River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake

retold by Richard L. Dieterle


Haga the fisherman found a great sturgeon that had been cast upon a rock by his enemy the hawk. The sturgeon spoke with a human voice and told Haga that if he returned him to the lake, he would have a limitless bounty of fish thereafter. Although Haga was starving, he did as he was asked. The very next day, Haga caught a sturgeon. The fish spoke to him, telling Haga to eat his flesh but to place his bones in a deerskin. This was done exactly as the sturgeon had told him and unexpectedly the next morning a child was found in the deerskin. This child was named "River Child."

There was a great green (co) Waterspirit living in Devils Lake (Te Wákącąk, "Holy Lake") [below]. Every year this Waterspirit demanded from the Hocągara a sacrifice of their most beautiful maiden. That year, she was the chief's daughter. One day while River Child was swimming, he followed a beaver to the very spot where Haga had found the sturgeon. The sturgeon appeared to River Child and they talked a long while. The Spirit Fish revealed to his child that the seven-headed green Waterspirit had a peculiar vulnerability: a weapon thrust through the corner of the left eye of his center head would strike his pebble-sized brain.

As he was walking home, River Child met an old woman who immediately recognized him. She told him that he was destined to fulfill an ancient prophesy of mysterious meaning: "The river shall swallow the lake." She arranged to supply him with warriors, but in the strictest secrecy, for she feared that the chief would veto the scheme, inasmuch as attempts to kill the Waterspirit had never succeeded. And they kept it secret from the medicine men as well, for many thought them to be in league with the Waterspirit.

At sundown when the maiden was to be sacrificed, and just as the green Waterspirit rose up, the warriors opened fire at his vulnerable eye but to no avail. Without hesitation, River Child jumped in the water, luring the Waterspirit beneath his net, then spread walnut husks whose foul juices caused the Waterspirit so much distress that he surfaced right into the net. River Child, after a great struggle, drove his knife into the Waterspirit's vulnerable eye and killed him. The young man, now a celebrated hero, married the chief's daughter and they built a village at a place called "Old River Bottom." However, the ghostly shrieks of the Waterspirit could be heard every time that a thunderstorm approached, so in the end the Hocągara had to abandon this village.1

Commentary. "bones" — in many stories, as long as the bones are intact and complete, someone who has died can still be revived. This is because of the widespread belief that the marrow of the bones housed the life soul.

"deerskin" — white deerskins were offered as sacrifices to the spirits, the emblem of the sprit to whom it was offered was inscribed on the skin. Buckskin was also used to wrap Warbundles and Medicine Bundles. Therefore, as a wrapping for a sacred object, the deerskin is the logical choice.

"left" — the left side has the same sinister connotations as it does in perhaps all other cultures.

"pebble-sized brain" — this organ is nasurugop, from nasu, "head"; and hu-ru-gop, "that which is scraped out (gop) by hand (ru-) from the bone (hu)." Hurugop or wahurugop (wa-, "something"), is the word for marrow. Brain and marrow are seen as the same kind of substance. The marrow contains the life soul, so the brain is particularly its site. However, as in most cultures, the heart is the seat of intellection and emotion, so the size of the Waterspirit's brain is not an indication of its mental powers, but a merely shows how hidden and protected its seat of life was.

"sturgeon" — in this story, a sturgeon is reborn into a Hocąk family as the hero River Child. A rather remote connection between sturgeons and the Hocąk people is the strange homonym in Lakota: Ho-táŋ-ke, "Hocągara," and ho´-taŋ-ka, "sturgeon" (lit. "great-fish").2

"Devils Lake" — this Devils Lake is the one located in Sauk County, Wisconsin. The Hocąk name of the lake means "Holy Lake," presumably a reference to the strong presence there of Waterspirits. High bluffs with strange rock formations wall the lake in and restrict the sunlight on the lake to a mere 5 hours a day, contributing to a sense of a sinister presence. Sounds echo strangely off these precipices, contributing further to the sense that supernatural forces are at work.3

We learn from the waiką The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells (q.v.) that the Waterspirit that created the Dells disappeared into Devil's Lake. Presumably, the green Waterspirit of this story is one and the same.

