Potato Magic

by George Ricehill

Hocąk-English Interlinear Text

When word had gotten out that Radin was paying for stories, he received at least a few that could be called "tall tales." This is certainly one of them. However, such anecdotes are still of interest to folklorists and anthropologists as they tell us a great deal about what could pass as a true story, and therefore something about the nature of the culture in which it arose.

(81) There was a Sioux whom they called "Red Elk." A white doctor used to make wild ground potatoes out of dirt. He (Red Elk) doubted it. "Make one wild potato, and I'll give you $50," said the Sioux. "Okay." Then the doctor made a circle around the earth. "If you'll make one inside the circle, I'll give you fifty (dollars)," [said the doctor.] (82) Then the Sioux right then and there made a wild potato. That's all there is to it, the doctor was beaten. That's all.1

Commentary. "doctor" — the Hocąk word thus translated, mąkąnį, actually means "medicine man," which in a Hocąk cultural context implies that he has magical powers, not merely curative powers. Nowadays the term refers to non-Indian doctors, but in the XIXᵀᴴ century it could even refer to someone who belonged to the Medicine Rite.

"wild ground potatoes" — Hocąk tokewehi (the word also means "hungry"), denotes the prairie turnip or breadroot scurfpea (Psoralea esculenta), also known as "contrayerba," which the Canadian voyageurs called the pomme blanche. The plant, which is a member of the bean family (Fabaceae), blooms May-July with 20-30 bluish-purple flowers. The thick roots were a staple in the Native American diet. It tastes like a sweet turnip and is made up of 70% starch, 9% protein and 5% sugars. It can be eaten raw, cooked, or powdered and made into a porridge. The plant demands sunshine and cannot grow in the shade. Also relevant to the sun is a dangerous side effect in this plant if the wrong portions are eaten. Some people (and animals) react with photosensitization, a process resembling sunburn that afflicts lightly pigmented areas of the skin. It arises from liver deficiencies under the presence of ultraviolet radiation.

"dirt" — the tubers need to be peeled until the white inner parts are exposed before they can be eaten. The unpeeled tubers are the same color as dirt, which may suggest this form of generation.

"$50" — this is fifty 1908 dollars, which is a substantial sum of money. Calculated by the Consumer Price Index, its value in today's dollars would be $991.28.

"made a wild potato" — Gilmore remarks,

Psoralea [the tokéwehi] has so important a place in the economy of the Plains tribes and has had for so long a time that it enters into their mythology, folklore, stories, and sleight-of-hand tricks.2

This story certainly counts as a sleight-of-hand trick, and it is interesting that such stories might have been fairly common. The inset shows a string of "wild potatoes" (more commonly known as "prairie turnips").

Links: Witches.

Stories: mentioning witches or warlocks: The Witch Men's Desert, The Thunder Charm, The Wild Rose, The Seer, Turtle and the Witches, Great Walker and the Ojibwe Witches, The Claw Shooter, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store, Migistéga’s Magic, Mijistéga and the Sauks, Migistéga's Death, The Mesquaki Magician, The Tap the Head Medicine, Keramaniš’aka's Blessing, Battle of the Night Blessed Men and the Medicine Rite Men, The Magical Powers of Lincoln's Grandfather, The Hills of La Crosse, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara (v. 2), Įcorúšika and His Brothers, Thunder Cloud Marries Again, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, The Woman's Scalp Medicine Bundle, Young Rogue's Magic; mentioning the Sioux (Šąhą): The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, Origin of the Name "Milwaukee," Little Priest's Game, Berdache Origin Myth, Great Walker's Warpath, The Masaxe War, White Flower, The Man who Fought against Forty, First Contact (vv. 2-3), The Omahas who turned into Snakes, The Love Blessing, Run for Your Life, The Scalping Knife of Wakąšucka, Introduction.

Themes: food is magically created from something inedible: Migistéga’s Magic, Mijistéga and the Sauks.


1 George Ricehill, "A Tale of a Sioux," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3892 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Winnebago III, #11a, Story 5: 81-82.

2 Melvin Randolph Gilmore, Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, Thirty-Third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1911-12 (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1919), s.v. Psoralea esculenta (under an older scientific nominclature).