The Osage, Missouria, Ioway, and Otoe native nations that lived in what is now Missouri celebrated wintertime in their own ways. The changes in seasons brought about shifts in focus and activities, and solemn ceremonies sought to aid and gave thanks to the Creator. Wintertime was the main time for storytelling. Here, we share three Native American tales to curl up with on a cold evening.

Illustration Merit Myers

By Michael Dickey

For modern-day Missourians, late autumn heralds the arrival of a busy holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving and carries through to New Year’s Day. But what about the indigenous inhabitants of what is now Missouri? The Osage, Missouria, Ioway, and Otoe native nations did not celebrate holidays like Europeans, but changes in the seasons brought about shifts in focus and activities. Solemn ceremonies to seek aid and to give thanks to Wahkondah (Great Mystery), the Creator, marked each seasonal shift.

The Osage, Missouria, Ioway, and Otoe each possessed customs specific to their tribe, and unlike other early tribes in the region, their stories and traditions were recorded and have survived through the centuries. These four tribes spoke different dialects of the Siouan language, but their spiritual concepts, traditional stories, and lifestyles were broadly similar. In the spring, they planted crops of corn, beans, and squash near their villages. Then they took to the prairies and plains during the summer to hunt bison.

They returned from the bison hunt to their villages as the corn would ripen on the stalks. The harvested crops and meat were dried and prepared for winter storage. The tribes then departed the village for a fall bison hunt. By early November, the tribes were back in the villages preparing for the winter hunt.

For the winter hunt, the people dispersed into the smaller clan and family units, then returned to the village in the spring. Gardens were prepared for planting and the cycle of life started over again.

The winter months were a time of storytelling. Around the lodge fires, elders told stories that had been handed down for untold generations. These people had two types of traditional stories. In the language of the Missouria, Ioway, and Otoe, they are called Wórage and Wékan.

Wórage speaks of the times when humans are on the earth. They are personal narratives or historical events and recall the immediate past way of life. Sometimes they speak of a human receiving supernatural help. There were specific rules about when particular stories could be told, but stories involving real people, even if there was a supernatural element to the tale, could be told year-round. Following is an Otoe-Missouria Wórage story. It involves a woman whose descendants told the story. She receives supernatural aid but because she was real, her story could be told anytime. The story is modified for ease of reading.


On one long-ago occasion, an ill woman wandered away from a hunting camp. She rested by a creek for some time until she recovered. In the meantime, the camp had moved on to a new location. The group assumed she had gone off to die.

When she returned to the campsite, she found it abandoned. Someone else had died and was buried there. Because she was hungry, she ate a bowl of meat left for the dead person and began to follow the trail. On the prairie, she lost the trail and became disoriented in a heavy fog. She heard someone and went to the sound.

In the high prairie grass, she came upon a gray figure that was hunched over. Smoke was issuing from its mouth. When she realized it was a grizzly bear, she became frightened, believing she was about to die.

The bear was smoking a pipe and he called out to her, “Daughter, don’t be afraid, for I have come to help you get back to your people.”

The bear told her to follow him, and when he walked, she walked, and when he trotted, she trotted. She grew stronger. Finally, the bear stopped and said, “I have brought you this far. Now you will get home.” The bear warned her she would meet two people on the trail. She was to go around them and not speak to them because they were dead.

Soon she came to a person on the trail but talked to him. She recognized him, and he said, “I have died, and now I’m trying to come back to life.” Further up the trail she met another man and talked to him as well. He too had died and was trying to come back to life. Her strength suddenly left, and she became very weak because she had talked with the dead men. But she reached the village and soon recovered.

She took up smoking a pipe to honor the grizzly bear spirit that had saved her. She also began to doctor and heal others using bear medicine.
Wékan stories told of sacred events involving supernatural heroes, spirit beings, and animals that could talk. Wékan could be told only in the autumn and winter months when the sun made its way across the southern sky. Anyone telling Wékan in the warm season months was considered irreverent and destined to be bitten by a rattlesnake.

