Native American Birds Legends: Manabush and the Birds

Published on January 25, 2013 by Casey

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Manabush and the Birds
Manabush and the Birds

Native American Birds Legends: Manabush and the Birds

Algonquian legends about the culture hero tricking gullible birds so he could eat them.

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Once Manabush was walking along the shore of a lake and saw a long narrow sand bar surrounded by all kinds of waterfowl. He was tired and hungry, so he was very interested in the waterfowl. He was not carrying his bow and arrows and instead had only his medicine bag, and he wasn’t sure how he could hunt or trap the waterfowl. He walked back into the woods and hung his medicine bag on a tree and collected a lot of tree bark which he rolled into a bundle and took back with him to the shore. He walked slowly along within sight of the birds and pretended to pass by them. Some of the swans and ducks moved away from the shore. They recognized Manabush and were afraid of him.

One of the swans called out to him, “Manabush, where are you going?” He replied, “I am going to sing. As you see, I have all my songs with me written on this bark.” Manabush then called out, “Come, my brothers, let’s sing and dance.” The birds agreed, because they liked to sing and dance, and swam to shore. Together, they all went a little way from the lake to an open space where they could dance. Manabush put his bundle of bark down, got out his singing sticks, and said to the birds, “Now, I will drum and you can dance! All of you sing as loudly as you can and keep your eyes closed. The first bird to open his eyes will always have red, sore eyes.” Then Manabush beat time on the bundle of bark while the birds, with their eyes closed, circled around him singing as loud as they could. Beating time with one hand, Manabush suddenly caught a swan by the neck, but before he could kill it the bird screamed, and Manabush said, “That’s right, sing as loud as you can” As Manabush continued drumming, he also caught and killed the birds. One bird-a grebe-realized that they were not singing as loudly as they had, and opened his eyes to see Manabush and the heap of his bird victims and cried “Manabush is killing us! Manabush is killing us!” The grebe ran for the water, followed by the other birds. Since the grebe is a poor runner, Manabush soon caught him and said, “I won’t kill you, but you will always have red eyes!” Manabush gave the grebe a kick and knocked off his tail, and that’s why the grebe looks as he does.

Manabush then gathered up all the birds he had killed by his trick and carried them out onto the sandbar. He buried them there, with some with their heads sticking out of the sand and some with their feet sticking out. He built a fire to roast the birds in the sand, but since this would take a long time, he decided to take a nap. He slapped his thigh and told it to be on the lookout in case someone should come near the birds and try to steal them while they were cooking. Then he laid down with his back to the fire and went to sleep.

Some time later, a party of Indians came along in their canoes. Seeing the birds roasting and Manabush fast asleep, they quietly took all the birds and put the heads and feet back the way they had found them. Then they paddled quietly away. A little while later, Manabush woke up. He was very hungry and was looking forward to enjoying the roast birds. He grabbed one of the baked swans by its neck but got nothing but the neck and the head. He tried all the others and found the same.

Then he struck his thigh and said, “Who has robbed me of my feast? Didn’t I tell you to keep watch in case anyone came?” And his thigh answered, “Yes, but I fell asleep too because I was tired, but I did see some people paddling away quickly in their canoes. They were probably the thieves.” Then Manabush ran out to the point of the sandbar and saw the people paddling away in their canoes and laughing at him for the trick they had played on him.

(Adapted from W.J. Hoffman, 1890, “Mythology of the Menomini Indians,” American Anthropologist 3[3]:243-58.)

Source: Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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