Myths & Legends



Ottawa: The Magician of Lake Huron

A why legend from the Ottawa: “When spring returned, his cornfield grew up, without planting, or any care on his part, and thus the maize was introduced among his people and their descendants, who have ever been noted, and are at this day, for their fine crops of this grain, and their industry in its cultivation. It is from their custom of trading in this article, that this tribe are called Ottowas.”
— Orly

At the time that the Ottowas inhabited the Manatoline Islands, in Lake Huron, there was a famous magician living amongst them whose name was Masswäwëinini, or the Living Statue. It happened, by the fortune of war, that the Ottowa tribe were driven off that chain of islands by the Iroquois, and obliged to flee away to the country lying between Lake Superior and the Upper Mississippi, to the banks of a lake which is still called, by the French, and in memory of this migration, Lac Courtorielle, or the lake of the Cut-ears, a term which is their nom de guerre for this tribe. But the magician Masswäwëinini remained behind on the wide-stretching and picturesque Manatoulins, a group of islands which had been deemed, from the earliest times, a favorite residence of the manitoes or spirits. His object was to act as a sentinel to his countrymen, and keep a close watch on their enemies, the Iroquois, that he might give timely information of their movements. He had with him two boys; with their aid he paddled stealthily around the shores, kept himself secreted in nooks and bays, and hauled up his canoe every night, into thick woods, and carefully obliterated his tracks upon the sand.

One day he rose very early, and started on a hunting excursion, leaving the boys asleep, and limiting himself to the thick woods, lest he should be discovered. At length he came unexpectedly to the borders of an extensive open plain. After gazing around him, and seeing no one, he directed his steps across it, intending to strike the opposite side of it; while travelling, he discovered a man of small stature, who appeared suddenly on the plain before him, and advanced to meet him. He wore a red feather on his head, and coming up with a familiar air, accosted Masswäwëinini by name, and said gaily, “Where are you going?” He then took out his smoking apparatus, and invited him to smoke. “Pray,” said he, while thus engaged, “wherein does your strength lie.” “My strength,” answered Masswäwëinini, “is similar to the human race, and common to the strength given to them, and no stronger.” “We must wrestle,” said the man of the red feather. “If you should make me fall, you will say to me, I have thrown you, Wa ge me na.”

As soon as they had finished smoking and put up their pipe, the wrestling began. For a long time the strife was doubtful. The strength of Masswäwëinini was every moment growing fainter. The man of the red feather, though small of stature, proved himself very active, but at length he was foiled and thrown to the ground. Immediately his adversary cried out, “I have thrown you: wa ge me na;“ and in an instant his antagonist had vanished. On looking to the spot where he had fallen, he discovered a crooked ear of mondamin, or Indian corn, lying on the ground, with the usual red hairy tassel at the top. While he was gazing at this strange sight, and wondering what it could mean, a voice addressed him from the ground. “Now,” said the speaking ear, for the voice came from it, “divest me of my covering—leave nothing to hide my body from your eyes. You must then separate me into parts, pulling off my body from the spine upon which I grow. Throw me into different parts of the plain. Then break my spine and scatter it in small pieces near the edge of the woods, and return to visit the place, after one moon.”

Masswäwëinini obeyed these directions, and immediately set out on his return to his lodge. On the way he killed a deer, and on reaching his canoe, he found the boys still asleep. He awoke them and told them to cook his venison, but he carefully concealed from them his adventure. At the expiration of the moon he again, alone, visited his wrestling ground, and to his surprise, found the plain filled with the spikes and blades of new grown corn. In the place where he had thrown the pieces of cob, he found pumpkin vines growing in great luxuriance. He concealed this discovery also, carefully from the young lads, and after his return busied himself as usual, in watching the movements of his enemies along the coasts of the island. This he continued, till summer drew near its close. He then directed his canoe to the coast of that part of the island where he had wrestled with the Red Plume, drew up his canoe, bid the lads stay by it, and again visited his wrestling ground. He found the corn in full ear, and pumpkins of an immense size. He plucked ears of corn, and gathered some of the pumpkins, when a voice again addressed him from the cornfield. “Masswäwëinini, you have conquered me. Had you not done so, your existence would have been forfeited. Victory has crowned your strength, and from henceforth you shall never be in want of my body. It will be nourishment for the human race.” Thus his ancestors received the gift of corn.

Masswäwëinini now returned to his canoe, and informed the young men of his discovery, and showed them specimens. They were astonished and delighted with the novelty.

