A long time ago the Dakota people were camped along the shores of Spirit Lake (Devils Lake) near what is now the present day town of Minnewaukan, North Dakota. Their camp was a beautiful place where fish were plentiful, the deer roamed nearby, and the people were happy.
One day, as the women were preparing meals near the shore and the children were swimming and playing in the shallows of the lake, a monster appeared suddenly from under the water and grabbed one of the children – dragging them away to their death. The women were in panic! The monster, it was reported, was a rather large, flat bodied creature with short legs, scaly sides, and a broad head with a long snouted mouth containing many sharp teeth. The men took their canoes out onto the lake, but they could find no trace of the child. For many weeks following this incident, the monster would occasionally run up onto the shore and try to steal children, attacked the tribe’s horse, and terrified the Dakota greatly. Nobody could think of what to do to stop this horrible creature from terrorizing the people.
The men of the Dakota held a council to decide what to do. After deliberating for a while, it was decided that a messenger would take tobacco across the lake to a village of Ojibwe who were living on what is now Graham’s Island. At that village was a medicine man who was known to be very powerful and who had faced terrible monsters in the past. It was hoped that he could stop the creature from killing any more Dakota children.
The Dakota envoy rowed across the lake and presented the tobacco to the Ojibwe medicine man. Taking the tobacco, he smoked it and told the Dakota messenger that he would do what he could to help. That night he prepared many herbs and medicines to help him in his quest; he prayed to the manitous to help him and give him strength; and the next morning he took his canoe out to the lake until he found the spot where he suspected the creature was coming from.
The medicine man took some herbs from his pouch and chewed them up. These herbs would give him the power to dive deep into the water and to hold his breath for a very long time. Once he had chewed his medicine, the medicine man dove over the side of his canoe and swam very deep to the bottom of the lake. At the bottom he saw a large hole – a cave of sorts – that he determined led to a series of underground rivers and lakes where the creature was hiding. While there, he took more medicines from his pouch and said prayers to the Manitou. He cast the medicine into the hole and sealed it up so that the creature could not return to that spot again. With that task complete, he swam to the surface and climbed back into his canoe.
The next day and the days following, no trace of the monster was seen. The Dakota invited the Ojibwe to join them for a feast to celebrate the defeat of the creature. For years following this act, the Dakota and Ojibwe lived at peace with each other and shared Spirit Lake and its bounty.
During the middle of winter a family was trapped for many days by a bad blizzard. The snow outside was so deep and the storm lasted that eventually their food ran out and the worried that they would starve. Finally, the wind and snow died away. The father, who was known as Makade-waagosh (black fox) ventured outside. He looked to the sky and noticed that more storm clouds were coming and that if he did not act fast his family would perish.
Makade-waagosh took his knife, spear, and bow and immediately left on his most reliable hunting trail, looking for any sign of game. He looked around for some sign of animal footprints in the newly-fallen snow, but the forest was oddly silent. He though that perhaps every creature was deep in their burrows. He was losing hope, but he knew he had to keep trying or his family would surely die.
He continued on his path and he soon perceived a strange hissing sound coming from the trees to his left side. Makade-waagosh stopped walking and he listened, hoping it was an animal that he could kill. It was then that he looked ahead a few yards and noticed what appeared to be bloody footprints on the path in front of him. In fear he gripped his knife tightly, because he suddenly realized what the hissing sound was – a Windigo was in the trees, watching him.
Makade-waagosh knew he would have just one chance to survive.
Slowly, he backed away from the bloody footprints, listening intently to where the hissing sound was coming from. He gripped spear in one hand, knife in the other and tried to make as little sound as he could. Just as he thought the sound of the hissing was fading, the snowbank to his left erupted as the creature rushed forward! It was as tall as a small tree and its fangs were bared for the attack. Makade-waagosh dove to one side, rolling into the snow. The Windigo missed and it rushed past. Makade-waagosh threw his spear at the back of the Windigo. It struck the creature's back and it roared in pain, but it just shook it off and turned to attack again. Makade-waagosh ran behind a small tree and the Windigo looked around to see where he had gone.
Makade-waagosh heard the Windigo walking towards his hiding place. With his back to the tree, Makade-waagosh saw its sharp claws reaching around towards him. He leapt to the side and rushed at the Windigo, thrusting his knife into its black, fathomless eye. The Windigo howled in pain and tried to brush the knife from its face, but Makade-waagosh clung to the creature, stabbing it again and again in the eyes and head. Eventually the Windigo collapsed to the ground dead.
Shaken and his heart pounding with fear and fatigue, Makade-waagosh turned to walk home. He was weakened by lack of food, and was in despair as he knew that the storm come soon and he and his family would die.
As he neared his lodge, he suddenly saw a large deer. It was a fat old buck. It stood still, as if it had been brought to him as a reward for killing the Windigo. With a prayer of thanks to the Creator, Makade-waagosh killed the deer and took it home to his starving family. The meat lasted for many days, until the final storm had blown itself out and he could safely hunt once more.
The Memegwesi (Little People) can do magnificent things whenever they wish. Legends say that they can fly through the air and even live underwater if they want. Other stories say that they can dig deep into the earth and through the rocks as they please. If a person sees a Memegwesi and is kind to them, the Memegwesi will bring them good luck.
