Peoria-Miami Narratives and Cult Hero Tales

The Peoria and Kaskaskia and the Michigamea, Cahokia and Tamaroa ceded their ancestral territories in Illinois and Missouri at Caster Hill, St. Louis County, when they signed a treaty there in 1832. The first cousins of these peoples, the Indiana Piankishaw and Wea, signed at Caster Hill two days later (Scott 45). These people were resettled the following year on the upper reaches of the Osage River in what is now eastern Kansas (47). In 1846 the Indiana Miami were settled just to the south (49). Thus, frontier Kansas became the home of these Illinois and Indiana peoples, with their mutually intelligible languages, until 1867. In that year the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Wea and Piankishaw united formally as the Confederated Peoria Tribe and, after signing the Omnibus Treaty of 1867, removed to their present location in northeastern Oklahoma (50-52). They were joined in 1873 by the Miami and were known for a short time as the United Peoria and Miami, with a total of about 250 members, but the Miami did not continue with this arrangement (55). Today the tribal headquarters of the Peoria and the Miami are on opposite sides of a parking lot in Miami, Oklahoma.

In the late 19th century, the Peoria and Miami were visited by Albert Gatschet, the Swiss-born linguist who devoted a lifetime to the collection and classification of Native American languages. In 1890, the Bureau of Ethnology commissioned him to collate the Algonquian linguistic materials that he had gathered over the years from 15 cognate languages. He began with the Peoria. He had compiled a dictionary of the Peoria-Miami languages in 1895 containing some 10,000 entries (Gatschet). He completed a grammatical sketch of the Peoria Language by 1903 (Bureau of American Ethnology catalogue #1590), and by 1903 also had assembled 15 texts from native speakers. These were shortly thereafter typed for publication as a volume in the Bureau of American Ethnology series (BAE catalogue #1556). But Gatschet died in 1907, and the volume was never printed.

Further materials were collected by Jacob P. Dunn, the Indiana historian and linguist. Dunn worked for the bureau from 1911-1913 and visited southeastern Oklahoma collecting materials pertaining to the native languages of the midwestern tribes (Dunn 35). There he met two of Gatschet’s informants: George Washington Finley (Tawahquakenonga), a Piankishaw by descent who was born in Kansas and raised as a Peoria, and Sarah Wadsworth, a Wea raised in Indiana until 1853. Dunn also drew on the memory of Gabriel Godfroy, a distinguished Indiana Miami born there in Hartford in 1834, who had worked previously with Gatschet. Dunn was able to make corrections in the Gatschet texts and cautioned that much material labled “Peoria” by the Swiss linguist was, in fact, Miami (Dunn “Comparison”).

In 1916, Truman Michelson, who, like Gatschet, was an authority on Native American languages, particularly the Algonquian family, did field work among the Peoria and Miami at the request of the Illinois Centennial Commission. At that time, he collected a number of tales from the last of the native speakers, and in 1917 published a short statement containing an analysis of the Peoria materials in the Journal of American Folklore. Michelson, in his report to the Illinois Centennial Commission, said that allowing for incursions of materials from the Kickapoo, Patawatomie, and other central Algonquian peoples in the early 1800’s in Illinois, and for an infusion of western Native American material after the removal of the Illinois peoples to Kansas and then Oklahoma, he found that “the number of tales that thus far have not been recorded elsewhere is far greater than one would expect” (7).

This material— collected by Gatchet, Dunn, Michelson and a man named Jesse E. Baker— constitutes a narrative pool, a survival of the stories of the Illinois and Indiana peoples, stories that may have been well known and repeated on winter nights in lodges along the Illinois River or the Wabash at the time of the first European contact.

Here are three tales collected by Michelson which, to my knowledge, have not been previously published. The first describes a contest between Rabbit and Possum, and explains the origin of daylight.

The Possum and the Rabbit gambled together to see if it should be dark all the time or light all the time. Possum kept singing a song that it should be dark, and he sang this over and over. Rabbit kept singing his song that it should be daylight. Along toward morning, Rabbit began to get a little tired. Possum said, “You might as well give it up, Rabbit. It’s going to be night all the time.” Well. They argued about this. Then Possum said to Rabbit, “Suppose you did win and daylight came to stay. Why, children would abuse you. They would chase you into a hollow log and take a stick and twist the fur off of you.” Rabbit said, “I don’t care. They’ll have lots of fun playing with me anyway.” Now, while they were arguing, Rabbit kept singing, “Daylight, daylight, daylight!” And when Possum looked around, there he saw the daylight was coming. He grabbed Rabbit’s mouth to make him shut up, and split his upper lip.That’s why Rabbit has a split lip (163-164).

