Snake Clan Origins

by Richard L. Dieterle


Very little is known of the Snake Clan (Wak'ą Hik'ik'árajera). It is said that the Snake Clan is a recent addition to the Hočąk nation, however, this is usually just a means of associating the vigor and power of youth with the spirit of the clan. Along the same lines, it is said that the snake was the last to show up at the Creation Council of the Hočąk Nation, and that it was even the smallest in size.1 A few clan names are extant:2

Gisewek'inąk'a Sits Quiet in Her [Home]
Hąkš'umįk'a Lies upon His Stomach
Hinúkwak'ąwįka Female Snake (F)
Hip'ahiga Has Sharp Teeth
Hirotįga Attained Full Growth
Hokšiga High Snake
K'ik'urudiwįga She who Crawls
Kikúrutimąniwįka She who Crawls as She Walks (F)
K'irixminąk'a Sits Coiled Up (F, R)
Nasurariskaga Yellow (?) and White Head (L)
Naxékhiga Trees Wither and Die (L)
Wak'ąga Snake (F, L)
Wak'ąsgága White Snake (F)
Wak’ąhaga Snakeskin (F)
Wak'ąsepka Black Snake (F)
Wak'ąčóka Green Snake (F)
Wak'ąxonunįk Little Snake (L)
Wak'ązika Yellow Snake (-)
Wak'ązíwįka Yellow Snake Woman (F)
- Likely Chief (R)

In the Medicine Rite, serpents are known by the poetic terms, "Spirit-Walking Soldiers" and "Crawling Soldiers."3

In the autumn when snakes retire to their underground chambers to hibernate, the Snake Clan holds its special feast. On this occasion they offer the serpents feathers, tobacco, and food. The food was introduced into the holes down which the snakes retired for the winter. At that time they also recounted the origin myth of the Snake Clan, a story which is still not publicly known. When the first humans entered the primordial Medicine Rite Lodge, where Hare was to establish Life for humans to its fullest extant, each represented one of the eight lower moiety clans of the Hočągara (Waterspirit, Buffalo, Elk, Deer, Fish, Bear, Wolf, and Snake). The last to enter was the chief of the Snake Clan, but it was he who would be initiated into the rite before all others.4 This reflects the serpent's special sacred status, and probably its association with rebirth expressed in the periodic sluffing off of its skin. The function of the Snake Clan was to keep the surface of the ground clean in the villages, and more importantly, its members were to use their special powers to perceive the approach of enemies, against whom they were the first line of defense. They shared this defensive role with their traditional friends, the Fish Clan.5


Snake Clan Origin Myth (fragmentary)

by David Laury


"The Snake Clan came last [to the Creation Council of the Hočąk Nation], so he sat down by the door as he was the least even in size. And the ones within the lodge said, 'He is a likely chief'. Therefore, a Snake Clan name is 'Likely Chief'."6


Commentary. "came last" — youth, and most of all being the youngest, symbolizes superior strength. This is why they think that he is a candidate for being chief. See "Themes" below. Of a piece with this is the idea that the most humble looking thing of any sort is very often the most powerful in its function. It is therefore said, for instance, that when a man picked the worst looking club among all those offered to him by the Thunderbirds, he had in fact picked the most powerful weapon in their possession. (See The Thunderbird Warclub)

"the ones within the lodge" — these are the progenitors of the other Hočąk clans as they are meeting in the Creation Council.

"name" — it is typical of clan origin stories that events in the course of the progenitor's progress give rise to names used ever after in the clan descended from him.


Links: Snakes, The Creation Council.


