Winnebago Indian Religion

Religion. The Winnebago possess two important tribal ceremonies, the Mañkáni or Medicine Dance, and the Winter Feast (Wagigó). The Medicine Dance can take place only in summer, and the Winter Feast only in winter. The Medicine Dance is a secret society, ungraded, into which men and women can be initiated on payment of a certain amount of money. Supernatural dreams are not required for initiation at the present day. A new member generally succeeds some deceased relative. There are five ceremonial bands, occupying, respectively, the east, north, west, south, and southeast of the long tent in which the ceremony is performed. The positions of honor, which follow in the manner enumerated above, are dependent on the order of invitation and may differ at each performance. A secret vapor-bath ceremony precedes, and a secret ceremony intervenes between, the first and second parts of the general ceremony. The general ceremony itself is public. The purpose of the society is the prolongation of life and the instilling of certain virtues, none of which, however, relate to war. This instilling is accomplished by means of the “shooting” ceremony, consisting of the simulated shooting of a shell, contained in an otter-skin bag, into the body of the one to be initiated. This ceremony is extremely similar to that in the Algonquian Midewiwin, and to that in the Dakota ” Mystery Dance” and the Omaha “Pebble Ceremony.” There seems little doubt that the shooting ceremony has been borrowed by the Winnebago from some Central Algonquian tribe, presumably the Sauk and Foxes; also that the teachings have been greatly influenced by those of the Midéwiwin. On the other hand, the organization, a large portion of the ritual, and the ritualistic myths are so fundamentally different that it is better to regard the shooting ceremony as a ritual secondarily associated with an old Winnebago ceremony.
     The Winter Feast is the only distinctly clan ceremonial among the Winnebago. Each clan has a sacred clan bundle, which is in the hands of some male individual, who hands it down from one generation to another, always taking care, of course, to keep it in the same clan. The Winter Feast is distinctly a war feast, and the purpose in giving it seems to be a desire to increase their war powers by a propitiation of all the supernatural deities known to then. To these they offer food and deerskin. There may be as many as twelve (?) powers propitiated, namely, Earth-maker, Disease-giver, Sun, Moon, Morning Star, the spirits of the Night, Thunderbird, One-horn, the Earth, the Water, the Turtle, and the Rabbit. Of these, food had to be offered to all except the last two, who are really only the culture heroes and probably of recent introduction. The feast is divided into two distinct parts, one for the Disease-giver and one for all the other spirits. The Sauk and Foxes seem to have a similar feast, but its relation to the Winnebago is as yet unknown.
     There are a number of important ceremonies besides the above, of which the best known are the Buffalo Dance and the Herucka. The former is given in spring, and has for its purpose the magical calling of the buffalo herds. All those who have had supernatural communication with the Buffalo spirit may become members, irrespective of clan. The Herucka is the same as the Omaha Grass dance. There are also a number of other dances and feasts, of which little is known as yet, such as the Snake, Scalp, Grizzly-bear, Soreeye, and Ghost dances.
     The religious beliefs of the Winnebago are practically identical with those of the Dakota, Ponca, and Central Algonquian tribes. A figure known as Man’una (Earth-maker) corresponds to the Gitchi Manito of the Central Algonquian tribes. The mythology consists of large cycles relating to the five personages whom Earth-maker sent out to free the world from giants and evil spirits. They are the Trickster, the Bladder, the Turtle, He-who-wears-heads-as-earrings, and the Hare. Besides these there are numerous myths relating to the Thunderbird and other clan heroes, and likewise numerous miscellaneous myths. Although there are evidences of Central Algonquian influence, the mythology shows a much more intimate relation with that of the other Siouan tribes.

The books presented are for their historical value only and are not the opinions of the Webmasters of the site.   Handbook of American Indians, 1906

Index of Tribes or Nations


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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