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Winnebago History and Culture

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The Winnebago belong to the far-flung Siouan-speaking peoples whose members at one time inhabited an area which extended from South Carolina and the lower Mississippi River northward and westward to the states of Wisconsin, North and South Dakota and Montana, and the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta in western Canada. Apart from certain secondary changes the culture of these tribes was basically alike. The centre of this Siouan civilization at one time lay, presumably, somewhere along the Mississippi River, extending from St. Louis southwards and eastwards.

The Winnebago themselves are most closely related, linguistically and culturally, to those Siouan tribes who lived in the state of Iowa and in south-eastern Nebraska and the region immediately to the south, that is, the Oto, Iowa, Omaha and Osage, to name the most important ones. No later than A.D. 1000, so the archaeological evidence seems to indicate, these tribes were living close to the centre of that area where the oldest complex American Indian cultures first took on their mature forms and became differentiated. That all of these cultures owed many of their basic characteristics to the influence of the great civilizations of Mexico there can no longer be any question.

The Winnebago were first discovered by the French in 1634, at the western end of Green Bay, Wisconsin, completely encircled by simpler non-Siouan speaking tribes. How long they had been living in this region we do not know, but it could not have been very long for, on the basis of the archaeological evidence, they did not reach Wisconsin much before A.D. 1400. This same archaeological evidence indicates that they must have pushed their way northward, at first together with their close kin, the Iowa and Oto, and entered Wisconsin at the south-west end of that state and the north-western edge of Illinois. It was during the early part of this northward thrust that the Iowa and Oto split off from them. The northward progress of the Winnebago, it would seem, was bitterly contested by the Central Algonquian tribes living in this area. After entering Wisconsin the Winnebago were completely surrounded by Central Algonquian tribes, with whom they waged ceaseless warfare and by whom they were finally forced into the general area of south-eastern Green Bay.

Thus, for three hundred years before the French found them they were in contact with cultures much simpler than their own. In some ways this was fortunate, for it was this fact which enabled them to keep their older culture fairly intact. Yet this did not prevent influences from these simpler peoples manifesting themselves, despite wars and antagonisms. These influences were strengthened after the establishment of the French missions in this general area in the middle of the seventeenth century. The coming of the French had, however, one beneficial effect upon the Winnebago; it permitted them to break out of the very circumscribed area in which they had been confined by their enemies, so that they could spread over the whole of southern Wisconsin and establish autonomous villages where much of the old distinctive Winnebago culture could flourish and reassert itself. That it brought about entirely new conditions and led to innumerable crises is, of course, another matter.

For the purpose we have in mind, the elucidation of The Trickster Myth, the reader must then always remember that the Winnebago culture, as studied in the early twentieth century, is a compound of three distinct elements: an old basic culture, going back to at least. A.D. 1000 and possibly much earlier, which has been repeatedly reorganized to meet new situations and new challenges; a considerable number of borrowings from Central Algonquian tribes after. A.D. 1400; and a few borrowings from the Whites and from Christianity beginning with the middle of the seventeenth century but not becoming of any real importance until a century later.

There is no need here for giving more than the briefest account of Winnebago culture, (Those who are interested in studying it are referred to the author's monograph on the Winnebago in the 37th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, 1923, and to the summary to be found in The Road of Life and Death, New York, 1945, pp. 49-77.) and I shall confine my remarks almost entirely to those features of their culture which find reflections in the Trickster myth. The social organization contained two structural patterns characteristic of many North American Indian tribes: first, the division of the tribe into two phratries, among the Winnebago called Upper and Lower, and second, the clan, with descent in the male line. The chief was selected from the Upper phratry, from the clan generally regarded as the most important, the Thunderbird. He, in contradistinction to all other Winnebago, could not go on the warpath. One of his most important functions was to succor the needy and plead for clemency in all cases of infractions of tribal law and custom, even in case of murder. His lodge was a sacred asylum and absolutely inviolable. If a murder had been committed he not only interceded for the life of the murderer but actually, if need be, offered to take the place of the malefactor.

In contrast to the role and functions of the chief of the Upper phratry were those of the chief of the Lower, who belonged to the Bear clan. In him were centered pre-eminently the police, the disciplinary and the war powers. He and his associates policed and guarded the village, inflicted punishment for transgressions of law and custom, took charge of the whole tribe when it was on a warpath or when engaged in hunting or other communal activities. It was in the official lodge of the chief of the Lower phratry that prisoners were confined before being killed, and it was in his lodge where the sacred warbundles of the tribe were stored and guarded against contamination.