"the river shall swallow the lake" — the river refers to River Child. The Waterspirit has an identity with the lake, and it is said that without Waterspirits there would be no water. His death as the spirit of this lake is merely that of his incarnation as the seven-headed enemy. The "swallow" reference does not necessarily mean that the victor ate the Waterspirit, since swallowing is a metaphor for conquest in Hocąk. So River Child's conquest of the Waterspirit is the river swallowing the lake.

"in league with the Waterspirit" — Waterspirits were a source of great medicine. To grant these objects of power, the Waterspirit had to offer his body up in sacrifice. Since Waterspirits are supernaturals, they are capable of reincarnation, consequently, the sacrifice of their bodies is not their annihilation. Once in possession of the body parts of the Waterspirit, the medicine man could use them for good or ill. Waterspirits were "tricky" or "difficult" (-cexi), and as much inclined towards evil as good. Therefore, a medicine man in possession of the blessings of a Waterspirit was not to be trusted.

"walnut husks" — the Osage use the bark and leaves of the walnut tree as bait on their fish hooks,4 which suggests an attractant rather than a poison. However, a correspondent, Lee Wilson,5 points out,

Poisoning fish is an ancient fishing method found among many peoples. One such method of fishing by poisoning fish involves the use of walnut husks (usually crushed) or even the whole walnut (also crushed) thrown into still water.6 The poison would slow down the fish's respiratory rate acting as a sort of intoxicant/sedative (it affected their gills) and the fish would rise up in the water to the surface stunned. Ground walnut bark was also used, among other plants.

Cultural traditions and archaeological research suggest that a large number of indigenous tribes across the Americas used saponin poisons from many different plants to harvest fish. The Catawba, Cherokee, and Delaware made a fishing poison from the ground bark of Black Walnut trees, Juglans nigra. The Yuchi and Creek used the roots of the Devil’s Shoestring, Symphoricarpus orbiculatus, and the fruit, twigs and buds of the Horse Chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum L., to make two similar fish poisons. The Rappahannock made a fishing poison by mixing cornmeal with fish brine and allowing it to stand overnight before use. Cherokee tribes used the berries of Polk Sallet, Phytolacca Americana, to produce saponins for fishing. The Costanoan Indians of the California area used the pounded leaves of Turkey-Mullein, Eremocarpus setigerus, and the fruits of California Buckeye, Aesculus californica,7 as well as the entire crushed Soap Plant, Chlorogalum pomeridianum; Indian Hemp, Apocynum cannabinum; Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana; and Indian Turnip, Arisaema triphyllum.8

Plants containing saponin are also commonly used as soap substitutes because they can often be worked into a lather. Likely, saponin plants were primarily used for washing or cleaning and secondarily used as a poison after their effect on fish in washing-streams was discovered. Saponin normally breaks down in the digestive system and must enter the bloodstream to be toxic,9 but fish assimilate saponin directly into their bloodstream via their gills. Fish poisoned by saponin become stupefied and float to the surface where they can easily be collected.

Waterspirits are not fish, but apparently find fish poison at least noxious.

"thunderstorm" — Waterspirits are particularly alarmed by thunderstorms since they betoken the approach of their mortal enemies, the Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds try to kill Waterspirits with lightning, but they are hard for them to hit or even see.

Comparative Material: An episode in a Kickapoo story is similar to our Hocąk tale. A young man in his travels meets a young woman that he wants to marry. However, this woman, like many women of her village, was carried off by a giant, ten-headed manitou. The young man sought this manitou out, and after a struggle in which he was aided in spirit by his animal friends, he slew the monster. He married the woman he rescued, and brought all the other captives who had died at the hands of the monster back to life.10

Links: Waterspirits, Devil's Lake, Fish Spirits, Traveler.

