Skunk Origin Myth

by Keeley Bassette (Waterspirit Clan) and Rita Sharpback (Buffalo Clan)

retold by Richard L. Dieterle

In a village long ago a woman gave birth to a girl with pure white hair. She grew up to be beautiful beyond compare, and because of her white hair, she was thought to be very holy. Men would often court her, but she showed no interest in them, preferring to gaze at her own reflection in still waters. She loved the smell of flowers and would rub their perfumed petals on her skin and hair.

One day a strange looking man showed up and was very keen to court her. She laughed at him, scolding him for his ugliness — yet he was not a mere man, but one of the great spirits, Turtle. Turtle shed his wrinkled outer skin and appeared in all his glory. He decreed, "Since you rejected one of the great spirits, you shall be transformed into a lowly animal! When people see you, they will turn away from your repulsive odor." She began to shrink, and she became covered with little black hairs. The only trace left of her beautiful white hair was the furry white stripe down her back. She became the first of her race, the race of skunks (gųšge) who live to this day.1

Commentary. The story repeats itself in at least three parts:

Spiritual Status: she has a holy appearance Turtle is a great spirit she is demoted to an animal
Pelt: pure white hair Turtle's skin is wrinkled jet black hair
Aesthetics: she is beautiful and smells of flowers Turtle is ugly she has a repulsive odor
Desirability: men court her Turtle courts her men avoid her
Sight and Rejection: she rejects them, preferring to gaze at her own reflection she rejects Turtle and ridicules him for being ugly when men see her, they will turn away

The Hocąk myth turns more on the dichotomy of inner versus outer excellence. She is transformed into the reverse of Turtle, positive on the outside, negative on the inside. When she gazes at the water creature (Turtle), she sees a reversed or mirrored image of herself, but does not recognize it. Her perception itself is true superficially, but false cognitively. This false perception derives from false values, and it is these that break her contact with the holy, with the spirits as exemplified by Turtle, so that even her holy appearance gets reversed (white to black). The inconsistency of her exterior perfection and interior imperfection is also reflected in her inconsistent and contradictory coloring. Her nature is similarly contradictory: she rejects the outer imperfect by accepting an inner imperfection, and accepts an outer perfection in herself only because she rejects the inner perfection that ironically accepts the dichotomy of appearance and reality. In other words, her imperfection is the belief that there can be no dichotomy between appearence and reality. her failutre of understanding causes her to reject a great spirit whose appearence masks his reality. So the dichotomy between her appearence and reality is modeled in her true nature (her spiritual understanding). It is the very dichotomy of appearence and reality upon which the spirit world is largely founded, as they seldom appear as they are. Thus her internal contradiction causes her to become one of the most profane of creatures.

Comparative Material: This story bears an interesting resemblance to the Greek myth of Narcissus, a boy who spurned all suitors because he had fallen in love with his own reflection. He was turned into a white flower whose plant secrets a drug that causes sleepiness (narkos).

Links: Skunks, Turtle.

Stories: featuring skunks as characters: The Bungling Host, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, The Boy and the Jack Rabbit; featuring Turtle as a character: The Mission of the Five Sons of Earthmaker, Turtle's Warparty, Turtle and the Giant, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, Turtle and the Merchant, Redhorn's Father, Redhorn's Sons, Turtle and the Witches, The Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Trickster Soils the Princess, Morning Star and His Friend, Grandfather's Two Families, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Kunu's Warpath, Redhorn Contests the Giants, Redhorn and His Brothers Marry, The Hocąk Migration Myth, Porcupine and His Brothers, The Creation of Man, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, The Father of the Twins Attempts to Flee, The Chief of the Heroka, The Spirit of Gambling, The Nannyberry Picker, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, The Markings on the Moon (v. 2), The Green Man, The Hocągara Contest the Giants, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Coughing Up of the Black Hawks, The Petition to Earthmaker, The Origins of the Milky Way.

Themes: arrogance: The Blue Jay, The Fatal House, The Creation of Evil, Holy One and His Brother, Trickster Eats the Laxative Bulb, The Foolish Hunter; vanity: The Baldness of the Buzzard, The Blue Jay; a great spirit changes his form in order to deceive someone: The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Man with Two Heads, The Children of the Sun, The Baldness of the Buzzard, Trickster's Tail, Trickster Gets Pregnant, The Elks Skull, Trickster Soils the Princess, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Seven Maidens; a spirit presents himself in an ugly guise: The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse; bad women ridicule Turtle for his appearance: The Chief of the Heroka; a repulsive looking, but holy person, is transformed into an attractive person after gaining the support (or rejection) of his or her lover: The Red Feather, The Chief of the Heroka, Old Man and Wears White Feather; as a punishment, a spirit decrees that someone be transformed into an animal: The Brown Squirrel (squirrel), How the Hills and Valleys were Formed (v. 3) (worm), Old Man and Wears White Feather (owl), Brass and Red Bear Boy (grizzly), Waruǧábᵉra (owl), The Chief of the Heroka (owl), Hare Kills a Man with a Cane (ant); a human turns into a (spirit) animal: How the Thunders Met the Nights (Thunderbird), Waruǧábᵉra (Thunderbird), The Dipper (hummingbird), Keramaniš’aka's Blessing (blackhawk, owl), Elk Clan Origin Myth (elk), Young Man Gambles Often (elk), Sun and the Big Eater (horse), The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Were-Grizzly, Partridge's Older Brother (bear), The Woman who Loved her Half-Brother (bear), Porcupine and His Brothers (bear), The Shaggy Man (bear), The Roaster (bear), Wazųka (bear), The Spotted Grizzly Man (bear), Brass and Red Bear Boy (bear, buffalo), White Wolf (dog, wolf), Worúxega (wolf, bird, snake), Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle (buffalo), The Brown Squirrel (squirrel), The Fleetfooted Man (otter, bird), A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga (otter), The Diving Contest (Waterspirit), The Woman who Married a Snake (snake, Waterspirit), The Omahas who turned into Snakes (four-legged snakes), The Twins Get into Hot Water (v. 3) (alligators), Snowshoe Strings (a frog), How the Hills and Valleys were Formed (v. 3) (earthworms), The Woman Who Became an Ant, Hare Kills a Man with a Cane (ant); something is of a (symbolic) pure white color: White Bear, Deer Spirits, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4), White Flower, Big Eagle Cave Mystery, The Fleetfooted Man, Thunderbird and White Horse, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, Worúxega, The Two Boys, The Lost Blanket (white spirits), He Who Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, White Wolf, A Man and His Three Dogs, The Messengers of Hare, The Brown Squirrel, The Man Who Fell from the Sky, Bladder and His Brothers, White Thunder's Warpath, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Dipper, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Creation of the World (v. 12), Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, The Descent of the Drum, Tobacco Origin Myth (v. 5), The Diving Contest, Otter Comes to the Medicine Rite, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite, Grandmother's Gifts, Four Steps of the Cougar, The Completion Song Origin, North Shakes His Gourd, Lifting Up the Bear Heads, Thunder Cloud is Blessed, Peace of Mind Regained, The War of Indian Tribes against White Soldiers (wolf, bird); a great spirit makes the outer nature of a being of beautiful appearance reflect the ugliness of its inner nature: The Blue Jay; a human is covered with tufts of animal hair: The Shaggy Man (bear).


1 Keeley Bassette (Waterspirit Clan) and Rita Sharpback (Buffalo Clan), "How Skunks Came to Be," in David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 93.