Menominee Portrait Dedication & Frechette Memorial

Saw-Whet Owl and the Origin of Menominee Medicine

As told by Michele LaRock, niece of Jim Frechette

When my cousin Richard first called me to ask if I would be willing to read a story as part of the dedication, I told him I would be honored to be involved.   Because I live in Rhinelander, I have had the opportunity, as an adult, to get to know my uncle Jim – which is a little different than knowing him as a child!  I also had the opportunity to work with him on a professional level – having his art work displayed at the Nicolet College Art Gallery and putting together various cultural programs. 

The traditional Menominee told countless stories about their lives and the world they inhabited.  A people who left no written records it is through these we make contact with their thinking and the insights about life that they had gained.

It seems fitting that I read the story of “How the Saw-whet Owl brought medicine to the Menominee.”  I remember pointing out to Uncle Jim, many years ago, that many people seemed afraid and were suspicious of owls.  He said that the Menominee always honored owls and they were a good omen.  When you hear this story, you will understand.  The legend of the Saw-Whet Owl tells how they acquired their first medical knowledge from which flowed the complex system of medicine made from the herbs and plants, barks and leaves and roots of the natural world.  It also tells us women played the role of bringing medicine to the tribe. 

How the Saw-whet Owl brought medicine to the Menominee.

When the Menominee dwelt in their original land they lived in wigwams.  Sometimes when a child cried as children will do and the mother wanted it to stop as mothers do want, seeking relief she often hard pressed would say to the little one in scolding tones, “Stop crying!  If you do not I will throw you outside and the owl will get you.” 

Now on one specially trying evening a mother at her wits end finally put her crying little girl outside the wigwam.  When she did so she spied through the dusk a Saw-whet Owl who happened to be sitting on a near by branch.  So, worn out with the little girl, she called out to the owl: “I’ll give you this child.”  Then she went back into the lodge to wait for the child to stop its crying. 

Now all the other owls in the nearby forest had heard this.  They flocked around the Saw-whet owl and chattered about what they had just seen and heard.  Finally, they said to the Saw-whet, “Why don’t you take the child?  After all she gave it to you.”

The Saw-whet thought about this for a minute or two and then said, “Yes, I will.”  So, she took the little child to her home in the forest, which was a hole in a tree.  When she put the child inside, the nest looked like a little wigwam, round and brown.  The owl had a little clay pot.  She put the clay pot on the fire and cooked some blueberries for the child to eat.  She had a little wooden bowl to hold the child’s food.  Now, whenever the child looked at her the owl changed her appearance to be seen as a little old woman, a grandmother caring for her grandchild.

For a period of four years the child stayed with the owl, but the time seemed so short that it was called “one.”  By that time the girl had become a woman and the owl decided to take her back to her people, but before doing so she made four little bundles, or packets, of red squirrel hide, and placed in each a substance with magic power. 

Each packet contained a different sort of “medicine” and was tied with a different color in order to tell them apart.  The packet tied with red contained “love medicine;” that tied with yellow contained a substance that would cause its owner to receive valuable gifts; that tied with black was “hunting medicine;” and the forth packet, “tied with anything,” contained medicine giving success in playing games.  This was the first time that magic substances had been given to the Indians.  In order to imbue them with power the owl taught the young woman a song to be used with each sort of medicine and also told her how to use them.

When the owl brought the little girl back to her people she found they had moved to the sugar bush to make sugar.  So the owl took her to a place where she could see the smoke of the wigwams rising to the sky and told her, “Your home is over there.  You can see the smoke.  You can walk there.”  Then the owl sang the song of the “love medicine” when she took the girl to that place.

Then, just before the girl started to walk away, as dark started to descend, the owl stood on an old log and spoke to the girl, “Granddaughter,” she called, “look at me.”  The girl looked at her and saw an owl and then she saw her as an old woman again.  That was the first time that she knew she had been with an owl.

Then the girl walked toward the trails of smoke.  When she reached her home her mother came outside the wigwam.  She saw some one standing in the dark who cried out, “Is that you?”

“Yes,” replied the girl.

She seized the girl, hugged her, drew her into the wigwam, hugged her again, and exclaimed: “Who took you away?”  The girl replied, “An old woman about so high,” and with a hand held off the ground a small distance she showed her.

“What have you got in your hands?” the mother asked, noting the packets she carried.

“Oh,” she answered, “some medicine that my grandmother gave to me.”  And, then told her about the medicines and taught her the songs.

Ever since that time the Indians have had “medicine” for the four purposes, handing it down from one generation to another.  From those first medicines brought to them by the women the Menominee developed all their other medicines.