The King Bird
by Oliver LaMère, Bear Clan
This story is quoted directly from the Wisconsin Archeologist of 1920. It is told by Oliver LaMère of the Bear Clan who obtained it "from the old men of the tribe."
"The King Bird [Čugiásąnąpkéga] is the chief or king of the lower birds, or the birds who are nearer the earth. Once there was village of Indians, and the chief of the village had two sons and a daughter. It happened in the course of time that the elder brother disgraced himself. When the chief learned of it, he had his son sewed into the skin of a bear and thrown into the Wisconsin river. On the western side of the river, where he was thrown in, there was an eddy into which he was drawn and going to the bottom, he was captured by a water spirit who took him into his lodge.
The chief and his village then broke camp and moved, but the younger brother remained under a protruding bank of the river until all had gone, and it happened that the bank caved in on the young man, but he finally managed to free himself and when he reached the site of his village, all his people had gone away.
The King Bird had turned himself into an old woman and was making a lodge out of some of the material from the old lodges, which had been left behind by the departed Indians, when the young man returned, and greeted him by calling him grandson; and there they lived together.
When the younger brother grew older the grandmother told him to fast, which he did, and he was soon blessed and could hear and understand the language of the spirits. One day he heard them say that there was to be a great council in spirit-land, and he told his grandmother and asked her if he could go, but she would not consent. He asked her several times with the same result. Finally, one day he heard the spirits say that there was to be a contest for the chieftainship, and as the young man was crossing a stream on a log he heard someone sing,
Pull me out and you may be the chief,
Pull me out and you may be the chief;
Pull me out and you may be the chief,
Pull me out and you may be the chief.
This song was repeated four times. At the fourth time he hurried home and asked his grandmother to make him a fish net, so she made one out of basswood fiber, but it was not strong enough; so she made one out of nettle and weed fiber, which was too weak, but she kept on trying first one thing then another until they had one strong enough. Then they went to the river and fished out the object that had been singing and it happened to be the young man's elder brother, who had turned into a fish from his hips down. After being fished out the older brother kept asking them to throw him back into the river, as he would thirst to death if they did not; so they kept giving him water, and although he resisted, they carried him back to their lodge; but he died before they got him there. The old woman and the young man had prepared a sweat bath lodge and a stone was heated and ready; so into this lodge they placed the body, and began to give him a sweat bath. Finally he came to life again. Then the elder brother was blessed with power to kill all kinds of game, but the young brother was made chief of all the spirits and he immediately turned into a king bird."1
Commentary. "King Bird" — the King Bird is a migratory bird that winters in South America. It flies south in August and September, to return between late April and June. The bird does have some association with water: "Wherever wooded swamps are available, this voracious insect-eater gravitates to them for nesting. A. W. Schorger, investigating by boat some stumps left from logging operations and the subsequent flooding of new flowages in northern Wisconsin, often found nests 100 - 200 feet out from shore, and sometimes only 1 1/2 feet above water."2 Although the name "King Bird" would suggest that it is the chief of birds, that title belongs to the Turkey Spirit, Rušewe.
"chief of all the spirits" — the ending seems anomalous. The true chief of all spirits (waxop'ini) would be Earthmaker, so we must assume that what is meant is that, next to Earthmaker, the young brother was the strongest of all spirits. More likely it is just an exaggeration. This is why LaMère begins the story with a qualification: "The King Bird is the chief or king of the lower birds, or the birds who are nearer the earth."
Links: Bird Spirits, Rušewe, Waterspirits, Fish Spirits.
