by Richard L. Dieterle
Devil's Lake lies near the Wisconsin Dells. At times of solitude, it can be a strange and foreboding place. White people who visited the waters always found a certain propriety in the choice of names, as though the area were haunted by alien spirits. This idea is reinforced by the fact that the bluffs allow the sun to shine there only from around 10 am to about 3 pm. The rocky cliffs create strange echoes, which have sometimes unnerved visitors. Jean de la Ronde said that in the last century visitors always heard something that sounded like the constant striking of a bell.1 In one sacred story, Devil's Lake is called Te Šišik, "Bad Lake,"2 a name which certainly admits of the wider translation, "Devil's Lake." However, Te Šišigera actually designates Lake Michigan.3 Part of the problem is that the settlers' designation, "Devil's Lake," seems to have been translated back into Hočąk as Te Šišigera. Even though the Hočąk clans originated at Red Banks, which is on a bay of Bad Lake (Lake Michigan), one Buffalo Clan member claimed that the Bad Lake at which the Buffalo Clan assembled was in fact Devil's Lake.4 Cole asserts that the lake's real name is Minnewakan, which is in fact a word in the Dakota language meaning "Holy Waters." It's clear that this is a Dakota translation out of the original Hočąk, where it is called Te Wákąčąk, "Holy Lake."5 It is said to have gotten this name from the powerful Waterspirit (Wakjexi) that lives within its confines. Once a faster cried out to this Waterspirit for a blessing. The deity of the lake took pity on him and gave him the boon of a long life.6 This was no ordinary Waterspirit, nor is Devil's Lake an ordinary lake. The Waterspirit was almost certainly the famous Traveler, so called because he traveled all over this earth. A sacred story about him says, "[Traveler] was placed in charge of the earth. He was not put in charge of it by Earthmaker but by the people on earth. ... he is the chief of all of us on earth, for this is the position that was bestowed upon him. And he lives at a place called "Holy Lake" (Te Wákąčąk). It was from this place called "Holy Lake" that he, our chief, started when he ascended to fight the Thunderbird. This lake was a window for the earth. It had no bottom."7 Because Devil's Lake has no bottom, it is a conduit by which Traveler, whose lodge is in the very center of the earth, can most easily ascend to the surface. His victory, at Lake Winnebago, was over a Thunderbird who aspired to rub out the whole Wakjexi race. Devil's Lake itself had been witness to such wars in its history. The myriad of boulders strewn everywhere over its landscape are said to have been the debris of a battle between the Waterspirits and their mortal enemies the Thunderbirds.8
How did this otherworldly lake come into existence? It is told that long ago the Hočągara prayed for new hunting grounds. Earthmaker himself took pity on them and created a giant green Waterspirit. This Waterspirit descended upon a snow-bound land, and by dint of his bodily heat, melted the snow and ice, setting free the flowng waters. He gouged and bit channels for these waters to course, and dove down into the earth with such force that the sound of the impact could be heard in the distant land where the Hočągara were then living. They followed this sound, and found at its source a deep and beautiful lake. This was Holy Lake, whom people today miscall "Devil's Lake."9 This same Waterspirit, or perhaps another, which had seven heads, was a malignant presence in the lake when the Hočągara lived nearby. He demanded the sacrifice of a maiden annually. River Child, a young man born of the bones of a sturgeon, eventually killed this Waterspirit by striking it in its only vulnerable spot: the left eye of its central head. River Child's band built a village nearby called "Old River Bottom," but the weird shrieks of the Wakjexi's spirit were so unsettling that the people were compelled to abandon the site.10
Links: Waterspirits, Thunderbirds, Earthmaker, Traveler.
