Black and White Moons

by Oliver LaMère

retold by Richard L. Dieterle

In the time of beginnings, the good spirits and the evil spirits met in council to determine how the world should be divided between them. First they took up the question of how many moons there should be from one winter to the next. Wild Turkey (Zizikega) strutted before them and spread his tail feathers, declaring, "Let a year be as many moons a there are spots on my tail." But the council of spirits voted this down, as there were far too many spots on his tail. Partridge also suggested that there should be as many moons in a year as there were spots on his tail, but the spirits felt that it was also too long a time. Then Chipmunk (Hecgenįka) scampered up throwing its tail over its head as chipmunks always do, and said, "Let a year be as many moons are there are black and white stripes down my back." The counselors thought well of this suggestion, and allowed that the six black stripes would be the summer moons, and the six white stripes would be the moons of winter.

The evil spirits are greedy, however. They always wish for darkness, so when they saw the bright white disc of the moon and how it lit up the world, they began to eat the Night Luminary away until nothing was left of it. But Earthmaker was not content to see his creation consumed, leaving a dark world as a cover for evil, so he recreated the moon a little each night until at the end of fourteen nights it was full again. Then Earthmaker rested. While the Creator took leave, the evil spirits again gnawed away at the moon until it was completely consumed. And so it continues, with Earthmaker ever renewing the moon and his enemies forever eating it away.1


Commentary. "Wild Turkey" — the turkey is a lunar candidate not only because of the discs on its tail feathers but perhaps because its feathers are used for making arrows, a symbol of time in most cultures. This is reinforced in the Hocąk language by the happy homonym whereby mą, "arrow" also means "time." Perhaps even more pertinant is the fact that it takes turkey eggs from 25 to 31 days to hatch, with the average being 28, the number of days in which the moon is in the sky. So the turkey hatches from something looking rather like a moon in about a moon's time. The turkey emerges into existence from a spatio-temporal model of the moon itself.

"Chipmunk" — the chipmunk has not only the right number of stripes, but they possess the lunar colors of black and white. Furthermore, it is capable, as the myth remarks, of having its tail loop back towards its head, the essence of a cycle.

"white" — white is the color of the sacred, and what gives winter that symbolic valence is not only the white snow, but the fact that sacred stories (waiką) are told only at that time of year.

Comparative Material. Among the Assiniboine, the trickster figure Inktonmi argues with Frog over the length of the winter even before he has created human beings. They finally agree that there shall be seven cold months.2

The same tale is stated more fully in another Assiniboine myth. After Iktomi completed his creation of the earth, he had to decide the length of the seasons. Since he was wearing a wolf skin robe, he announced, "There will be as many moons are there are hairs on this robe before spring comes." This suggestion appalled Frog, who objected, "If this were to happen, then no creature would live to see spring! Let there be but seven moons to the winter," he said. They kept on arguing, until finally, Iktomi smashed Frog. Just the same, Frog extended the toes of his foot even in death, all seven of them. When Iktomi saw this, he had to give in. That's why there are only seven months of winter.3

In another version, Inktonmi knocks Frog for a loop for suggesting the length of the winter, but out of pity adopts his proposal of six months.4

The Creeks have a similar story. "The animals held a meeting and No-koos-see (Nokosi), the Bear, presided. The question was, how to divide day and night. Some desired the day to last all the time; others wished it all night. After much talk, Chew-thlock-chew (Cilokšo), the ground squirrel, said: 'I see that Woot-Kew (Wotko), the Coon, has rings on his tail divided equally, first a dark color then a light color. I think day and night ought to be divided like the rings on Woot-Kew's tail.' The animals were surprised at the wisdom of Chew-thlock-chew. They adopted his plan and divided day and night like the rings on Woot-Kew's tail, succeeding each other in regular order. No-Koos-see from envy scratched the back of Chew-thlock-chew and thus caused the stripes on the back of all his descendants, the ground squirrels.5

This Gosiute tale has their trickster Coyote and the antagonist. "A small bird was arguing with Coyote about how many months of the winter there would be. Coyote said, 'There will be as many months as I have hairs in my coat.' Bird said, 'That is too many. You would have to gather too many seeds in the fall. You could not get enough to last all through such a long winter as that. You will be thin and poor in the spring. Let's have twelve months in the year and each season will have as many months as I have toes. (He had three toes.) Then there will be enough food to last through the winter and it won't be so hard on the people'. Coyote insisted on having as many months of winter as there were hairs in his coat. Bird flew away."6

The Chemehuevis also have a Coyote tale about the origins of the seasons. "The first beings began to order the earth by establishing four seasons. But when it came time to determine the number of months in the year, Coyote and Burrowing Owl began to argue. Coyote, who preferred to have everything in groups of four, loudly exclaimed, 'Haik’a, haik’a! The seasons shall be four months long — aik’a!" Burrowing Owl just kept quiet. In response to the boisterous exclamations of Coyote, he merely held up his three-toed foot. Coyote insisted, and repeated his previous choice in the same unpleasant manner. Burrowing Owl continued to hold up his three toes, but remained totally silent. A third time Coyote repeated his desire. A third time Burrowing Owl silently displayed his three-toed foot. Then, still maintaining silence, Burrowing Owl left the assembly and hiding out in the thicket nearby, he cried out three times, "Parangkwingkwi’i, parangkwingkwi’i, parangkwingkwi’i." Coyote was so angry that he leapt into the brush to find Burrowing Owl, but the latter animal, fully expecting Coyote to follow him, turned himself into Rattlesnake and bit Coyote severely. Coyote's fourth outburst settled the matter. "Haik’a, haik’, haik’!" Coyote yelped. "I give up — aik’a! I give up — aik’a! The seasons shall consist of three months each — aik’a!"7

In the Hindu Brahamanas, Soma is the moon whose phases are caused by the gods eating its ambrosial substance. The Upaniṣads say that the ambrosial light eaten by the gods is afterwards replaced by the sun.8

Links: Moon, Turkeys, Chipmunks, Herešgúnina, Earthmaker, Partridge (I), Bird Spirits, Rušewe.