Stories: in which Waterspirits occur as characters: Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, The Lost Child, 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, Įcorúšika 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; featuring (spirit) fish as characters: The Man who went to the Upper and Lower Worlds, The Were-Fish, The Greedy Woman, Wolves and Humans, 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, Otter Comes to the Medicine Rite, Hare Visits the Bodiless Heads; featuring sturgeons as characters: Redhorn's Father, Wolves and Humans, The Great Fish, The Twin Sisters, see also White Flower; about man-fish: The Were-fish, The King Bird, Traveler and the Thunderbird War (v. 5), The Greedy Woman, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, The Spirit of Maple Bluff; mentioning walnut trees: The Woman who Became a Walnut Tree, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store; about the founding of a village: The Chief of the Heroka (Nįžįra ǧaǧará), Manawa Village Origin Myth (Manawa), Winneconnee Origin Myth (Winneconnee), Sand Pillow; set at Devil's Lake (Te Wákącąk): Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, The Sacred Lake, Traveler and the Thunderbird War (vv. 1, 5), The Lost Blanket.

Themes: talking fish: The Greedy Woman, Redhorn's Father, Trickster's Adventures in the Ocean; a sturgeon talks to a man who not long afterwards catches a sturgeon: Redhorn's Father; animals volunteer to be eaten: Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (beavers), Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, Hare Establishes Bear Hunting (bears); a Waterspirit demands a human sacrifice: The Seer, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Phantom Woman; someone is offered to a Waterspirit: The Shaggy Man, White Thunder's Warpath, Waruǧábᵉra, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Seer; a Waterspirit kills a human: The Shaggy Man, Waruǧabᵉra, The Two Children, The Waterspirit of Lake Koshkonong, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Seer, The Twin Sisters, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, The Lost Blanket; a green (co) Waterspirit inhabits Devil's Lake: The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name; a being is vulnerable in a highly unusual way: Snowshoe Strings, The Green Man, Partridge's Older Brother, The Dipper, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Migistéga's Death (v. 2), The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension; marriage to a yųgiwi (princess): The Nannyberry Picker, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, The Big Stone, Partridge's Older Brother, Redhorn's Sons, The Seduction of Redhorn's Son, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, The Roaster, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, White Wolf, The Two Boys, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, The Shaggy Man, The Thunderbird, The Red Feather, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, The Birth of the Twins (v. 3), Trickster Visits His Family, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, Redhorn's Father, Old Man and Wears White Feather, Morning Star and His Friend, Thunderbird and White Horse, Rich Man, Boy, and Horse, Shakes the Earth, The Nightspirits Bless Ciwoit’éhiga.

Pictures: of Devil's Lake: Scene 1, Scene 2, Balanced Rock, Color pictures (external link).


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

2 Stephen Return Riggs, A Dakota-English Dictionary (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992 [1890]) ss.vv. Ho-taŋ´-ke, ho´-taŋ-ka, p. 155.

3 Henry Ellsworth Cole, Baraboo, Dells, and Devil's Lake Region (Baraboo: Baraboo Publishing Co., 1920) 29.

4 Francis LaFlesche, A Dictionary of the Osage Language, Smithsoninan Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 109 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1932) 137, sv. ṭá-ge-hịu.

5 Lee Wilson, personal communication, 25 May 2012.

6 "The American Indian collected fish in streams by stunning them with extracts of walnut." Robert E. Lennon and Claude Vézina, "Antimycin A, a Piscicidal Antibiotic," in Advances in Applied Microbiology, vol. 16, ed.D. Perlman (New York: Academic Press, Inc., 1973) 57.

7 Alexander Joseph Bocek, Exposure of Silver Carp, Hypophthal-micthys Molotrix, to Salmonella Typhimurium (Auburn: Auburn University, 1984).

8 Peter Goodchild, Survival Skills of the North American Indians (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1999) Chapter 6, s.v. "Poisons."

9 Thomas J. Elpel, Botany in a Day: Thomas J. Elpel's Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families (Pony, Montana: HOPS Press, 2000).

10 Kickapoo Tales, collected by William Jones, trs. by Truman Michelson. Publications of the American Ethnological Society (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1915) IX:45-53.