Manataka American Indian Council

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Ghost Dance Origin
Winnebago Legend

A young man lived in a village with his wife whom he loved so much that there was nothing he would not do for her. One day she fell ill and her condition rapidly deteriorated despite the treatment of many wkdocewe (physicians). Finally, he called a very wktck man, blessed with many curative powers, to see what he could do. Even though he exerted himself mightily, he was powerless to reverse her decline, and she died.

That night they held the Ghost Lighting Rites (Wanghadajhira) to light her way to Spiritland. He was much respected by the people, so everyone showed up for each of the Four Slumbers. After games were played in her honor, everyone went home.

However, the man could not accept the parting of his wife, and prepared for a journey to the west, as that is the direction that they say souls (wanghi) take after death. So he set out the next morning in pursuit of his wife, traveling long and hard toward the setting sun until finally he became so fatigued that he had to use a cane. In time he became exhausted and fell to his hands and knees. Even so he did not give up, but began crawling westward. Soon his knees became so badly skinned that he tied basswood bark around them. In the distance he saw a little knoll surrounded by very beautiful country. He thought to himself, "If I could only make it to the top of that knoll, I would be content to die there." So he struggled mightily, and finally having reached the summit, rolled over on his back exhausted. There he waited for death to overtake him. When he closed his eyes, unexpectedly, he heard a voice which said, "Let's go home. This is where I live." He opened his eyes, and there before him was a man covered with what looked like hair. At first he could not get up, but when the man said, "Come on!" he jumped right up and followed the man to his lodge nearby.

Once inside, the man told him, "Grandson, you are indeed pitiable, and what little I can do for you, I will certainly try my utmost to accomplish." After they had eaten, the hairy man told him, "Grandson, keep going as you have been. You will eventually reach the lodge of my friend, but first you must jump across a wide stream. It will be difficult, grandson, but you must jump across it." The next day he traveled far until finally he came upon the stream. Unexpectedly, it was no mere stream at all,
but a raging torrent whose current swept by with such force that whirlpools and violent eddies swirled turbulently in its channel.

The land on the other side was so distant that it looked like a man's eyebrow. He did not see how any human being could jump across it, but he thought to himself all that he had suffered, and said, "I already died long ago!" He took a running start,
and closing his eyes, made a blind leap. Unexpectedly, he came down on dry land. In amazement he turned around to see how he could have sailed across such an immense expanse, but the raging torrent that he thought that he had jumped was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was a small creek in its place. It had all been an illusion.

He thought to himself, "If everything that looks difficult proves this easy, then maybe I will succeed after all." At this thought he took heart.

He went on some ways until finally he came to a round lodge. A voice from inside said, "Come in," so he entered. There, much to his surprise, he found the very man he had talked to before, and with him was another man. They spoke to him and said, "Grandson, what you wish to accomplish will indeed be very difficult, but we will concentrate our minds upon it for you. So keep going and you will come to a lodge where our friend lives. Perhaps he will be able to tell you something that will help you." So after he ate, he went on his way again. Finally he came to another round lodge, where he was invited inside. This time he encountered the two men he had seen before, and with them was a third. This man gave him something to eat, and then spoke to him: "What I wish to tell you is that what you are doing is indeed difficult, but exert your utmost efforts, for if you fail, you will be in a very pitiable condition," he said. So the man went onward. Not long afterwards, he came to a hill with numerous lodges clustered about it.

The village was so large that its end was lost to view. He walked into the village whose lodges were made of bark, yet it appeared to be a ghost town. He looked into several lodges, but could find no one, until at last he entered a lodge where he found four men. Three of the men were the ones with whom he had already spoken.

The fourth one addressed him and said, "Grandson, it will indeed be difficult for you, but you are now at the place that you have so long sought. Just the same, you are not to look upon your wife, but you must do exactly as we instruct you, or all you have hoped for will be lost. Tonight there will be a great dance, but no matter what happens, you must not look around anywhere -- just gaze straight ahead. My friends and I will do all we can for you."

That evening, unexpectedly, he heard the sound of a drum followed by shouts from people all around the village. The drum sounded four times, and each time the shouting grew louder and more widespread. Then someone said, "It's about to begin. It will be crowded in front of the lodge." So the man and the four spirits went inside and took their place in the center of the lodge. They were in the dance lodge. He heard whispering behind him as someone said, "Wagisga has come in pursuit of his wife. In this he will surely fail." Then they began to tease him: "Doesn't he know that's she remarried?" Another said, "Yeah, I'm the one who married her." Then the singing began. It was indeed powerful, and his relatives gathered around him and sang about him: Wagisga's wife has come; Many more still will come.

These were their words as they teased him. This went on all night, until they all disappeared with the rays of the morning sun. Despite what they had said, his wife knew nothing about his arrival in Spiritland.

