It was in the country of the Winnebagoes, and there was a great scarcity of game. An Indian hunter, while returning from an unsuccessful expedition, at the sunset hour, chanced to discover in the top of a tree a large white owl. He knew that the flesh of this bird was not palatable to the taste, but as he thought of his wife and children, who had been without food for several days, he concluded to bend his bow and kill the bird. Hardly had he come to this conclusion, before he was astonished to hear the owl speaking to him in the following strain: "You are a very foolish hunter. You know it is against the laws of your nation to kill any of my tribe, and why should you do wrong because you happen to be a little hungry? I know that your wife, and children are also hungry, but that is not a good reason for depriving me of life. I too have a wife and several children, and their home is in the hollow of an old tree. When I left there a little while ago, they were quite as hungry as you are, and I am now trying to obtain for their enjoyment a red squirrel or a young opossum. Unlike you, I have to hunt for my game only at night, and if you will go away and not injure me, I may have in my power to do you a kindness at some future time."
The Indian hunter was convinced, and he unbent his bow. He returned to his wigwam, and after he had told his wife what had happened to him, she told him she was not sorry for she had been particularly fortunate in gathering berries. And then the Indian and his family were contented, and game soon afterwards became abundant in the land.
Many seasons had passed away, and the powerful nation of the Iroquois were making war upon the Winnebagoes. The hunter already mentioned had become a successful warrior and chief. He was a mark for his enemies, and the bravest among them started upon the war-path for the express purpose of effecting his destruction. They hunted him as they would the panther, but he always avoided their arrows. Many days of fatigue had he now endured, and, believing that his enemies had given up he chase, he stopped on a certain evening to rest himself, and enjoy a repast of roots, after this comfortless supper was ended, he wrapped himself in his skins and thought that he would lie down and enjoy a little sleep. He did so, and the only sounds which broke the stillness of the air were caused by the falling of the dew from the leaves, and the whistling of the whippoorwill. It was not past midnight, and the Winnebago was yet undisturbed. A whoop is heard in the forest, but so remote from his grassy couch as not to be heard by the unconscious sleeper. But what can this shouting mean? A party of Iroquois warriors have fallen upon the trail of their enemy, and are in hot pursuit. But still the Winnebago warrior is in the midst of a pleasant dream. On come his enemies, and his death is inevitable. The shouting of the Iroquois is now distinct and clear, but in the twinkling of an eye it is swallowed up in a much louder and dismal shriek, which startled the Winnebago to his feet. He is astonished, and wonders whence comes the noise. He looks upward, and lo! perched upon one of the branches of the tree under which he has been resting, the form of a large white owl. It rolls its large yellow eyes upon him and tells him that an enemy is upon his trail, and that he must flee for his life. And this is the way in which the white owl manifested his gratitude to the Winnebago hunter for his kindness in sparing its own life many years before. And since that time the owl has ever been considered a very good and a very wise bird; and when it perches above the wigwam of the red man it is always safe from harm.
Thus ends the story. Some commentary does seem appropriate.
At this time, the Winnebago tribe territory was in Iowa and Minnesota. It is not likely that the Iroquois of the eastern country (i.e., Ohio River Valley) would battle the Winnebago, a distance westward in the Mississipppi River valley. There are other false precepts in this story especially in association with the known lore of the snowy owl if the story is looked at in a critical manner. It is not probable that a snowy owl would be present when the whip-poor-will would be calling in the woods.
This legend might better be associated with the great horned owl, whose habits much better reflect comments given in the tale. Whatever the actuality, this article can none-the-less be appreciated as an interpreted legend written by some unknown, eastern coast scribe.Tuesday, July 3, 1849. Indian legend of the white owl. Fredonia Censor 29(18): 1 as issued at Fredonia, New York. From the National Intelligencer.