of Hočąk sorcery —

I have sometimes been inclined to think that if witchcraft still exists in the world, it is to be found among the aborigines of America. They seem to possess a power which, it would appear, may be fairly imputed to the agency of an evil spirit.

The conjurers not only pretend to have the powers already specified, but they profess also to have the gift of foretelling future events. The following curious account on this subject I received from a respectable gentleman who had spent most of his life in the Indian country, and who is therefore well acquainted with their character and pretensions. He is now one of the Government Indians agents in Upper Canada.

In the year 1804, wintering with the Winnebagoes on the Rock river, I had occasion to send three of my men to another wintering house for some flour which I had left there in the fall, on my way up the river. The distance being about one and a half days' journey from where I lived, they were expected to return in about three days. On the sixth day after their absence, I was about sending in quest of them, when some Indians arriving from the spot, said that they had seen nothing of them. I could now use no means to ascertain where they were. The plains were extensive, the paths numerous, and the tracks they had made were the next moment covered by the drift snow. Patience was my only recourse, and at length I gave them up for lost.

On the fourteenth night after their departure, as several Indians were smoking their pipes and telling stories of their war parties, hunting, etc., an old fellow, who was a daily visitor, came in. My interpreter, a Canadian named Felix, pressed me, as he had frequently done before, to employ this conjurer, as he could inform me about the men in question. The dread of being laughed at had hitherto prevented my acceding to his importunities, but now, excited by curiosity, I gave the old man a quarter-pound of tobacco and two yards of ribbon, telling him that if he gave me a true account of them, I would, when I ascertained the fact, give him a bottle of rum. ... The old fellow withdrew, and the other Indians retired in their lodges.

A few minutes after, I heard Wahwun (an egg) begin a lamentable song, his voice increasing to such a degree that I really thought he would have injured himself. The whole forest appeared to be in agitation, as if the trees were knocking against each other, then all would be silent for a few seconds; again the old fellow would scream and yell as if he were in great distress. A chill seized me and my hair stood on end; the interpreter and I stared at each other without power to express our feelings.

[The next day Wahwun was sent for.] "I went," said he, "to smoke the pipe with your men last night, and found them cooking some elk meat which they got from an Ottawa Indian. On leaving this place they took the wrong road on the top of the hill; they traveled hard on and did not know for two days that they were lost. When they discovered their situation they were much alarmed, and having nothing more to eat, were afraid they would starve to death. They walked on without knowing which way they were going until the seventh day, when they were net near the Illinois river by the Ottawa before named, who was out hunting. He took them to his lodge, fed them well, and wanted to detain them some days until they had recovered their strength; but they would not stay. He then gave them some elk meat for their journey home, and sent his son to put them into the right road. They will go to Lagothenes for the flour you sent them, and will be at home in three days." I then asked him what kind of place they were encamped in when he was there. He said, "they had made a shelter by the side of a large oak tree that had been torn up by the roots, and which had fallen with the head towards the rising sun."

All this I note down, and from the circumstantial manner in which he related every particular — though he could not possibly have had any personal communication with or from them by any other Indians — I began to hope my men were safe and that I should again see them.23

Not long afterwards Rev. Jones was reunited with his men and discovered that everything that the witch had said, turned out to be true down to the last detail.


Links: Turtle, Black Bear, Owls, Thunderbirds, Waterspirits.


Stories: about seers: The Seer, The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, Witches, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hočągara, A Prophecy, Great Walker and the Anishinaabeg Witches; mentioning witches and warlocks: The Witch Men's Desert, The Thunder Charm, The Wild Rose, The Seer, Turtle and the Witches, Great Walker and the Anishinaabe Witches, The Claw Shooter, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store, Migistéga’s Magic, Mijistéga and the Sauks, Migistéga's Death, The Mesquaki Magician, The Tap the Head Medicine, Keramaniš’aka's Blessing, Battle of the Night Blessed Men and the Medicine Rite Men, The Hills of La Crosse, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hočągara (v. 2), Įčorúšika and His Brothers, Thunder Cloud Marries Again, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, The Woman's Scalp Medicine Bundle, Potato Magic, Young Rogue's Magic; mentioning snow: Waruǧápara, The Glory of the Morning, Holy One and His Brother, Wolves and Humans, Grandfather's Two Families, The Four Steps of the Cougar, Brave Man, Redhorn's Father, Bladder and His Brothers, The Old Man and the Giants, Old Man and Wears White Feather, Great Walker's Warpath, White Wolf, North Shakes His Gourd, The Fleetfooted Man, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, Shakes the Earth, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Trickster Gets Pregnant, The Raccoon Coat, Silver Mound Cave, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married; occurring in Illinois: The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Shrewd Winnebagoes of Dixon’s Crossing, Xųnųnį́ka, First Contact (v. 2), How Jarrot Got His Name; set at Rock River: The Waterspirit of Rock River, Xųnųnį́ka, The Shrewd Winnebagoes of Dixon’s Crossing.