The other two stories concern women who marry non-humans. The first is called “The Snake Husband:"

There was a woman who left her village to get some firewood. She heard someone whistling at her from a distance. She looked around and saw that it was a very handsome man who was whistling. He made a sign for her to come. She went to him and they talked and he persuaded her to go away with him. He said to her, “You will only be gone for three days. At the end of the third day, some of the villagers will find you.” So she went off with him. They traveled a long distance until they came to a cave. He told her, “You will stay here for three days, here in my house.” She thought he meant three days, but it was really three years. Meanwhile, her people hunted and hunted for her, and at last after three years, they found her in the cave. Her husband was away trapping. He had always provided her with lots of meat and birds and skins. She told her people all about what she had been doing, and while she was talking, she saw her husband coming. But now he looked different, not like the man she had followed into the cave. He said to her, “Your people have found you at last, and so your time is up. I am not a man at all, but a rattlesnake.” At that, she gazed at him as he dropped to the ground, and there before her lay a big timber rattler. Her people told here that she shouldn’t have paid attention to that whistling she heard when she was in the woods. “When you hear a noise like that in the woods, you don’ look around,” they told her (49-50).

The second story of a reptilian husband from Michelson’s collection is interesting because it involves the giving of names and may have been a clan story.

There was a chief, and he had a fine-looking girl.There was a painted turtle, and he fell in love with the chief’s daughter. But he could not come to see her or get to speak to her, because neither the girl nor her parents paid any attention to him. He kept thinking, “How can I win that girl?” And day after day he came, but still they did not notice him. Finally he thought, “If I would paint up, they would notice it and ask me why I painted.” He painted up and went to the chief’s lodge and the girl fell in love with him as soon as she saw him. So he told her to follow him and started off and went to a big river. When she first saw the turtle, she thought it was a human being, but when they got to the water and she saw that it was a turtle instead of a man, she said, “I cannot go any farther with you.” He said, “Come and follow me.You will turn into a turtle the same as I am.” When she went in, she turned into a turtle, but a different kind, a soft shell. Sometimes they name women after this turtle (172-173).

Unlike these tales, which were probably told only among the Peoria and Miami, the cult hero tales were held as common property among the central Algonquian peoples. The names vary, but the motifs are similar.The cult hero has many names. He is Nanabozhoo among the Chippewa. Among the Northern Cree he is Wisakishak. Among the Ottawa he is Ouisaketchak. Nicholas Perrot, in his Memoir on the Manners, Customs and Religions of the Savages of North America, an account of his residence in the Great Lakes area from 1665-1699, presents a number of stories about this hero, whom he identifies as “The Great Hare:"

“After the creation of the earth, all the other animals withdrew into the places which each kind found most suitable for obtaining therein their pasture or their prey. When the first ones died, The Great Hare caused the birth of men from their corpses, as also from those of the fishes which were found among the shores of the rivers which he had formed in creating the land. Accordingly, some of the savages derive their origin from a bear, others from a moose, and others similarly from various kinds of animals; and before they had intercourse with the Europeans they firmly believed this, persuaded that they had their being from those kinds of creatures whose origin was explained above” (37).

This culture hero is enduring. In the contemporary novel Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich shapes the indestructible Gerry Nanapush of the Chippewa tribe in the Great Hare’s image. This huge man, who can climb up air shafts and disappear into walls to escape from prison, evades capture in a hospital with a remarkable leap. She calls him “a fat rabbit” when he squeezes through the frame of a third story window, crashes into the top of a police car, and escapes on his motorcycle. Erdrich shows him later in an apartment in St. Paul playing five-card stud, while the television displays Coyote andRoadrunner (169, 253, 261-263).

This cult figure— Great Hare for Perrot, fat rabbit for Erdrich— is called Wisakatchekwa by Peoria and Miami storytellers. Finley describes him as well as he can be described:

There was never in the whole world a stranger man than Wesokotchauqwua. He was everywhere, in season and out of season, running about and putting his hand into whatever was going forward.

“He could be very foolish or very wise, very weak or very strong, very rich or very poor, just as it happened to serve his humor best.Whatever anyone else did, he would attempt without a moment’s reflection. He was a match for any man he met, and there were but few spirits who could get the better of him. By turns he would be very kind or very cruel. He would pose as an animal or a bird, a man or a spirit, and yet in spite of all these gifts, Wesokotchauqwua was always getting himself involved in all sorts of troubles. More than once, in the course of his adventures, he was driven to his wit’s end to escape with his life.” (Baker 185).