There were, in those days, many wonderful things done on these islands. One night, while Masswäwëinini was lying down, he heard voices speaking, but he still kept his head covered, as if he had not heard them. One voice said, “This is Masswäwëinini, and we must get his heart.” “In what way can we get it?” said another voice. “You must put your hand in his mouth,” replied the first voice, “and draw it out that way.” Masswäwëinini still kept quiet, and did not stir. He soon felt the hand of a person thrust in his mouth. When sufficiently far in, he bit off the fingers, and thus escaped the danger. The voices then retired, and he was no further molested. On examining the fingers in the morning, what was his surprise to find them long wampum beads, which are held in such high estimation by all the Indian tribes. He had slept, as was his custom, in the thick woods. On going out to the open shore, at a very early hour, he saw a canoe at a small distance, temporarily drawn up on the beach; on coming closer, he found a man in the bows and another in the stern, with their arms and hands extended in a fixed position. One of them had lost its fingers: it was evidently the man who had attempted to thrust his arm down his throat. They were two Pukwudjininees, or fairies. But on looking closer, they were found to be transformed into statues of stone. He took these stone images on shore, and set them up in the woods.

Their canoe was one of the most beautiful structures which it is possible to imagine, four fathoms in length, and filled with bags of treasures of every description and of the most exquisite workmanship. These bags were of different weight, according to their contents. He busied himself in quickly carrying them into the woods, together with the canoe, which he concealed in a cave. One of the fairy images then spoke to him and said: “In this manner, the Ottowa canoes will hereafter be loaded, when they pass along this coast, although your nation are driven away by their cruel enemies the Iroquois.” The day now began to dawn fully, when he returned to his two young companions, who were still asleep. He awoke them, and exultingly bid them cook, for he had brought abundance of meat and fish, and other viands, the gifts of the fairies.

After this display of good fortune, he bethought him of his aged father and mother, who were in exile at the Ottowa lake. To wish, and to accomplish his wish, were but the work of an instant with Masswäwëinini.

One night as he lay awake, reflecting on their condition, far away from their native fields, and in exile, he resolved to visit them, and bring them back to behold and to participate in his abundance. To a common traveller, it would be a journey of twenty or thirty days, but Masswäwëinini was at their lodge before daylight. He found them asleep, and took them up softly in his arms and flew away with them through the air, and brought them to his camp on the Manatolines, or Spirit's Islands. When they awoke, their astonishment was at its highest pitch; and was only equalled by their delight in finding themselves in their son's lodge, in their native country, and surrounded with abundance.

Masswäwëinini went and built them a lodge, near the corn and wrestling plain. He then plucked some ears of the corn, and taking some of the pumpkins, brought them to his father and mother. He then told them how he had obtained the precious gift, by wrestling with a spirit in red plumes, and that there was a great abundance of it in his fields. He also told them of the precious canoe of the fairies, loaded with sacks of the most costly and valuable articles. But one thing seemed necessary to complete the happiness of his father, which he observed by seeing him repeatedly at night looking into his smoking pouch. He comprehended his meaning in a moment. “It is tobacco, my father, that you want. You shall also have this comfort in two days.” “But where,” replied the old man, “can you get it—away from all supplies, and surrounded by your enemies?” “My enemies,” he answered, “shall supply it—I will go over to the Nadowas of the Bear totem, living at Penetanguishine.”

The old man endeavored to dissuade him from the journey, knowing their blood-thirsty character, but in vain. Masswäwëinini determined immediately to go. It was now winter weather, the lake was frozen over, but he set out on the ice, and although it is forty leagues, he reached Penetanguishine the same evening. The Nadowas discerned him coming—they were amazed at the swiftness of his motions, and thinking him somewhat supernatural, feared him, and invited him to rest in their lodges, but he thanked them, saying that he preferred making a fire near the shore. In the evening they visited him, and were anxious to know the object of his journey, at so inclement a season. He said it was merely to get some tobacco for his father. They immediately made a contribution of the article and gave it to him. During the night they however laid a plot to kill him. Some of the old men rushed into his lodge, their leader crying out to him, “You are a dead man.” “No, I am not,” said Masswäwëinini, “but you are,” accompanying his words with a blow of his tomahawk, which laid the Nadowa dead at his feet. Another and another came, to supply the place of their fallen comrade, but he despatched them in like manner, as quickly as they came, until he had killed six. He then took all the tobacco from their smoking pouches. By this time, the day began to dawn, when he set out for his father's lodge, which he reached with incredible speed, and before twilight, spread out his trophies before the old man.

When spring returned, his cornfield grew up, without planting, or any care on his part, and thus the maize was introduced among his people and their descendants, who have ever been noted, and are at this day, for their fine crops of this grain, and their industry in its cultivation. It is from their custom of trading in this article, that this tribe are called Ottowas.


Source: HHS [1]
Culture: Ottawa
Language Group:  Algonquin

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