Fish Spirits

by Richard L. Dieterle

Fish Spirits are found in a number of Hocąk stories, and one of these relates what happened when their spirit chief came to live among humans. The spirit chief of the fishes once assumed mortal form and ironically took up residence on a hill. He fathered two human sons, but when they had reached adulthood, they were forced to flee to him for protection when they were set upon by enemies. He led them to safety on an island, after which he himself returned to the waters as a fish.1 Many tales tell of hunters who track a raccoon to a hollow tree stump only to find inside a fish. When one of them eats the fish, he turns into a Fish Spirt who blesses his colleague.2

Many Fish Spirits are helpful to mankind. A sturgeon allowed himself to be eaten and instructed that his bones were to be placed in a sacred deerskin. The next day a child was born from the remains. This child (River Child) saved the people from the depredations of a man-eating Waterspirit.3 Others who have eaten spirit fish have become what they consumed. One man reluctantly ate a morsel of such a fish and was transformed into a fish with great powers to bless people.4 Catfish Spirits once blessed a Bear clansman with war powers.5

Other Fish Spirits have been deceptive. Ugly Fish, for instance, tempted a woman to give into her greed, for which he punished her.6 Another Fish Spirit assumed human form and abused the human parents of the race of wolves. However, by use of an oyster shell, his victim was able to generate the first of two wolves, who then slew the human avatar of this Fish Spirit.7

The Hocągara have a Fish Clan, but thus far no public record exists of its clan origin myth. The Hocągara relied heavily on fishing in their economy, so much so that it may have given rise to the notion that their name means, "Great Fish People" (< ho-, "fish").8

Links: Spirits, Waterspirits, Raccoons, Tree Spirits.

Stories: featuring (spirit) fish as characters: The Man who went to the Upper and Lower Worlds, The Were-Fish, The Greedy Woman, Wolves and Humans, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, The Great Fish, The Spirit of Maple Bluff, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, The King Bird, Fish Clan Origins, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, Trickster's Adventures in the Ocean, Hare Visits the Bodiless Heads; featuring raccoons as characters: Bladder and His Brothers, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, The Spirit of Maple Bluff, A Raccoon Tricks Four Blind Men, The Raccoon Coat, Raccoon and the Blind Men, The Were-fish, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster, Trickster and the Mothers, Grandfather's Two Families, The Green Man.


1 Philip Longtail, "The Man who Visited the Upper and Lower Worlds," 4800, Dorsey Papers: Winnebago 3.3.2, (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, 1893).

2 Charles E. Brown, Lake Mendota Indian Legends (Madison: State Historical Museum, 1927) 2-3, 3-4; a slightly shorter version exists in James Davie Butler, "Taychoperah, the Four Lakes Country," Wisconsin Historical Collections, 10 (1885): 64-89 [64-65]; From the letters of Rev. William Hamilton, 4800 Dorsey Papers: Chiwere & Winnebago 3.3 [292] (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, ca. 1885).

3 Capt. Don Saunders, When the Moon is a Silver Canoe. Legends of the Wisconsin Dells (Wisconsin Dells, Wisc.: Don Saunders, 1947) 34-42.

4 From the letters of Rev. William Hamilton, 4800 Dorsey Papers: Chiwere & Winnebago 3.3 [292] (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, ca. 1885).

5 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 248.

6 Pat Smith Medina, "The Selfish Woman," in David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 88-89.

7 Paul Radin, "Wolves," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #53: 1-40.

8 Wisconsin Historical Collections, 10:500; Publius V. Lawson, "The Winnebago Tribe," The Wisconsin Archeologist 6, #3 (1907): 77-162 (83). Maximilian, Prince of Weid, Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834, 3 vols. (Cleveland, Ohio., The A. H. Clark company, 1906 [1843]) 507. Albert Gallatin, A Synopsis of the Indian Tribes within the United States East of the Rocky Mountains, and in the British and Russian Possessions in North America, in Archaeologia Americana, Transactions of the American Antiquarian Society (1836) 2:120; Edwin James, comp., Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, by Edwin James, 2 vols (Ann Arbor MI, University Microfilms, 1966 [1823]) 1:339. Schoolcraft, Information respecting the Indian Tribes of the United States, 3:277; followed by Dunn, True Indian Stories (1909) 317.