Wood Spirits (Wakącųna, Wakaįcųna)

by Richard L. Dieterle

Wood Spirits are generally so-called because they inhabit unusually large or powerful looking trees, especially if they stand alone.1 The Hocąk name for a Wood Spirit is Wakącųna,2 which means, "The One Who Possesses Waką,"3 where waką is understood as a kind of supernatural power or "holiness." Besides trees, they have a subterranean realm where they take their captives and treasure.4 As arboreal spirits, they take on the form of a black animal about the size of a cat, with a round face, and glimmering, piercing eyes.5 "When seen at night, they appear to have fire in their eyes."6 Menaige, ca. 1850, described them as "little animals on four legs, just like a cat, with little horns on them."7 A Wood Spirit has so much waką that if it merely thinks of someone, that person will fall ill; and if a Wood Spirit's gaze falls upon someone, that person is destined to suffer misfortune. Anyone who actually sees a Wood Spirit is very likely to die. Merely seeing one in a dream will presage some great calamity. Nevertheless, the ordinary offerings of tobacco and red feathers are usually enough to propitiate them.8

Wood Spirits can be dangerously irrational. Julia Decora Lukart (Angel DeCora’s sister) had a great-aunt who told her and the other children many tales.

One of these tales featured a malignant wood spirit. From infancy, parents instructed their children to “pacify” the wood spirit, explained Julia, because it was prone to “unreasonable outbursts of rage.” Worse, it might direct its anger toward a “harmless” family member. If so, everyone in the family, from the youngest to the oldest, attempted to appease the angry spirit with an offeering of tobacco and dyed feathers.9

The Chief of the Wakaįcųna, like Disease-Giver, has a body divided into two parts, from one side he delivers Life, from the other he dispenses Death. The Chief of the Wood Spirits had been created by Earthmaker himself, and dwells in a subterranean spirit abode. Like Waterspirits, implements can be made from his body. He once visited a girl during her puberty fast and offered her a blessing, but her father told her to refuse it. The help that these spirits give people is always conditional.10 She gave him offerings in any case, and

Then the woman looked toward the lake and she saw a tree standing in the water. The spirit climbed upon this tree and wrapped himself around it. Then he took a tooth and shot the tree and knocked it down. "This is what you would have been able to do," said the spirit. "The people would have respcted you very much. You would have been able to cure weak or nervous people. But you did not listen to what I told you. You refused it."11

Thus, the Chief of the Wood Spirits also possesses great powers of healing as well as his more infamous powers that pose such a danger to the unwary. The old people always advised the vision seeker to refuse a dream from a Wood Spirit, as they came at a grave price. The spirit will demand four dogs in exchange for the blessing, but by "dogs" it means children.12 Once a young man accepted a blessing from a Wood Spirit, but it was conditioned upon his giving the Wood Spirit his children. Afterwards, no matter how many children he fathered, by the time they reached the third year of life, they would die and descend into the underworld realm of the Wood Spirit.13

Not all Wood Spirit blessing are double edged swords. It was apparently the Chief of the Wood Spirits who blessed one of the ancients of the Medicine Rite. He was created by Earthmaker with much power over life, and he granted a man the ability to use this power to save people's lives. He also gave him a Completion Song that was like the very appearance of the Wood Spirit's breath on earth whenever it was sung. This song is used yet today in the Medicine Rite.14

The immense supernatural power of the Twins was demonstrated by their ability to kill one of these spirits. They were warned by their father not to go to a certain stand of trees, but they paid no attention to his warning. There Stump spotted a Wood Spirit, which he claimed was nothing but a squirrel. No doubt using its supernatural power, the Wood Spirit, called "a tree-dweller" (nociją), "did something to them" (wažą waišpą́). Just the same, Stump chased it to the top of the tree and threw it to the ground. There they killed it with great difficulty. They brought it back to their father, reminding him of how delicious "squirrels" taste, but he recognized it immediately and commanded the boys to take it to the wilderness and offer it tobacco as an expression of contrition.15 Thunderbirds are also of such great power that they can hunt "tree-dwellers" as ordinary game animals.16 If a person marks a tree on its western side where a Wood Spirit is known to dwell, the Thunders will seek it out and kill it.17

When a Wood Spirit assumes human form, it will typically dress in black.18 One nearly killed a hunter by simply grasping his hand.19 In what may be a parody of Wood Spirits, Trickster once saw a man dressed in black pointing at him from across a lake, so he dressed himself in black and pointed back. He soon tired of this and went on his way, but when he looked back, he saw that it was a stump with a branch extending from its side.20 A man who received a (rather mixed) blessing from the Wood Spirits, knew that one lived in a tree with a large branch extending from its side, so it may be such trees that they choose to live in.21

