Waoniska: The Making of a Great Warrior

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There once was a Potawatomi man who had a large family. One of his sons, Waoniska, was old enough to fast but had not yet done so. He said to the boy, “Why don’t you fast?”

But Waoniska refused to fast, and wandered off to be with the other boys. If they stayed out after it got dark, he would just stay in the woods instead of going home because he was afraid that his father would insist that he fast. Rather than face his father, he just drifted away and no longer lived at home.

Wherever he went, it always seemed that people talked about fasting, and whenever this happened Waoniska would just leave and go on to the next place. He travelled to a distant village and stayed there overnight, and as soon as his host got up, the man insisted that his children fast. It was that way everywhere he went and among every tribe he visited. He wandered from place to place and it was always the same.

With so much wandering, he got lost, and he eventually grew from a boy into a young man. After much wandering and thinking, he went back to his own tribe. There, all the young boys fasted, and no one would associate with him because of his reputation for not having fasted.

No one liked him or would have anything to do with him. Since no one would ask him to go hunting and he had no one to help him take care of himself, he dressed in rags and old clothes that he found and live off of a small amount of corn he could get from someone’s field. He felt so sad and alone that he decided to go back to his parents and try to live the life that they had taught him.

The next morning he started his fast and made his way back to his parents’ village. When he got near their house, the dogs began to bark and one of his little brothers came out and then ran to tell his parents that Waoniska had come back. As Waoniska went in, his father said, “I see by the charcoal on your face that you are fasting. Has a spirit told you to fast?” Waoniska said nothing.

In the morning, he continued his fast. He blackened his face and ate nothing. Every morning after that he fasted. Once he felt he was ready, he took his father’s bow and arrow and started off hunting, continuing his fast. At night when he came home he brought a willow stick as tall as he was and hung it up in the wigwam. His father asked what he was going to do with the stick, but Waoniska did not answer.

The next morning, he charred the stick in the fire and then set it aside. He picked up his father’s bow and arrow again and his father said, “Don’t take those.” But his mother said, “Leave him alone: he is doing the right thing now,” and she made him a pair of moccasins to wear hunting.

Waoniska’s mother was right. From then on, he fasted regularly and hunted and brought home meat for the family.

Some time later, an unsuccessful war party returned to the village. They asked Waoniska to go back with them and lead them because they thought he had special powers. His father told him he was not ready to lead a war party, but Waoniska prepared to go.

The war party started out, and Waoniska carried only his blanket: he did not take bow and arrows or even a knife. As they went along, they killed some buffaloes and Waoniska took one of the buffalo bladders and blew it up and dried it and painted it red. Then he put it on his head.

His friends thought this was a little odd, and asked him where his weapons were. Waoniska said nothing, but got a piece of wood and carved himself a war club out of it. He practiced throwing it and his friends also thought this was a little strange. Waoniska told them to stop asking questions, and the older men in the war party agreed, saying that some powerful spirit must be guiding him.

After a while, they came to a large enemy encampment. They saw that they were easily outnumbered, and many felt they should go back without fighting. Their leader wanted to turn back but Waoniska said, “I am not supposed to be the leader, but I will lead you.” And he painted his buffalo bladder and his war club red. He said, “I have fasted many years and have been given power by a spirit. Obey me and stay here, and I will go through the enemy camp and make those people senseless. Then you can all follow me in.” They all agreed to this plan.

The next morning, Waoniska threw his clothes away and painted himself red. He also told all of the other members of the war party to do the same. As they drew close to the enemy camp, Waoniska called on the spirits who had come to him when he was fasting and asked for their help. He told the warriors to walk in a straight line and look only at him. He also told them to make whatever noises he made.

As they began, Waoniska made a huge noise that sounded like “Yaw, Yaw.” All of the other warriors did the same. The people in the camp were startled and came out to see what it was. As they saw Waoniska, they dropped to the ground and couldn’t move. Waoniska’s small war party defeated them all. After that, Waoniska became an important leader of his people.