It is said that there are three tribes of Memegwesi — those that live in the banks beside streams and lakes, those live near the flowers and plants, and those who guard the lands under the earth.
The Memegwesi who live in the banks are very strong. They can uproot trees and can hurl great rocks with ease. Sometimes they will challenge people to tests of strength; the Memegwesi who live with the plants help the berries to grow fat, make flowers bloom and medicines to grow, and can show how these can be used to help the people; and the Memegwesi who live under the earth guard against serpents and monsters who live in the darkness below from coming to the surface and harming people.
Sometimes, deep in the woods, you find a tree around which no grass will grow. These trees are sacred to the Memegwesi and are places where their dance ring has been formed. Care must be taken not to cut these trees down or the Memegwesi will curse you.
If you see a Memegwesi, you should thereafter leave a plate of food for them from your table at the spot where you saw them. This will show respect to them and they will favor you with luck for the rest of your days.
Almost every tribe in the woodlands and plains believed in the existence of the thunderbirds (animikiig). They believed that thunder, lightning and great winds were produced by these great birds, whose shadows were the thunder clouds, whose flapping wings make the sound of thunder and produced strong winds, and whose flashing eyes rapidly opening or closing sent forth the lightning.
Around the Great Lakes, the Ojibwe believed that the thunderbirds dwelled upon high hills or rocky elevations with difficult access, and that the white smears on the many rocks along the shores of the lakes were the remnants of their droppings. Within the territory, several places are believed to be thunderbird nests. The thunderbirds are said to appear in the form of great eagles which feed on water monsters and evil serpents. It is said that once, a brave warrior climbed up to a thunderbird’s nest and found the bones of many great serpents scattered around.
On the plains, many places were thought to be thunderbird nesting sites. The Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota believed that the thunderbirds nested in the neighborhood of Big Stone Lake, and there is a place near the summit of the Coteau des Prairies, in eastern South Dakota, where a number of large round boulders are found that are considered to be the remnants of a thunderbird nest.
In one Dakota legend, it is said that a hunter once shot and wounded a large bird which fell to the ground. Being afraid to attack it alone on account of its size, the hunter returned to camp for help from his friends, but when they approached the spot where the bird had fallen the hunters heard the sound of thunder and saw flashes of lightning shooting out from the ravine where the bird lay. As they drew near, the flashes of lightning blinded them so that they could not see the bird. It is said that one of the bolts of lightning struck and killed a hunter. This so frightened the men that they fled back to camp in fear for their lives.
The Plains Ojibwe tell of a story of a thunderbird encounter on the plains of the coteau overlooking the Souris River. They say that a party of hunters once found a thunderbird's nest. The men noticed that there were several chicks – each as big as a man – in the nest and they determined that they would kill and destroyed the young birds. As they were shooting the birds with their arrows, the old birds returned and chased the men away as they fled towards the trees along the river. It is said that they thunderbirds killed all but one of the warriors.
The Legend of Flies Fast
Once upon a time, when no wars existed among men, the only thing which they feared was the great thunderbird seen flying through the air, which caused great storms and damage. The thunderbirds were thought to have nests in the area, and great curiosity existed among the people as to the exact character of the birds and the location of their nesting places. But try as they might, nobody could find a nest.
At this time there lived on the northern shore of Lake Superior a warrior named ‘Otter Man’ noted for his courage and his wisdom. One time, as he was returning from a hunt, Otter Man was carrying a beaver on his back. It had become dark sooner than he had expected and he was still a far ways from home, but the moon appeared before he had traveled very far and lit up the trail which he was following. As he was leaving the trail to walk across the ice of a lake he needed to cross, he noticed the shadow of something large passing above him. He looked up and saw a great bird approaching him, and before he could defend himself it swooped down and carried him away in its talons. The bird rose high into the air and carried him westward, far above the earth.
After traveling a great distance Otter Man could see a high hill which was barren of trees that had a great rock at its crest. As they neared the rock, the bird dropped Otter Man, but was able to land without being hurt too badly. He looked around himself and saw a nest where the young thunderbirds were. Sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning happened as the old bird flew overhead.
Soon the young thunderbirds became aware of Otter Man’s presence and began to look over the edge of the nest at him. Otter Man prepared to defend himself, but whenever the birds winked a flash of lightning would pass from their eyes and scorch his hands and face. After a hard fight he finally succeeded in killing the young birds with his spear. Luckily the old bird did not return to exact vengeance upon him.
Not knowing what to do, Otter Man took out his pipe and offered up a prayer to the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit spoke to him and told him that he should skin one of the young birds and use its skin to fly back home. He did this, and as he jumped from the cliff of the hill he found that he could fly. After a long flight he landed near the same spot from which he had been taken by the thunderbird. He found his wife and children there mourning for him, as they supposed that he had been killed by an evil spirit.
When they got home, Otter Man told his fellow tribesmen about his ordeal and everyone was amazed. He took from his pouch the hearts of the young thunderbirds that he had killed and they held a feast in celebration of his great deed. He was awarded a new name: Flies Fast!
As the hearts broiled they made a loud, crackling sound. To this day children are told that when the lodge fire makes a loud crackling noise it is because the hearts of the thunder birds are broiling in it.
Transactions of the Illinois Historical Society for the year 1908. Illinois State Historical Society, Springfield.
Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology: 1896. Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.