Comparative Material: The Lakota have a similar concept to the Noci, the Can Oti, "Wood Dwellers." The Lakota Trickster, Iktomi ("Spider"), promised not to victimize the raccoons with trickery if they were give him two of their number as companions. They gave him two infants, and he agreed to turn them into the superior Pte people. He covered them over and sprinkled them with water. When they emerged, they were like the babies of the Pte. However, he did not know how to take care of them, so he gave them to the goddess Wakaŋka to raise. She foretold,

"... [inasmuch as] they are offspring of raccoons, they will grow but as long as raccoons grow and when full grown will be of the stature of little children. Because you made them, they will be cunning as you are and because Škan has imparted no spirit to them, they will live in the woods as did their ancestors and will be called Can Oti (Wood Dwellers) and their delight will be to lure others into the depths of gloomy forests and bewilder them there." ... [Later Iktomi] went into the forests searching for them. He saw them and they lured him into the gloomy depths of the woods and led him here and there until even he was bewildered when they disappeared.22

The Lakota version of Wood Spirits are dangerous and hostile by nature, but do not approach the terrifying lethality of their Hocąk counterparts.

Links: Tree Spirits, Spirits, Trickster, Earthmaker.

Stories: about Wood Spirits (Wakącųna): Visit of the Woodspirit, The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Man Who Lost His Children to a Wood Spirit, The Completion Song Origin, The Twins Disobey Their Father (v. 2); mentioning trees or Tree Spirits: The Creation of the World, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Children of the Sun, Visit of the Wood Spirit, The Man Who Lost His Children to a Wood Spirit, The Boy who would be Immortal, The Commandments of Earthmaker, The Woman who Became a Walnut Tree, The Old Woman and the Maple Tree Spirit, The Oak Tree and the Man Who was Blessed by the Heroka, The Pointing Man, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster, The Baldness of the Buzzard, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb, Trickster Loses His Meal, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 2), Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Waruǧábᵉra, The Chief of the Heroka, The Red Man, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Blessing of the Bow, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Spirit of Gambling, Peace of Mind Regained, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, The Necessity for Death, The Story of the Medicine Rite

Themes: someone is confronted by a man dressed completely in black: The Pointing Man, The Man Who Lost His Children to a Wood Spirit, Turtle's Warparty.


1 Fanny D. Bergen, "Some Customs and Beliefs of the Winnebago Indians," The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 9 (1896): 52-53.

2 Thomas Foster, Foster's Indian Record and Historical Data (Washington, D. C.: 1876-1877) vol. 1, #2, p. 3, coll. 2-3.

3 The second part of the compound seems to be the word cų, which means "to possess, have; many, plenty; to give birth to." 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]) 199, sv cų; 409, sv. waką. The variant wakaį́cųna also exists in Jasper Blowsnake, "Waretcawera," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3850, #3896, #3897 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Notebook 67, p. 14.

4 Julia DeCora, “Indian Superstitions,” Talks and Thoughts, Hampton Institution (July 1898).

5 Bergen, "Some Customs and Beliefs of the Winnebago Indians," 52-53.

6 Jasper Blowsnake, "Waretcawera," in Radin, Notebook 67, note by Radin at the top of p. 36.

7 Foster, Foster's Indian Record, vol. 1, #2, p. 3, coll. 2-3. Radin in a note also describes them as being like a cat — Jasper Blowsnake, "Waretcawera," in Radin, Notebook 67, p. 36.

8 Bergen, "Some Customs and Beliefs of the Winnebago Indians," 52-53. See also Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 254-256. Radin says, "If they are seen they cause the person seeing them to become sick." Jasper Blowsnake, "Waretcawera," in Radin, Notebook 67, note on p. 36.

9 Linda M. Waggoner, Firelight: The Life of Angel De Cora, Winnebago Artist (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008) 84.

10 Julia DeCora, “Indian Superstitions,” Talks and Thoughts, Hampton Institution (July 1898).

11 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 254-256.

12 "The Story of Pete Dupeé," in W. C. McKern, Winnebago Notebook (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Museum, 1927) 207-218 [217].

13 Julia DeCora, “Indian Superstitions,” Talks and Thoughts, Hampton Institution (July 1898).

14 Paul Radin, The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians. Bollingen Series V (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973 [1945]) 136-137. The original interlinear MS is found in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Winnebago III, #1: 103-104; a handwritten phonetic text is found at Winnebago II, #1: 128-129; its typed version is at Winnebago II, #5: 135-136.

15 Jasper Blowsnake, "Waretcawera," in Paul Radin, Notebook 67, p. 14.

16 Paul Radin, "The Dipper," Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3850, #3896, & #3897 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebooks #50: 149-150.

17 "The Story of Pete Dupeé," 218.

18 Julia DeCora, “Indian Superstitions,” Talks and Thoughts, Hampton Institution (July 1898).

19 Bergen, "Some Customs and Beliefs of the Winnebago Indians," 52-53.

20 Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1956) 13-14.

21 "The Story of Pete Dupeé," 216.

22 James R. Walker, Lakota Myth, ed. Elaine A. Jahner (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983) 288-289.