The Winnebago believed in a large number of spirits, some defined vaguely, others sharply. The vast majority were depicted as animals or animal-like beings. The main trait of these spirits was their ability to take on any form they wished, animal or human, animate or inanimate. To these supernatural beings man made offerings of various kinds which were always accompanied by tobacco. In a class by himself was the supreme deity, Earthmaker. While the conception of earthmaker had probably been influenced by the Christian concept of God, there is little question but that it antedated the coming of the Europeans and belongs to the oldest stratum of Winnebago beliefs.

The relationship between the spirits and deities and man was a very personal one. Every child, male and female, fasted between the ages of nine and eleven, and tried to acquire what was to all intents and purposes a guardian spirit upon whom he could call in any critical situation throughout life. This acquisition of a guardian and protective spirit at puberty was one of the fundamental traits of Winnebago culture as it was that of numerous other American Indian tribes. According to Winnebago ideas, without it a man was completely unanchored and at the mercy of events, natural and societal, in their crudest and most cruel forms. When they lost their belief in the efficacy of fasting and the spirits no longer vouchsafed them visions, Winnebago culture rapidly disintegrated.

In addition to this guardian spirit every individual attempted, by the proper offerings and propitiations, to obtain protection and specific powers from a large variety of spirits and deities. A man could not, for example, go on the warpath unless he had prayed to one of the deities controlling success in war, and had bestowed upon him by such a spirit certain gifts and had been promised success. These gifts were symbolized by material objects, paint, feathers, flutes, bones and so forth.

There were three fundamental types of ritual: those in which only members of the same clan participated; those performed by individuals all of whom had obtained visions from the same spirit; and the Medicine Rite, where membership was based upon personal conduct and achievement other than war. Only the warbundle rituals require a few words here.

Each Warbundle Rite or Feast, as it was technically called, was divided into two parts, the first presided over by the Thunderbird spirits and the second by the Night-spirits. However, all the great spirits of the Winnebago pantheon had their place in it, and, to all, offerings were made. Although in the eyes of the Winnebago the warbundle ritual was devoted entirely to the glorification of war, it is interesting and significant to see that, besides the great patrons of war, the Thunderbird spirits, Night-spirits, Sun, Morning Star, Evening Star, Disease-giver, Eagle and Black Hawk, specific peace deities like Earthmaker, Earth, Moon and Water were also included, and, at times, even hero-deities like Turtle and Hare, and even Trickster himself. From this we can infer that even in a ceremony devoted pre-eminently to the enhancement of the importance of the warrior and of warfare, deities symbolizing peace and the antithesis of violence and force could not be entirely left out.

Admittedly their inclusion had little effect upon the one and insistent prayer of the participants, war. Indeed, even Earthmaker was represented as bestowing success on the warpath, a function unquestionably completely new to him. Yet the mere fact that Earthmaker was included did act as a reminder that the pursuit of war was not regarded as the exclusive purpose of man. The warbundle rituals represent the classic and most complete expression of the war spirit, the glorification of the viewpoint of the chief of the Lower phratry of the tribe, namely, that one goes out to combat evil, militantly and with violence. Even orgies, where all self-control was abandoned, were permitted to a limited degree, something that was always abhorrent to the normal Winnebago and greatly dreaded.

Only such individuals as possessed warbundles -- there was theoretically only one in each of the twelve clans -- could participate actively in the warbundle rites.

The warbundle itself consisted of a deerskin wrapping enclosing a strange assortment of objects. One of those used by the Thunderbird clan, for instance, contained the following: the desiccated bodies of a black hawk, of an eagle and of a snake, a weasel skin, a number of eagle feathers, a deer-tail head-dress, two wolf tails, a buffalo tail, a war-club, three flutes and various kinds of 'paint-medicine'. The black hawk body was to enable its possessor to fly when leading a war party; the wolf tails would give him the power of running; the buffalo tail, fleetness; the snake and weasel skins, the gift of dodging and wiggling; the paint, when smeared over the body, would make him invisible and prevent fatigue; and the flutes, when blown during a fight, would paralyze the running powers of the enemy and make them easy victims.

The warbundle was the most prized of all Winnebago possessions. It was carefully concealed and guarded not only because of its sacredness but because of the dangerous emanations which flowed from it, and which could destroy those who approached it. Only one thing could destroy its power, contact with menstrual blood.

To be a successful warrior was the highest ideal of a Winnebago, and it was in the warbundle rites that this ideal received its greatest glorification. It has, therefore, a very deep significance, psychologically and culturally, that the Winnebago Trickster myth should begin with what is essentially a satire on the warbundle ritual. The same significance attaches to the fact that of all Winnebago religious beliefs and practices the only one mentioned in the Trickster myth, and satirized, is the acquisition of a guardian spirit.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, by Paul Radin; published by Philosophical Library, New York, 1956; pages 112-118.

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