Themes: powerful beings give a human a charm which they say will bring him benefits: Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, White Wolf, The Thunder Charm, The Lost Child; someone traveling long distances assumes successive animal forms as each becomes fatigued, until he finally reaches his destination: The Thunderbird, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Journey to Spiritland (v. 4); a seer makes true predictions down to unusual details: The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hočągara, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Fox-Hočąk War, How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, A Prophecy, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Claw Shooter, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store; a witch blesses someone with (things of) power: Great Walker and the Anishinaabeg Witches, Keramaniš’aka's Blessing, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, The Woman's Scalp Medicine Bundle.


Notes

1 Alan Skinner, "Unusual Ethnological Specimens," Yearbook of the Public Museum of Milwaukee, 3 (1923): 109. Nile Behncke, "Winnebagoland Legends," Wisconsin Archeologist, 20, #2 (1939): 31-32. 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]) 314, sv manač.

2 Paul Radin, Personal Reminiscences of a Winnebago Indian, Journal of American Folk-Lore, 26, #102 (1913): 293-318 (Sam Blowsnake narrative: 310-312).

3 Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher (New York: D. Appleton Co., 1927) 196-199. Sam Blowsnake, The Warbundle Feast of the Thunderbird Clan (First Version), in Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 399-481 [424-427].

4 Jasper Blowsnake, "Hišjaxíri Waši," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n. d.) 192-195. An English translation is also found in Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 295.

5 Untitled, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n. d.) Winnebago III, #1: 189v, 188v.

6 Paul Radin, "Inčohorúšika," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #14: 1-67.

7 Paul Radin, The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians. Bollingen Series V (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973 [1945]) 156.

8 Radin, Notebooks, Winnebago III, #1: 187v, 189v.

9 Radin, Notebooks, Winnebago III, #1: 189v.

10 Skinner, "Unusual Ethnological Specimens," 109.

11 Dorothy Moulding Brown, "Rain Legends and Beliefs," Wisconsin Archeologist 24, #2 (1943): 27-31 (29).

12 Radin, The Road of Life and Death, 152-153.

13 Radin, The Road of Life and Death, 92-93.

14 Radin, The Road of Life and Death, 138-139.

15 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 265.

16 Radin, Notebooks, Winnebago III, #1: 190v.

17 "End of Megistega's Life" in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3881 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1908) Winnebago I, #7a: 51-53.

18 Sam Blowsnake, The Warbundle Feast of the Thunderbird Clan (First Version), in Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 399-481 [424-427].

19 John Fireman, "The Story of Migistéga," trs. George Ricehill, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3892 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago III, #11a, Story 7: 86-90. An English only version is found in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1908) Winnebago I, #7a: 45-49.

20 Radin, The Road of Life and Death, 156.

21 This story was evidently told to Charles E. Brown by Mr. White Eagle in the 1920s or early 1930s. The precise credits are no longer clear. This story was found by Kathy Miner.

22 Charles Edward Brown, Indian Star Lore (Madison, Wisc.: State Historical Museum, 1930) 8. Informant: Oliver LaMère, Bear Clan.

23 Peter Jones, History of the Ojebway Indians; with especial reference to their conversion to Christianity (London : A. W. Bennett, 1861) 147 sed; partly quoted in Walter James Hoffman, The Menominee Indians, in the Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1892-1893 (Washington: Goverment Printing Office, 1896) 14:143-144.