The Waterspirit Guardian of the Intaglio Mound

by Many Thunders (Charles B. Rogers)

The Panther (Waterspirit) Intaglio Mound at Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin

(197) "A picturesque revival of the early Indian days was portrayed in the pageantry of Indian dance and song presented on the bank of Rock River just west of the city of Fort Atkinson on the highway between Fort Atkinson and Koshkonong, Saturday afternoon, June 5[, 1920]. The occasion was the unveiling of the tablet in formal dedication of the Indian intaglio effigy ... This effigy, a monument of the profound religion of the Indians, is the only remaining memorial of its class known to occur in Wisconsin. This effigy, in contrast to the more frequent Indian effigy mound, is excavated several feet deep, the shape being that of the numerous 'panther' type mounds. Its length from the head to the tip of its tail is 125 feet."

(206) "We who are of America's first children are returned to our former home just for today, in obedience to your wish that the Indians themselves might be here, might know that this the only remaining monument of our ancestors is still sacred ground. ... (207) And our mounds, monuments of an ancient people; there were seventeen in this group; now not one remains; all have been destroyed. But I am rejoiced that this sunken image, which our ancestors have carved out of the bosom of mother earth, still remains. Our young men and maidens honor the work of their ancestors, and today bring garlands and flowers to offer to its spirit. Long and faithfully did they labor to carve out from the (208) soil this silent figure of the Wichawa, the panther, most powerful and guardian spirit of our Winnebago village.

Once in the long, long ago, a good Winnebago stood on the bank of the river, offering his devotions to the Wakanda, and fasting 20 days. Then he saw an animal rise to the surface of the water, it was a Wakanda, a water spirit. It had heard the Indian's story of his troubles and told him that it would help him and that his life thereafter would be long and happy. Then many other Indians saw the animal. As our ancestors desired its future protection and guidance, they constructed near this village, and among those of other wakandas, its likeness.

Here it is, apparently in perfect condition. O my people! and my white brothers and sisters, this is hallowed ground. Here my ancestors worshipped the spirit of the panther and believed in its protection and guidance. It is a symbol of the sacred past, of the community life of my people. Here our ancestors made their home and here we made our home; we were members of the Panther Clan; we had the panther spirit in us and we're all kindred."1

Commentary. "Wicawa" — for wicąwą́, "wildcat, panther."

"Wakanda" — this is an Ioway-Oto word, which can be used to reference the creator god, or some ill-defined spiritual power, but it is not a Hocąk word. C. E. Brown, as I have pointed out before, had a penchant for using wakanda to denote a Spirit being, running the gamut from Earthmaker to Trickster; but here "the Wakanda" seem to denote nothing more than the resident Spirit, in this case the so-called "panther." The word for which he is here substituting wakanda, is the Hocąk Wakjexi, conventionally translated as "Waterspirit."

"likeness" — the intaglio mound has a resemblance to a "panther," by which is meant a cougar/puma/mountain lion. The bobcat and lynx are known as wícawą́ sį́c kųnų́k, "short-tailed wicąwą́," whereas the mountain lion is known as wícąwą́ sį́c seréc, the "long-tailed wicąwą́." Since the effigy is really that of a Waterspirit, it will necessarily have a long tail, as such a feature is essential to its nature, representing as it does the natural tendency of flowing water to form a long, narrow channel. Waterspirits in the form of panthers are quite common among the Algonkian tribes, where they are often termed "Underwater Panthers," but not so among the Hocągara. Nevertheless, the Hocągara do recognize that Waterspirits can have a multiplicity of identities, Beaver-, Elk-, and Bear-Waterspirits have been attested. Therefore, the notion that there are Wicąwą́-Wakjexi is perfectly in accord with accepted notions among the Hocągara, although the panther variety has yet to be mentioned elsewhere.

When the old religion fell into decadence, many younger people knew little or nothing about such creatures as Waterspirits. However, old people still had something coherent to say about mounds devoted to these Spirits, as we see from this extended quote from 1910:

"A band of Winnebago was in camp during the summer of 1910 at the mouth of Dell Creek, on the lower Dells of the Wisconsin River. Among them were several members of the noted Dekorah family. The camp was but a few rods from the cottage in which the writer was spending his vacation and an acquaintance was soon made with the young men of the band. One of these, Fred Dick by name, after three weeks of acquaintance, was questioned concerning the authorship of the Indian mounds, some of which were located in the immediate vicinity. In response to numerous questions he gave replies about as follows: "Yes, Indians use to build mounds. Our Winnebago people did. They built many round mounds for burial. Don't build mounds anymore. Don't do many things we used to do. White man coming changed many things of the old time." With the writer Fred Dick visited a nearby effigy, a plot of which is shown in Fig. A. This is one of the types difficult to identify as representing a known animal and hence he was pressed for an explanation. He examined the structure carefully but could give no clue to its identity. He offered, however, to ask information of the older Indians of the band. This he did and later reported the following story in response to questions:

Figure A

This is an animal that lives in the water. It comes out at night and goes along the bank. No I never saw the animal. Only the oldest people ever saw it. No it has no name. Indians use to have a name for it but white man has no name for it. Guess old people only thought they saw the animal. It must be what you would call a spirit animal. Don't know of any Indians that now have that animal (as a totem). I am a bear. That other fellow (Bill Dekorah) is a panther. Yes, Indians built these animal mounds too."2

The clans themselves had disintegrated by this time, as the informant incorrectly thought that a Decora could belong to the "Panther" Clan, and that there was even such a clan at all. He seems not to have known the Hocąk name for Waterspirits, and did not know that the Panther Clan would have actually been the Waterspirit Clan. However, the old people did remember these things correctly.

