by Richard L. Dieterle
Skunks are the epitome of animals that are beautiful on the outside, but ugly within. Long ago there was a beautiful woman who was obsessed with her own good looks. When the great spirit Turtle tried to flatter her, she behaved in an arrogant and haughty manner, ridiculing his homely appearance. For this slight, Turtle transformed her into an animal that would reflect the contradiction between the girl's appearance and her ugly inner reality. That animal was the first skunk.1
Once a boy was chasing a hare and saw him run into a hole. He reached into the hole and pulled the creature out, but to his shock, he found himself holding a skunk. Needless to say, he lost his grip, as the skunk was hardly the food item he had hoped for.2 Here the homely on the outside, but delicious on the inside, had mutated into the beautiful on the outside, and the unappetizing on the inside.
When Hare was to decide what animals would be game for human hunters, he set out a pool of oil. Any animal that rolled in the oil would have just as much fat as the oil that stuck to him. Only those that were good enough to eat were allowed to roll in the oil. At a moment when Hare was distracted, Skunk suddenly jumped in and rolled about. They were about to pull him out, on account of his odor, when he said, "If you let me finish, I will free all sick people who eat me from their ailments." With this pledge they allowed the malodorous skunk to carry some fat on his body.3 The evil inner nature of the skunk, which drives away everything, will also drive away the evils from the innards of humans if it is consumed as meat. Thus, paradoxically, by internalizing the inner nature of the skunk, one's own insides become purified of the workings of evil spirits.
When Trickster visited Skunk he found him to be very affable and good natured. To rustle up a meal, skunk put out acorns and called the deer to feed on them. Then he suddenly turned and broke such foul wind that the deer collapsed dead en masse. Trickster was impressed, so Skunk fixed his anus with four rounds of flatulence ammunition. However, Trickster did not trust Skunk, and began test firing his ammo. Finally, he used it all up, only to discover that Skunk had not been fooling him after all. When Skunk paid Trickster a visit, Trickster tried to use the same hunting technique that Skunk had used so successfully, but despite a great effort, he only managed to soil himself and drive the deer away. So Skunk repeated his performance, slaying enough deer to keep Trickster's family in venison for some time.4 Here the aversive character of the skunk's inner nature is seen for what it really is: a form of ammunition. The apparent agreeable nature of Skunk is what causes the deer to trust him. Their fatal mistake is to overlook the contradiction inherent in Skunk's nature. Trickster falsely thinks Skunk to be unreliable, but this is patently false: the skunk's ammunition is, as most anyone can testify, very reliable, and he can be counted on to use it effectively. Skunks only use trickery out of necessity, and not in the capricious manner of Trickster.
Turtle's attraction to the skunk is rather different. The Hočągara use Turtle claws for arrowheads, which makes Turtle a shooter. In another way, this is just what the skunk is, an animal that hits its victim effectively at a distance with something very unpleasant that originates from its own body. Nevertheless, Turtle created the skunk out of an enemy. Thus the skunk can stand as an insulting image of the character of an enemy, who may look attractive, but who harbors a deadly inner nature that expresses itself through a form of shooting. Thus whenever a Hotcâk warrior kicks a dead enemy on the field of battle, and thus counts coup with his foot, he is entitled to wear the fur of the skunk as a legging to symbolize his triumph over the enemy.5
Links: Turtle, Hare, Trickster.
Stories: featuring skunks as characters: The Skunk Origin Myth, The Bungling Host, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, The Boy and the Jack Rabbit.
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.
2 Paul Radin, "Short Tales," Winnebago Notebooks, Winnebago IV, No. 7i (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #17, "The Boy and the Jack Rabbit."
3 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 111-113.
4 Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1956) 41-49.
5 Kinsey, Juliette Augusta (Magill), 1806-1870. Wau-Bun: The "Early Day" in the North-West. (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley and Sons Co., 1932 ) 63.