Stories: set at Devil's Lake (Te Wákąčąk): Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, The Sacred Lake, Traveler and the Thunderbird War (vv. 1, 5), Buffalo Clan Origin Myth; set in the Wisconsin Dells: The Twin Sisters, White Flower, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, Heną́ga and Star Girl, Red Cloud's Death, Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon, Sunset Point, The Story of the Medicine Rite, Mighty Thunder; set at Lake Winnebago (Te Xetera): Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, The First Fox and Sauk War, White Thunder's Warpath, Traveler and the Thunderbird War (v. 2), The Great Fish, The Wild Rose, The Two Boys, Great Walker's Warpath, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, The Two Children (?); about the origins of bodies of water: Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, Lost Lake, Heną́ga and Star Girl; about the migration of the Hočągara: The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, The Hočąk Arrival Myth, The Hočąk Migration Myth, The Hočągara Migrate South, The First Sauk and Fox War, The Spanish Fight, Quapah Origins, cf. Hočąk Clans Origin Myth; in which Waterspirits occur as characters: Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, The Lost Child, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Bluehorn's Nephews, Holy One and His Brother, The Seer, The Nannyberry Picker, The Creation of the World (vv. 1, 4), Šųgepaga, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Waterspirit of Lake Koshkonong, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Waterspirit of Sugar Loaf Mounds, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, Waterspirits Keep the Corn Fields Wet, The Waterspirit Guardian of the Intaglio Mound, The Diving Contest, The Lost Blanket, Redhorn's Sons, The Phantom Woman, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, Great Walker's Warpath, White Thunder's Warpath, The Descent of the Drum, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Snowshoe Strings, The Thunderbird, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (v. 2), The Two Children, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, Waruǧábᵉra, Ocean Duck, The Twin Sisters, Trickster Concludes His Mission, The King Bird, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Heną́ga and Star Girl, Peace of Mind Regained, The Story of the Medicine Rite, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Spiritual Descent of John Rave's Grandmother, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Shaggy Man, The Woman who Married a Snake (?), Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, The Sacred Lake, Lost Lake; mentioning Green (čo) Waterspirits: The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake; featuring Traveler as a character: The Nannyberry Picker, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Lost Blanket; mentioning Thunderbirds: The Thunderbird, Waruǧábᵉra, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, Thunderbird and White Horse, Bluehorn's Nephews, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed (vv. 1, 2), The Man who was a Reincarnated Thunderbird, The Thunder Charm, The Lost Blanket, The Twins Disobey Their Father, The Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Story of the Thunder Names, The Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Eagle Clan Origin Myth, Pigeon Clan Origins, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Adventures of Redhorn's Sons, Brave Man, Ocean Duck, Turtle's Warparty, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, The Quail Hunter, Heną́ga and Star Girl, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Redhorn's Sons, The Dipper, The Stone that Became a Frog, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Redhorn Contests the Giants, The Sons of Redhorn Find Their Father, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Origin of the Hočąk Chief, The Spirit of Gambling, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Aračgéga's Blessings, Kunu's Warpath, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, The Glory of the Morning, The Nightspirits Bless Čiwoit’éhiga, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Big Stone, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, Song to Earthmaker, The Origins of the Milky Way.
Themes: a green (čo) Waterspirit inhabits Devil's Lake: River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name; the war between Thunderbirds and Waterspirits: Traveler and the Thunderbird War, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Brave Man, The Lost Blanket, Ocean Duck, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, The Thunderbird, Heną́ga and Star Girl, Waruǧábᵉra, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Waterspirit of Sugar Loaf Mounds; the Hočąk nation arrives from another (warmer) place: The Hočąk Migration Myth, The Hočąk Arrival Myth, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells; a Waterspirit demands a human sacrifice: The Seer, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Phantom Woman; someone is offered to a Waterspirit: The Shaggy Man, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, White Thunder's Warpath, Waruǧábᵉra, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Seer; a Waterspirit kills a human: The Shaggy Man, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, Waruǧabᵉra, The Two Children, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Seer, The Twin Sisters, The Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, The Lost Blanket; a spirit being is vulnerable in a highly unusual way: River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, Snowshoe Strings, The Green Man, Partridge's Older Brother, The Dipper, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head.
Map: Devil's Lake.
Pictures: of Devil's Lake: Scene 1, Scene 2, Balanced Rock, Picture of the Boulders of Devil's Lake (external link).
1 Henry Ellsworth Cole, Baraboo, Dells, and Devil's Lake Region (Baraboo: Baraboo Publishing Co., 1920) 29 — from Jean T. de la Ronde, History of Columbia County (1880), who visited the lake in 1832.
2 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 ) 197 nt 23.
3 Tešišikera (Ta-she-shick-er-rah). Thomas J. George, Winnebago Vocabulary, 4989 Winnebago (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, 1885) s.v. Informants: Big Bear of Friendship, Wisconsin, and Big Thunder.
4 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 197 nt 23.
5 George Ricehill, translator ?, "The Struggle between the Son of the Thunderbird and the Son of the Waterspirit," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Winnebago III, #11a, Freeman #3892 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1909?) Story 10, p. 133. George says that the name is Tewakąčąkra (Ta-wah-cun-chunk-dah), "Devil's Lake, 'Sacred Lake,' no bad meaning." George, Winnebago Vocabulary, s.v.
6 George, Winnebago Vocabulary, s.v. Ta-wah-cun-chunk-dah.
7 Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic, Part I (Basil, Switzerland: Ethnographical Museum, 1954) 47-48.
8 Cole, Baraboo, Dells, and Devil's Lake Region, 29.
9 Capt. Don Saunders, When the Moon is a Silver Canoe. Legends of the Wisconsin Dells (Wisconsin Dells, Wisc.: Don Saunders, 1947) 5-6. His informant was Albert Yellow Thunder.
10 Saunders, When the Moon is a Silver Canoe, 34-42.