In the autumn and winter, rattlesnakes were hibernating, so it was safe to tell those stories. Even today, traditional native storytellers will respect the season in which they tell certain stories. Many elders told stories of Ictinike or a spirit like him. Ictinike was the son of the sun god. He had offended his father and consequently was expelled from the celestial regions of the spirit world. He was often represented as a spider. He had a bad reputation for deceit and trickery and was frequently aided in his mischief by the coyote. The Indians say Ictinike introduced evil into the world and they regard him as a Father of Lies. A series of Wékan stories recount his misdeeds and adventures with inhabitants of the wild. Following are two Ioway tales of Ictinike, modified for ease of reading.


One day, Ictinike encountered Rabbit and hailed him in a friendly manner. He called him “grandchild” and asked Rabbit to do a service. Rabbit expressed his willingness to assist the god to the best of his ability. He inquired what he wished him to do.

“Oh, grandchild,” said the crafty one, pointing upward to where a bird circled in the sky above them. “Take your bow and arrow and bring down yonder bird.”

Rabbit fitted an arrow to his bow, released the shot, and the shaft went through the bird. The bird fell like a stone and lodged in the branches of a great tree.

“Now, grandchild,” said Ictinike, “go into the tree and fetch me the game.” This, Rabbit at first refused to do, but at length, he took off his clothes and climbed into the tree. He became stuck fast among the tangled branches. Actinic, seeing that Rabbit could not get down, donned the unfortunate Rabbit’s garments.

Highly amused at Rabbit’s predicament, Ictinike went to the nearest village. There he encountered a chief who had two beautiful daughters, the elder of whom he married. The younger daughter saw this as an affront to her personal attractiveness. She wandered off into the forest in a fit of sulks. As she paced angrily up and down, she heard someone calling to her from above. Looking up, she beheld the unfortunate Rabbit whose fur was stuck to the gummy sap exuding from the bark of the tree.

The girl cut down the tree and lit a fire near it, which melted the gummy sap and freed Rabbit. Rabbit and the chief’s daughter talked and then learned that the being who had mistreated them both was the same. Together they proceeded to the chief’s lodge.

The girl was laughed at because of the strange companion she had brought with her. Suddenly an eagle appeared in the air above them. Ictinike shot at and missed it, but Rabbit loosed an arrow with great force and brought the eagle down. Each morning a feather of the bird became another eagle. Each morning Ictinike shot at and missed the newly created bird. But Rabbit easily succeeded in killing each new bird. This went on until Ictinike had quite worn-out Rabbit’s clothing that he had stolen and was wearing a very old piece of tent skin.

Rabbit returned to him the garments that he was forced to don when Ictinike had stolen his. Then Rabbit commanded the Indians to beat their drums. With each beat of the drum, Ictinike jumped so high that every bone in his body broke. After a very loud drumbeat, he leaped to such a height that when he came down, the fall broke his neck. Thus, Rabbit was avenged.


One day Ictinike was footsore and weary, and he encountered a buzzard. He asked the buzzard to oblige him by carrying him on its back part of the way. The crafty bird immediately consented. Seating Ictinike between its wings, the buzzard flew off with him.

They had not gone far when they passed above a hollow tree. Ictinike began to shift uneasily in his seat as he observed the buzzard hovering over it. He requested the bird to fly onward, but for an answer, the buzzard cast him headlong into the tree trunk. Ictinike was now a prisoner. For a long time, he lay there in want and wretchedness, until at last a large hunting party struck camp at the spot.

Ictinike happened to be wearing several raccoon skins and he thrust the tails through the cracks in the tree. Three women who were standing near assumed that a number of raccoons were in the hollow trunk. They made a large hole in the tree trunk to capture them. Ictinike emerged at once, whereupon the women fled in terror. Ictinike lay on the ground pretending to be dead. As he was covered with raccoon skins, birds of prey—the eagle, the crow, and the magpie—came to devour him. While they pecked at him, the buzzard made his appearance to join in the feast. But Ictinike, rising quickly, grabbed the buzzard and tore the feathers from its scalp.

That is why the buzzard has no feathers on its head.
Wórage and Wékan stories were told for entertainment, but they were also morality tales describing human behavior. The tales told in Indian lodges during winter nights were not unlike our contemporary telling of winter holiday stories. A Christmas Carol, The Tin Soldier, and The Nutcracker and the Mouse King all entertain us, but as the stories told on this land long before Europeans set foot here, they are morality tales with a tantalizing infusion of the mystical.