MS/Lakes: The Origin of Winnebago

The name "Winnebago" is an exonym, a name that is applied to a given people by some other people, as opposed to the autonym, the name they use for themselves. The Winnebago people call themselves Ho-Chunk (Hocąk, Hotanke, among other spellings), while the term Winnebago is one that was used by neighboring tribes, including the Menomini, as you will see in the story below. Richard Dieterle explains in his commentary on this story: "The joke may be that [Manabush] meant to say "dirty water-people" (winnigo be) but it came out "dirty-water people." You can read more about the etymology of Winnebago at Wikipedia.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Mississippi Valley / Great Lakes unit. Story source: Myths and Legends of the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes, edited by Katharine Berry Judson (1914).

The Origin of Winnebago

ONE day Manabush walked along the lake shore. He was tired and hungry. Then he saw, around a sand spit jutting far out into the water, many waterfowl.

Now Manabush had with him only a medicine bag. He hung that on a manabush tree in the brush. He put a roll of bark on his back and returned to the lake shore. He passed slowly by so as not to frighten the birds. Duck and Swan suddenly recognized him,and swam quickly away from the shore.

One of the Swans called out, “Ho! Manabush, where are you going?”

“I am going to have a dance,” said Manabush. “As you may see, I have all my songs with me.”

Then he called out to all the birds, “Come to me, brothers! Let us sing and dance.”

At once the birds returned to the shore and walked back upon an open space in the grass. Manabush took the bundle of bark from his back. He placed it on the ground, got out his singing sticks, and then he said to the birds, “Now, all of you dance around me as I drum. Sing as loudly as you can and keep your eyes closed. The first to look will always have red eyes.”

So Manabush began to beat time upon his bundle of bark. The birds with eyes closed danced around him. Then Manabush began to keep time with one hand, as the birds sang loudly. With the other he seized a Swan by the neck. Swan gave a loud squawk.

“That’s right, brothers! Sing as loudly as you can,” shouted Manabush.

Soon he seized another Swan by the neck. Then he seized a Goose. At last there were not so many birds singing. Then a tiny duck opened his eyes to see why. At once he shrieked, “Manabush is killing us! Manabush is killing us!” And he started for the water, followed by the rest of the birds.

Now this little duck was a poor runner. Manabush quickly caught him and said, “I won’t kill you; but you shall always have red eyes. And you shall be the laughing stock of all the birds.”

And with that Manabush pushed him so hard, yet holding on to his tail, that the duck went far out into the middle of the lake and his tail came off. Because of that he has red eyes and no tail, even to this day.

Then Manabush gathered up the birds he had killed and took them out on the sand spit. He buried them in the sand and built a fire over them to cook them, but he left sticking out the heads of some and the legs of others so he would know where they were.

But Manabush was tired. He slapped his thigh and said, “You watch the birds and awaken me if anyone comes near them.” He stretched out on the sand with his back to the fire and went to sleep.

After a while, Indians came along in their canoes. They saw the fire and the roasting birds. They went ashore on the sand pit. They pulled out the birds and ate them. But they put back into the sand the heads and feet, just as they had found them. So they departed.

Afterwards, Manabush awoke, very hungry. He pulled at the head of a swan. Behold! The head came out, but there was no bird. He pulled at the feet of a goose. No bird was there. So he tried every head and foot; but the birds were gone.

He slapped his thigh again and asked, “Who has been here? Someone has robbed me of my feast. I told you to watch.”

His thigh answered, “I fell asleep also. I was very tired. See! There are people moving away in their canoes! They are dirty and poorly dressed.”

Then Manabush ran to the point of the sand spit. He could see the people who were just disappearing around a point. He shouted, “Winnebago! Winnebago!” Therefore the Menomini have always called their thievish neighbors Winnebago.

(700 words)

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