Once the sun was up, Wagisga and his four helpers returned to their own lodge. His spiritual attendants were very pleased and told him, "Grandson, this night ;you have done well; but tomorrow night will be more difficult -- you must exert all your powers." That evening when they heard the drum and the shouting that followed it, Wagisga and his friends set out for the long lodge. When they arrived, immediately the teasing began. They were trying to get him to say something. Then they began their singing, and as good as it had been the night before, their singing this night was beyond compare. This night, beside teasing him mercilessly, the ghosts put their hands on him and pushed his head down. Still he did not look around even for his wife, and when morning came, the first light dispersed all the ghosts.

When he got back to his lodge, his spiritual attendants were full of praise: "Grandson, you have again done well, but tonight it will be even more difficult, tonight you must exert your powers to the fullest."

When night fell again, they heard once more the sound of the drum followed by the shouts of the ghosts. He placed himself in the center of the lodge. Even though there were now six spirits attending upon Wagisga, they could do nothing for him as the ghosts teased him endlessly. Now the singing began, and the earth seemed to shake from the sounds of the drum. He could hardly resist the temptation to join in. The ghosts tugged at his blanket and fell down beside him, but despite all, he held on to the first rays of the sun.

As the light fell upon them, the ghosts seemed to evaporate. When he got back to the lodge where he was staying, there were now eight spirits. One said, "Grandson, tonight will be the last night, and although there are now eight of us, still we will not be able to help you unless you exert all your power."

That night the drum sounded and the shouting was so strong that it seemed to fill the heavens. "Let's go," said the spirits, "as the lodge will be crowded." He noticed immediately that the village had grown a bit, as during this time all those who had died had arrived there. The lodge was so crowded that they had to squeeze their way in. Amid the teasing that followed his arrival, unexpectedly, he heard the voice of his wife asking him, "If you were going to ignore me, then why did you come after me?" She said this twice, and he almost turned to look at her. Now the world itself seemed to resonate with the beat of the drum and the voices seemed to fill the heavens. This time they grabbed his blanket and dragged him along. His wife led them in this. He tried to stay wrapped in his blanket, but the ghosts nearly pulled it off of him more than once. They began to pile on him, and treated his eight attendants as if they did not exist. He became tired and weak. Soon the ghosts were grabbing him by the knees and dragging him around. Just the same, he resisted, and with the coming of day, the light dispersed the ghosts. The attendants said, "Well done, Grandson! You have attained your objective."

When they returned to the lodge at which they were staying, one of the spirits spoke to him and said, "Grandson, from now on what you have achieved will not be permitted. Earthmaker has not ordained that it should be so, but through our blessings you have attained it, you have won back your wife." Then he turned to one of the other spirits and said, "Go get his wife for him!" They brought her to him, and the spirit spoke again: "Grandson, I have blessed you, and with this too I bless you: a thing that may be heard over the whole earth." And he handed the couple a drum painted with blue earth. The spirit told him furthermore, "If a person is near death and his soul is about to leave, play this drum and his soul will not depart from you. Offer me tobacco and I will grant you this. The ghosts are bad, and will chase after you -- but here is a handful of ashes, and should they get near, toss some ashes behind you. When you get home, have them build a lodge for you."

So Wagisga and his wife with eight attendants set out whence he had come. Soon the ghosts began to chase after them, crying out, "Wagisga has stolen our wife, let's get her back!" When they got close, Wagisga threw the ashes over his shoulder. The ghosts yelled, "Fall back! The ashes will ruin our clothes!" After this, they were able to get free of their pursuers, but eventually the ghosts caught up to them again , only to have more ashes thrown at them. This time they gave up. Once the ghosts had turned back, the attendants also went back, leaving the couple to go forth on their own. Soon they were near their village. In the distance they could hear the echoes from someone chopping wood, so they went in the direction of the noise.

When they arrived, unexpectedly, there a woman was crying as she chopped wood. It was Wagisga's mother. When she saw him, she was overjoyed, but then she recognized that he was in the company of a t'ij (one who is dead). He then told his mother, "Go get ten young men and ten young women, all of whom must be virgins. Have them bring some incense with them." She ran back to the village and told the people what had happened, and returned with the twenty virgins and many others besides. He instructed them to build a lodge with ten fireplaces, and when it was done they entered and sprinkled the place with incense. That night the drums were brought in and a dance was given.

Wagisga sung the special songs he had been taught for the occasion.

Even to this day they beat the drum for this rite. It is a wktck (holy) rite, and great is the noise of it. Wagisga is he who founded the rite, and because of his achievement, it is called the Wangh Waci (Ghost Dance).

John Baptiste, "The Man who Brought His Wife back from Spiritland," in Paul Radin, The Culture of the Winnebago as Described by Themselves (Baltimore: Special Publications of the Bollingen Foundation, #1, 1949) 47-65. This
story is discussed in Claude Lvi-Strauss, "Four Winnebago Myths," Structural Anthropology, vol. 2, trs. Monique Layton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) 198-210


From Blue Panther Keeper of Stories.