Stories: pertaining to the Moon: The Markings on the Moon, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Sunset Point, Sun and the Big Eater, The Big Eater, Hare Kills Wildcat, Grandfather's Two Families, Berdache Origin Myth (v. 1), Turtle and the Giant, A Deer Story; featuring white faced (lunar) women: The Roaster, The Woman who became an Ant; mentioning chipmunks: Trickster Loses Most of His Penis; featuring partridges: The Big Stone, Partridge's Older Brother, The Quail Hunter; about turkeys: The Birth of the Twins, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Story of the Medicine Rite; about Bird Spirits: Crane and His Brothers, The King Bird, Bird Origin Myth, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Wears White Feather on His Head, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Thunderbird, Owl Goes Hunting, The Boy Who Became a Robin, Partridge's Older Brother, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Foolish Hunter, Ocean Duck, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Quail Hunter, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Hocąk Arrival Myth, Trickster Gets Pregnant, Trickster and the Geese, Holy One and His Brother (kaǧi, woodpeckers, hawks), Porcupine and His Brothers (Ocean Sucker), Turtle's Warparty (Thunderbirds, eagles, kaǧi, pelicans, sparrows), Kaǧiga and Lone Man (kaǧi), The Old Man and the Giants (kaǧi, bluebirds), The Bungling Host (snipe, woodpecker), The Red Feather, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Waruǧábᵉra, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, The Markings on the Moon, The Creation Council, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna (chicken hawk), Hare Acquires His Arrows, Keramaniš’aka's Blessing (black hawk, owl), Heną́ga and Star Girl (black hawk), The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth (black hawk, kaǧi), Worúxega (eagle), The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men (eagle), The Gift of Shooting (eagle), Hocąk Clans Origin Myth, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, The Hocąk Migration Myth, Blue Jay, The Baldness of the Buzzard, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster (buzzards), The Shaggy Man (kaǧi), The Healing Blessing (kaǧi), The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (kaǧi), Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Įcorúšika and His Brothers (Loon), Great Walker's Medicine (loon), Roaster (woodsplitter), The Spirit of Gambling, The Big Stone (a partridge), Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, The Story of the Medicine Rite (loons, cranes, turkeys), The Fleetfooted Man, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4) — see also Thunderbirds; mentioning Earthmaker: The Creation of the World, The Creation of Man, The Commandments of Earthmaker, The Twins Get into Hot Water, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Lost Blanket, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna, The First Snakes, Tobacco Origin Myth, The Creation Council, The Gray Wolf Origin Myth, The Journey to Spiritland, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, The Seven Maidens, The Descent of the Drum, Thunder Cloud Marries Again, The Spider's Eyes, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Fourth Universe, Šųgepaga, The Fatal House, The Twin Sisters, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Elk Clan Origin Myth, Deer Clan Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, The Masaxe War, The Two Children, Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Petition to Earthmaker, The Gift of Shooting, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Stone Heart, The Wild Rose, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Lame Friend, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed, The Hocąk Migration Myth, The Necessity for Death, Hocąk Clans Origin Myth, The War among the Animals, Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, Blue Mounds, Lost Lake, The Hocągara Migrate South, The Spirit of Gambling, Turtle and the Giant, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, The Hocągara Contest the Giants, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, Bird Origin Myth, Redhorn's Sons, Holy Song, The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, Death Enters the World, Man and His Three Dogs, Trickster Concludes His Mission, Story of the Thunder Names, The Origins of the Milky Way, Trickster and the Dancers, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, The Creation of Evil, The Blessing of Kerexųsaka, Song to Earthmaker, The Blessing of the Bow, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, The Origin of the Cliff Swallow.

Themes: spirits meet in a council: The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Holy One and His Brother, The Creation Council, The Children of the Sun, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, Traveler and the Thunderbird War (v. 5), The Gift of Shooting, East Shakes the Messenger, The Descent of the Drum, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, South Enters the Medicine Lodge, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Petition to Earthmaker, The Boy who would be Immortal.


1 Oliver LaMère and Harold B. Shinn, Winnebago Stories (New York, Chicago: Rand, McNally and Co., 1928) 91-99. Informant: Oliver LaMère of the Bear Clan.

2 Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1956) 97, #2. These tales are collected in R. H. Lowie, The Assiniboine, in The Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1909) 4:239-244.

3 Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz (edd.), American Indian Trickster Tales (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998) 93.

4 Radin, The Trickster, #3.

5 "1. How Day and Night were Divided," in John Reed Swanton, Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians, Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 88 (1929): 2.

6 Commodore, "Council on Seasons," in Anne M. Smith, Shoshone Tales (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993 [1939]) 43.

7 Carobeth Laird, The Chemehuevis (Banning, CA: Malki Museum Press, 1976) 157-158. Ray A. Williamson, Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indians (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1984) 318.

8 A. A. MacDonell, Vedic Mythology (Delhi: Motilal Barnassidas: 1974 [1898]) 112.