Origin of the Name "Winnebago" (Menominee)

retold by Richard L. Dieterle

The following is a story told by the Menominee about the origin of the name ("Winnebago") by which the Hocągara are known to their Algonquian and European neighbors.

Once Mä́näbush was trudging along the shore of a lake, tired and hungry. He noticed up ahead a long sand spit that extended into the lake, and the sand bar was covered with birds of every description. It was then that Manabush hatched a plan for a veritable feast. The only thing that he had with him was his medicine bag, which he hung upon a tree out of the sight of the birds. Ever after men have called this the "Manabush tree." He stripped the tree of a great deal of bark, which he rolled into a bundle, and carrying only this on his back, he walked conspicuously by the birds. Some of the swans and ducks recognized him, and moved farther away from the shore out of fear. They called out to him: "Manabush, where are you going?" "I am carrying my songs," he replied, "perhaps all of you can join me in a night of song and dance." So they all left the lake shore for a grassy spot not far away that they might have plenty of open space for the dance. Manabush broke out his bark drum and his singing sticks, telling the fowls in the strictest way: "When the music begins, everyone sing at the top of their voice, and when you dance, keep your eyes closed. The first one to open his eyes will find that they will be red for all eternity." He began to beat the drum and all the birds circled him singing at the top of their voice and dancing with their eyes closed. At the first opportunity, Manabush grabbed a swan and snapped its neck, but not before it let out its death cry. "That's it!" called out Manabush, "sing at the top of your voice!" In the same way he killed another swan and then a goose. Soon he had a pile of victims — but the problem was that the singing was beginning to fall off, as there were so few birds left. Noticing this, the "hell diver" snuck a peak, and seeing the pile of dead birds, called out, "Manabush is killing us, Manabush is killing us!" The birds scattered every which way, but the hell diver, being a poor runner, was soon overtaken by the frustrated Manabush. "I won't kill you," he said, "but from now on you will have red eyes and be the laughing stock among birds." With that, Manabush gave him such a kick that he landed far away in the middle of the lake. This knocked off his tail feathers as well, so that even to this day the hell diver has red eyes and no tail.

Manabush took his quarry and buried it on the sand bar — some of them he buried with their feet protruding from the sand, other he buried with their necks and heads showing. Manabush began a fire to cook the birds, but was so tired that he decided to wait until he had completed a nap, so he slapped his ass and told it, "Wake me if anyone comes!" Then he went soundly to sleep. Not long after a group of people came paddling up in their canoes and saw all the legs and heads sticking out of the sand. They were very hungry themselves, so they quietly dug up all the buried fowls and had a feast of their own. When they were done, they put the feet and necks back where they had been, and slipped away with the remainder. When Manabush finally awoke, he was starving. He went to the nearest swan, but when he pulled it up, all he had in his hand was the severed neck — the body had mysteriously disappeared. Then he tried to pull another fowl out by its feet, but the feet were all that he got. Soon he discovered that he had been stripped of all his food, and wondered allowed, "Who could have taken it?" Manabush struck his ass and demanded, "Didn't you see who did this? I commanded you to stand guard, but you didn't wake me. Why not?" "I too was tired," replied his ass, "so I fell asleep. However, in the distance I can see some people paddling away in their canoes. They are dressed in rags and are very dirty — perhaps they are the thieves." Manabush ran out on the sand spit just in time to see these people rounding the bend in their canoes. He yelled at them, "Winnibégo! Winnibégo!" Ever since then, the Menominee have called their neighbors by this name.1

Commentary. The joke may be that he meant to say "dirty water-people" (winnigo be ?) but it came out "dirty-water people."

Links: Introduction (on the origin of the name "Winnebago"), Lake Winnebago.

Stories: mentioning the Menominee: The Hocąk Arrival Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 2b) (Origins of the Menominee), The Fox-Hocąk War, First Contact, The Magical Powers of Lincoln's Grandfather, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I (v. 2), Annihilation of the Hocągara II, Two Roads to Spiritland, A Menominee Visit, The Two Children, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Gatschet's Hocank hit’e (Extracts ...), Introduction; about the relationship between the Menominee and the Hocągara: The Hocąk Arrival Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 2b) (Origins of the Menominee). This story is a variant of Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks.


1 Walter James Hoffman, The Menominee Indians, in the Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1892-1893 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896) 14:203-205. Also found in Katharine B. Judson, Myths and Legends of the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes (Chicago: A. C. McClung, 1914), reprinted as Native American Legends of the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000) 65-66.