Stories: about Bird Spirits: Crane and His Brothers, Bird Origin Myth, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Wears White Feather on His Head, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Thunderbird, Owl Goes Hunting, The Boy Who Became a Robin, Partridge's Older Brother, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Foolish Hunter, Ocean Duck, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Quail Hunter, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Hočąk Arrival Myth, Trickster Gets Pregnant, Trickster and the Geese, Holy One and His Brother (kaǧi, woodpeckers, hawks), Porcupine and His Brothers (Ocean Sucker), Turtle's Warparty (Thunderbirds, eagles, kaǧi, pelicans, sparrows), Kaǧiga and Lone Man (kaǧi), The Old Man and the Giants (kaǧi, bluebirds), The Bungling Host (snipe, woodpecker), The Red Feather, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Waruǧábᵉra, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Black and White Moons, The Markings on the Moon, The Creation Council, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna (chicken hawk), Hare Acquires His Arrows, Keramaniš’aka's Blessing (black hawk, owl), Heną́ga and Star Girl (black hawk), The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth (black hawk, kaǧi), Worúxega (eagle), The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men (eagle), The Gift of Shooting (eagle), Hočąk Clans Origin Myth, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, The Hočąk Migration Myth, Blue Jay, The Baldness of the Buzzard, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster (buzzards), The Shaggy Man (kaǧi), The Healing Blessing (kaǧi), The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (kaǧi), Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Įčorúšika and His Brothers (Loon), Great Walker's Medicine (loon), Roaster (woodsplitter), The Spirit of Gambling, The Big Stone (a partridge), Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, The Story of the Medicine Rite (loons, cranes, turkeys), The Fleetfooted Man, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4) — see also Thunderbirds; 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, Fish Clan Origins, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, Trickster's Adventures in the Ocean, Otter Comes to the Medicine Rite, Hare Visits the Bodiless Heads; about man-fish: The Were-fish, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, Traveler and the Thunderbird War (v. 5), The Greedy Woman, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, The Spirit of Maple Bluff; 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 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 basswood: The Children of the Sun, Redhorn's Father, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 3), The Big Stone, The Fox-Hočąk War, Hare Burns His Buttocks, Hare Kills Wildcat, Turtle's Warparty, The Birth of the Twins, The Messengers of Hare, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store; mentioning sweat lodges or sweat baths: The Twins Get into Hot Water, The Lost Blanket, The Green Man, Bladder and His Brothers (v. 1), Hare Establishes Bear Hunting, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, The Thunderbird, Snowshoe Strings, Waruǧábᵉra, The Red Man, The Chief of the Heroka, The Birth of the Twins (v. 2), Lifting Up the Bear Heads, Little Human Head, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, White Wolf, The Shaggy Man, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, The Dipper, The Two Boys, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (v. 2); set on the Wisconsin River (Nįkúse Xųnųnį́gᵋra): Turtle and the Merchant, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Chief of the Heroka, The Lame Friend, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, The Scalping Knife of Wakąšučka, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake (v. 1), The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, Gatschet's Hočank hit’e.
Themes: someone is rejected by at least one member of his family: Sun and the Big Eater, The Big Eater, Grandfather's Two Families, Kaǧiga and Lone Man, Moiety Origin Myth, The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, The Story of the Medicine Rite; men enter the water inside a bearskin: How the Thunders Met the Nights; someone is captured by Waterspirits: Įčorúšika and His Brothers, Holy One and His Brother, Traveler and the Thunderbird War (v. 5), Redhorn's Sons, Heną́ga and Star Girl; a human lives with Waterspirits: The Nannyberry Picker, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Phantom Woman; a creature sings a song from the water that promises a blessing in exchange for a favor: The Greedy Woman; only after repeated tries does an old woman succeed in making a net strong enough for her grandson to capture a spirit being: Hare Burns His Buttocks; someone is transformed from the waist down into a cold blooded creature: The Woman who Married a Snake; creatures turn into fish: The Were-fish, Hare Visits the Bodiless Heads, The Greedy Woman, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, The Man who went to the Upper and Lower Worlds; a man who is metamorphosing into a fish (or other water creature) suffers from so extreme a thirst that he must live in water: Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, The Spirit of Maple Bluff, The Were-fish; a man has the lower body of a fish: Traveler and the Thunderbird War (v. 5); the reviving sweat bath: The Shaggy Man, The Red Man, The Chief of the Heroka, The Dipper, Snowshoe Strings, The Old Man and the Giants.
1 Oliver LaMère, "Winnebago Legends," Wisconsin Archeologist, ns 1, #2 (1920): 66-68.
2 Samuel D. Robbins, Jr., Wisconsin Birdlife: Population and Distribution Past and Present (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991) 389.