The tale that follows illustrates a speculation of Michelson’s that the older elements in the Peoria stories are closer to the Chippewa traditions, while more recent elements perhaps derive from the Fox and the Kickapoo. The bird motif in this tale is Chippewa; the cult hero falling into a hollow tree is Kickapoo (Michelson 494). This story, told to Michelson by Finley, describes how Wisakatchekwa got into some trouble. But even when outwitted, he is a powerful and unforgettable figure.

Two old blind men lived together and had plenty of game. They were far off by themselves, they had no cook, not anything. They did their own cooking. They had a guide rope to the river where they got their water.This Wisakatchekwa was traveling through the country by himself and ran into these old people. And he asked them if they wouldn’t let him stay with them, that he might do the cooking. So the old men told him he might stay, and he stayed there quite awhile. He asked them how they got their game, them being blind and never anyone close, but the old men never told him how they got it. He finally got tired of staying with them. Then he told them, “I guess I’ll travel on,” and the old people told him, “You may go.” And when he left, he changed the guide rope to go to the steep bank. So after he was gone, one of the old men told the other, “I believe I’ll go and get a bucket of water.” And he went and never came back for a long time. Finally, the other fellow was uneasy. He went out. He fell into the river like the other. They had hard work to get out. And they said, “That’s some of our crazy grandson’s doings.”

By that time, Wisakatchekwa was far out to the country. The old men said to one another, “We can draw him back by smoking a pipe.” So they filled a pipe and began making long draws of smoke. And that drew Wisakatchekwa back to the house. When he got close to the house, how was he going to get along with them, and what were they going to do with him? He found that the door was wide open. He walked in quietly, and finally the old men said, “I believe our grandson is in the house.” Then one said to the other, “Suppose we cause the door to be closed?” And the door was closed so that Wisakatchekwa could not open it himself. They each got a spear and tried to spear Wisakatchekwa; they kept going around inside the house. Finally, they could hear him. They got him worn out. Finally they could hit pretty close to him, and he began to get scared, as he could not get out. Finally he made himself known to them. And the old men asked him why he changed the guide rope to the water. And he told them he changed that for himself and he forgot to put the guide rope where it belonged when he left. So he begged them not to kill him, that he would do anything in the world for him. Then the old men let him go. He stayed with them a while longer.

One day while he was out hunting, the old men talked to themselves about it, how they could get rid of him. Finally one of them proposed how to get rid of him. So when he came back, the old men told him they could get along without him if he was of a mind to travel. The old man told him how they got so much game. He said, “I will tell you how we get this game, and you can do the same. You can go to some big lake. There you will find all kinds of fowls and so on. You must prepare a lot of string. Tie it from your waist to each bird. Then you dive into one end of the lake. Dive from one bird to another. Tie them by their feet. Then, when you get as many as you want, you come up in the middle of the lake. And you tell them, “You birds cannot always live in the lake.”

So then the birds began to fly. In place of holding them down as the old man told him, they raised him out of the water. He had so many birds of all kinds. They carried him so many days. He wondered how he could ever get down. He had nothing to cut his strings with. Finally he asked for the strings to be all broken, and the strings were all broken from the birds. Then he came down. He was high when he was coming down. He lit his pipe and smoked several times, and he could finally see the earth. He began to wonder where he was going to fall, in deep water or in a hollow full of leaves. Instead, he fell into a hollow tree, and he was in there several days and could not get out. Finally some people camped close by. Women were out hunting for dry wood. They saw a big tree. They imagined it was hollow. They went there and began to pound on it, and they could hear something run up and down in the hollow tree. They thought it might be a bear, and they cut a little hole, and sure enough they could see some black hair. It was Wisakatchekwa’s pubic hair. Then the women went back to the camp and told the men folks that they thought they had found a bear in a hollow tree. Then the men folks went out to prepare to kill the bear. They cut the tree down, and before the tree began to fall, Wisakatchekwa began to be frightened. He began to talk to them, and when they cut the tree down, then he came out. That was the only way he had a chance to get out. (Michelson #2721, 86-95).

These stories are a precious heritage because there is so little remaining from the culture that produced them. A handful of artifacts from the material culture are housed in museums on the East Coast and abroad. There are four painted hides at the Musee de L’Homme in Paris,a Peoria necklace at the Peobody Museum, a neck pendant of buffalo hair at the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation in New York, a broken calumet and two pipestems at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Kaskaskia wooden bowl carved in the shape of a beaver (Scott II 9-11, 16-17, 36). And there are eight portraits of Kaskaskia, Peoria, Wea, and Piankishaw individuals that George Catlin painted in Missouri and Kansas in the early 1830s (Scott II 20-27).