Stories: mentioning snakes: The First Snakes, The Woman who Married a Snake, Blessing of the Yellow Snake Chief, The Omahas who turned into Snakes, A Snake Song Origin Myth, The Serpents of Trempealeau, Rattlesnake Ledge, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Twins Disobey Their Father, The Two Boys, Wears White Feather on His Head, Creation of the World (vv. 2, 3, 4), The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Waruǧápara, The Green Man, Holy One and His Brother, The Man who was Blessed by the Sun, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, Turtle and the Merchant, The Lost Blanket, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth; about (the origins of) the Hočąk clans: Hočąk Clans Origin Myth, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Story of the Thunder Names, Eagle Clan Origin Myth, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Pigeon Clan Origins, Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth, Buffalo Clan Origin Myth, The Elk Clan Origin Myth, Deer Clan Origin Myth, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Fish Clan Origins; about the Creation Council: Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Tobacco Origin Myth, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth, Elk Clan Origin Myth, Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Buffalo Clan Origin Myth, Deer Clan Origin Myth, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Origin of the Winnebago Chief, Hočąk Clans Origin Myth, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth; about entitlement to chieftainship: Origin of the Hočąk Chief, Deer Clan Origin Myth, Origin of the Decorah Family, The Glory of the Morning, Pigeon Clan Origins, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth; mentioning feasts: Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth (Chief Feast), The Creation Council (Eagle Feast), Hawk Clan Origin Myth (Eagle Feast), Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth (Waterspirit Feast), A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga (Mąką́wohą, Waną́čĕrehí), Bear Clan Origin Myth (Bear Feast), The Woman Who Fought the Bear (Bear Feast), Grandfather's Two Families (Bear Feast), Wolf Clan Origin Myth (Wolf Feast), Buffalo Clan Origin Myth (Buffalo Feast), The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits (Buffalo Feast), Buffalo Dance Origin Myth (Buffalo Feast), Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle (Buffalo Feast), The Blessing of Šokeboka (Feast to the Buffalo Tail), Blessing of the Yellow Snake Chief (Snake Feast), Rattlesnake Ledge (Snake Feast), The Thunderbird (for the granting of a war weapon), Turtle's Warparty (War Weapons Feast, Warpath Feast), Porcupine and His Brothers (War Weapons Feast), Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega) (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), Big Thunder Teaches Čap’ósgaga the Warpath (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), White Thunder's Warpath (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), The Fox-Hočąk War (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), Šųgepaga (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), The Man Whose Wife was Captured (v. 2) (Warbundle Feast, Warpath Feast), Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth (Warpath Feast), Kunu's Warpath (Warpath Feast), Trickster's Warpath (Warpath Feast), The Masaxe War (Warpath Feast), Redhorn's Sons (Warpath Feast, Fast-Breaking Feast), The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits (Fast-Breaking Feast), The Chief of the Heroka (Sick Offering Feast), The Dipper (Sick Offering Feast, Warclub Feast), The Four Slumbers Origin Myth (Four Slumbers Feast), The Journey to Spiritland (Four Slumbers Feast), The First Snakes (Snake Feast), Spear Shaft and Lacrosse (unspecified), Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts (unnamed).


Themes: animals assemble in a great council: The Creation Council, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, Why Dogs Sniff One Another; the youngest offspring is superior: The Mission of the Five Sons of Earthmaker, Young Man Gambles Often, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Twins Cycle, The Two Boys, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Children of the Sun, The Creation of the World (v. 12), The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, The Raccoon Coat, Wojijé, How the Thunders Met the Nights, He Who Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, Sun and the Big Eater, Buffalo Clan Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth (vv. 4, 7), South Enters the Medicine Lodge, Snake Clan Origins, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth; a particular clan was claimed to have been the last to arrive at the Creation Council: Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth; clan names arise from incidents attendant upon the founding of the clan by its Animal Spirit progenitors: Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth (v. 1), Story of the Thunder Names, Eagle Clan Origin Myth, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth, vv. 2a, 4, 7, Deer Clan Origin Myth, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, vv. 1, 4.


Notes

1 Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3862 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Winnebago I, #3: 88.

2 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 202. The list was collected by Paul Radin with the following exceptions:

(F) Thomas Foster, Foster's Indian Record and Historical Data (Washington, D. C.: 1876-1877) vol. 1, #1: p. 4 coll. 3-4.

(L) Nancy Oestreich Lurie, "A Check List of Treaty Signers by Clan Affiliation," Journal of the Wisconsin Indians Research Institute, 2, #1 (June, 1966): 50-73.

(-) Added by the author (Richard Dieterle).

3 Jasper Blowsnake, Untitled, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3887 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Library, n.d.) Winnebago II, #7, 246.

4 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 302-311.

5 David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 9.

6 Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3862 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Winnebago I, #3: 88. Informant: David Laury.