"here" — a special place where communication with Spirits is accentuated can be referred to as a mą́woja. This word comes from , "earth, ground"; and woja, "to be fruitful." Mą́woja is "fruitful ground," which in a mundane context means somewhere where flora may flourish; but in a sacred context is may refer to either a place where holy relicts are left, or offerings are often deposited; or, as is seen elsewhere, where the communication is in the other direction, the earth is fruitful by virtue of being a place where a supplicant is more likely to receive a blessing from certain Spirits.

"the spirit of the panther" — that is to say, the Waterspirit. However, the matter is complicated. Although the "panther" is fundamentally a Waterspirit here, we cannot exclude it from also being a Wicąwą́ Spirit as well. This complex union of spiritual attributes, which we have seen elsewhere with the Bear-Waterspirit, gives such hybrid-like Waterspirits special powers by virtue of their somatic configuration, however much they remain most essentially Waterspirits.

"the Panther Clan" — there is no such clan, so it is clear in this context that "panther" means "Waterspirit." That there might be a Panther Subclan, for all we know, is not impossible, but given the rarity of the Panther-Waterspirit, it seems unlikely. The only Waterspirit subclan that we know of is the Beaver Subclan, and from this we might expect the other three subclans to hold to aquatic creatures exclusively.

Wheaton & Brown
The Intaglio Waterspirit Mound


Wheaton & Brown
The Dedication of the Intaglio Mound
5 June 1920

Comparative Material. The other intaglio mounds did not survive, but many of them were mapped out. For a set of these, see

Intaglio Mounds in Wisconsin

Links: Waterspirits, Cougars.

Stories: in which Waterspirits occur as characters: Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, The Lost Child, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Bluehorn's Nephews, Holy One and His Brother, The Seer, The Nannyberry Picker, The Creation of the World (vv. 1, 4), Šųgepaga, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Waterspirit of Lake Koshkonong, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Waterspirit of Sugar Loaf Mounds, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, Waterspirits Keep the Corn Fields Wet, The Diving Contest, The Lost Blanket, Redhorn's Sons, The Phantom Woman, Įcorúšika and His Brothers, Great Walker's Warpath, White Thunder's Warpath, The Descent of the Drum, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Snowshoe Strings, The Thunderbird, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (v. 2), The Two Children, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, Waruǧábᵉra, Ocean Duck, The Twin Sisters, Trickster Concludes His Mission, The King Bird, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Heną́ga and Star Girl, Peace of Mind Regained, The Story of the Medicine Rite, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Spiritual Descent of John Rave's Grandmother, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Shaggy Man, The Woman who Married a Snake (?), Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, The Sacred Lake, Lost Lake; mentioning sacred (artificial) mounds: The Green Lake Band, Baraboo in the 1840s, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (v. 1), The First Fox and Sauk War, Buffalo Dance, Buffalo Clan Origin Myth, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, Brass and Red Bear Boy, Mijistéga and the Sauks, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 12), Traveler and the Thunderbird War (v. 5), Little Priest’s Game, The Story of How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, The Resurrection of the Chief’s Daughter, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Lost Lake, Tobacco Origin Myth, v. 5, The First Fox and Sauk War, Featherstonhaugh's Canoe Voyage; see also, The Archaeology of the Wazija, Indian History of Winneshiek County, Habitat of the Winnebago, 1632-1832, The Winnebago Tribe, The Hocąk Notebook of W. C. McKern from the Milwaukee Public Museum, The McKern Papers on Hocąk Ethnography, The Wisconsin Winnebagoes, Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, The Smoky Mountain Massacre, The Thunderbird Warclub.

Themes: a person who fasts receives blessings from the spirits: The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, The Nightspirits Bless Jobenągiwįxka, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, Redhorn's Sons, The Boy Who Became a Robin, The Woman Who Fought the Bear, The Seer, Maize Comes to the Hocągara, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Boy who would be Immortal, The Thunderbird, Great Walker's Medicine, Šųgepaga, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna, Heną́ga and Star Girl, A Man's Revenge, Aracgéga's Blessings, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, The Man who was Blessed by the Sun, The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits, The Man Who Lost His Children to a Wood Spirit, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, The Man who Defied Disease Giver, White Thunder's Warpath, Black Otter's Warpath, A Man and His Three Dogs, The Oak Tree and the Man Who was Blessed by the Heroka, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, The Diving Contest, The Plant Blessing of Earth, Holy Song, The Tap the Head Medicine, The Blessing of Šokeboka, The Completion Song Origin, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, The Nightspirits Bless Ciwoit’éhiga, Sunset Point, Song to Earthmaker, First Contact (v. 1), The Horse Spirit of Eagle Heights.


1 Harriet Wheaton and Charles E. Brown, "The Dedication of the Fort Atkinson Intaglio," The Wisconsin Archaeologist, 19, #4 (November, 1920): 197-208 [206-208].

2 Arlow B. Stout, "The Winnebago and the Mounds," The Wisconsin Archaeologist, 19, #4 (Dec.-Feb., 1910): 101-102.