It is essential to put these stories into context. They are not simple tales. They are hedged with prohibitions and were only to be told in the winter. (Chamberlain 146-147). Indeed, terrifying punishments were in store for those who told them out of season, but on a winter night when the extended family was gathered in the lodge and there was a good fire and everyone had eaten and no one was hungry, then the storyteller could give his listeners all that could be remembered from their oral culture. Then the women could learn, some of them, why they were named after a loving painted turtle, or why they should be careful when handsome strangers whistled at them in the woods. And everybody could agree that it was a fine thing that the rabbit had a split lip. And then they heard the stories of Wisakatchekwa, they knew they were in the presence of a disturbing cosmos, an awesome power which, if it was an object of fear, could also be held at arm’s length with laughter.

At the conclusion of the Peoria Lord’s Prayer are the words “ouajak deboata ouiakann,” which is translated as “be happy in a happy place.” I take it that “Akann” is the Algonquian suffix “akani,” which can mean in context, “a narrative or a myth or a remembrance (J..P. Dunn 278-286). This may mean that the “happy place” is where the good stories are told, and people remember who they are.

—First printed in Clockwatch Review, 8:1&2, 1993, 142-148.


  1. See The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1931 edition, s.v. “Albert Samuel Gatschet.”
  2. For Dunn’s connection with Godfroy, see Caroline Dunn, 34, 36.
  3. “Report of the Peoria Indians (1916).” In the archives of the Illinois Historical Survey (IHS), this note appears: see Manuscript Guide to Collections at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 255. Michelson’s notes for the three-week field trip at the behest of the Illinois Centennial Commission are in BAE catalog No. 2121. His notebooks are not numbered in sequence. Michelson’s analysis of the material in the notes is from “Notes on Peoria Folk-lore and Mythology,” Journal of American Folklore 30, (1917): 493-495. For an interesting account of Michelson’s work in northeastern Oklahoma, which identifies the native speakers and in which Michelson retells some of the stories that he collected, see Charles O. Gridley, “Languages of Peoria Indians,” in The Peoria Star, 9 September 1934, sec. 2, p. 7+.
  4. In 1931, Jesse E. Baker published a number of narratives collected from George Finley under the title “Piankishaw Tales” in the Journal of American Folklore 44 (1931): 182-190.
  5. See Franz Boaz’s “Mythology and Folk-Tales of the North American Indians.” Journal of American Folklore 27 (1914): 374-410; Stith Thompson’s “Manobozho References,” PMLA 37: 130-132; Alethea Healbig’s Nanabozho: Giver of Life (Brighton, Michigan: Green Oaks Press, 1987); and Calvin Earl Schorer’s Indian Tales of C. C. Trowbridge (Brighton, Michigan, Green Oaks Press, 1986).
  6. Dunn based his study on John Gilmary Shae’s “Illinois and Miami Vocabulary and the Lord’s Prayer,” United States Catholic Historical Magazine 3:2 (1890): 278-286.

Works Cited

  • Baker, Jesse E. “Piankishaw Tales,” Journal of American Folklore 44 (1931): 182-190.
  • Blair, Emma Helen, ed. “The Indian Tribes of the Upper Mississippi Valley and Region of the Great Lakes.” New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1969.
  • Bureau of American Ethnology catalog of manuscripts #1556: “The Peoria Language including Miami, Wea, Eel River and other dialects of the Central or Illinois Group of Algonquian Languages, 1903.” Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • Catalog of manuscripts #1590: “Grammatic Sketch of the Peoria Group . . . Peoria, Wea, Miami, etc., 1903.” Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • Chamberlain, Alex F. “Taboos of Tale-Telling.” Journal of Folklore 13 (1900): 146-147.
  • Dunn, Caroline. “Jacob Piatt Dunn: His Miami Language Studies and Manuscript Collection,” Indiana Historical Society Prehistory Research Series 1: (December 1937): 35.
  • Dunn, Jacob P. “A Comparison of Gatschet’s Peoria and Godfroy’s Miami, 1909.” BAE catalog #1696. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • “A Study of the Peoria Manuscripts in the Lennox Library, 1908.” BAE catalog #1700. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • Erdrich, Louise. “Love Medicine.” New York: Bantam Books, 1984.
  • Gatschet, Albert S. “Peoria and Miami – English Dictionary, 1895.” BAE catalog of manuscripts #2638. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • Michelson, Truman. “Notes on Peoria Folk-lore and mythology,” Journal of American Folklore 30 (1917): 493-495.
  • Scott, James. “The Illinois Nation: A History of the Illinois Nation of Indians from their Discovery to the Present. ” Streator, Illinois: Self-published, 1973.
  • “The Illinois Nation, Part II.” Streator, Illinois: Self-published, 1976.