Religion of the Winnebago

The fundamental religious concept of the Indian is the belief in the existence of magic power in animate and inanimate objects. This gave rise to their idea that there are men who possess supernatural power. This magic power is called Man’una (Earth-maker) 1 by the Winnebagoes, and corresponds to the Gitchi Manito of the Central Algonquian tribes, and Wakanda 2 of the Siouan tribes. As a verb, “wakanda” signifies “to reckon as holy or sacred, to worship;” the noun is “wakan” and means “a spirit, something consecrated.” “Wakan,” as an adjective, is defined as “spiritual, sacred, consecrated, wonderful, incomprehensible, mysterious.” “Wakan” and various other forms of that word are of common occurrence in the Winnebago language.

The Winnebago mythology consists of large cycles relating to the five personages, Trickster, Bladder, Turtle, He-who-wears-heads-as-earrings, and the Hare. Other deities known to them are Disease-giver, Sun, Moon, Morning Star, the Spirits of the Night, One-horn, the Earth, and the Water.

The Indian had no understanding of a single, all-powerful deity, the “Great Spirit,” till the Europeans, often unconsciously, informed him of their own belief. He believed in a multitude of spirits that were the source of good or bad fortune, and whom he feared to offend. 3 He seems to have had no conception of a future punishment. The mortuary rites of the Winnebagoes, and other tribes, testify to the fact that they believed in a life after death; but as to the nature of “the happy land of the west” their ideas were vague.

The Winnebagoes had two important tribal ceremonies, the Mankani or Medicine Dance, and the Wagigo, or Winter Feast. The Medicine Dance could take place only in summer; and the Winter Feast, only in winter. The Medicine Dance was a secret society, ungraded, into which men and women could be initiated on payment of a certain amount of money. The purpose of the society was the prolongation of life and the instilling of certain virtues, none of which related to war. These virtues were instilled by means of the “shooting” ceremony, the pretended shooting of a shell, contained in an otter-skin bag, into the body of the one to be initiated. The ceremony was performed in a long tent occupied by five ceremonial bands, whose positions of Honor depended on the order of invitation. The general ceremony itself was public, but a secret vapor-bath ceremony preceded, and a secret ceremony intervened between the first and second parts.

The Winter Feast was a war feast and the only distinctively clan ceremonial among the Winnebagoes. Each clan had a sacred bundle, which was in the hands of some male individual, and was handed down from one generation to another, care being always taken to keep it in the same clan. The purpose of this feast was to appease all the supposed deities known to them. Mr. Fletcher, the agent at the Turkey river, gave Mr. Schoolcraft a description of the War dance and the Medicine society.

There were a number of other important ceremonies, of which the best known were the Herucka and the Buffalo Dance. The latter was performed in the spring, and had for its purpose the magical calling of the buffalo herds. All those who pretended to have had supernatural communication with the Buffalo spirit might participate in the ceremony, irrespective of clan. It seems that the object of the Herucka was to stimulate an heroic spirit.

Moses Paquette gave Dr. Thwaites of Wisconsin a brief account of the Buffalo Dance, which he describes, as “Probably the most popular of their dances.” “They represent,” he continues, “themselves bisons, imitating the legitimate motions and noises of the animal, and introducing a great many others that would quite astonish the oldest buffalo in existence. Of course it has been a long time since any Winnebagoes ever saw buffaloes; their antics are purely traditionary, handed down from former generations of dancers.” 4

Other dances and feasts were the Snake, Scalp, Grizzly bear, Sore-eye, and Ghost dances. Little Hill, a Winnebago chief, gave Mr. Fletcher an account of their creation, which, in all its parts, bears testimony to their belief in numerous spirits. 5 Mr. Lamere states that, “The Buffalo Dance was carried on by the Winnebagoes for a long time, but the dance that they seemed to have liked and indulged in mostly while there [Iowa] was the Fish Dance, which was only a dance of amusement. The Herucka dance was adopted from some of the western tribes and was brought back by the Winnebagoes who enlisted as scouts during the Sioux outbreak in 1862 and was introduced after the Winnebagoes came here to Nebraska; ” he further states,-“The Thunder-bird was held in awe by the Winnebagoes, and they believed that thunder-storms were caused by these beings, the lightning being caused by the opening and closing of their eyes; the Winnebagoes do not describe them as birds, but beings of the human type and always wearing cedar boughs on their head, or hair, and carrying flat war-clubs.”Citations:

  1. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 30, part 2, pg. 960.[]
  2. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 30, part 2, pg. 897.[]
  3. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 30, part 2, pg. 284.[]
  4. Wisconsin Archeologist, Vol. 6, No. 3, pg. 130.[]
  5. Red Men of Iowa,” by A. R. Fulton.[]

Hexom, Charles Philip. Indian History of Winneshiek County. Decorah: A. K. Bailey & Don, Inc. 1913.

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