top of page


Long, long ago, the Porcupines had no quills. One day, a Porcupine was out in the woods. A Bear came along and would have eaten Porcupine, but he managed to get up a tree where the Bear couldn't get him.


The next day Porcupine was out again and he went underneath a hawthorn tree, and he noticed how the thorns pricked him. He broke some branches off and put them on his back, then he went into the woods. Along came Bear and he jumped on Porcupine, who just curled himself up. The Bear just left him alone because the thorns pricked him so much.


Wenebojo was watching them. He called to Porcupine and asked "How did you think of that trick?" Porcupine told him that he was in danger when Bear was around. Then Wenebojo took some thorns and peeled the bark off of them until they were all white. Then he got some clay and put it all over Porcupine's back and stuck the thorns in it. Wenebojo used his magic to make it into a proper skin, and told Porcupine come with him into the woods. When they got there, Wenebojo hid behind a tree. Wolf came along and saw Porcupine and jumped on him, but the new quills pricked at him and Wolf ran away. Bear was also afraid of the quills and Porcupine was safe. That is why Porcupines have quills.

Source: (Adapted from G.E. Laidlaw, 1922, "Ojibwe Myths and Tales," Wisconsin Archeologist 1[1]:28-38.)


Excerpt from the article titled:


by Beth Gruber


Ojibwa legend tells that long ago, when the world was young, porcupines had no quills. One day in the woods Bear came along and wanted to eat Porcupine but he escaped to safety by climbing a tree. The following day Porcupine was under a Hawthorne tree and noticed how the thorns pricked him.

He broke off some of the branches and put them on his back. Then he went back into the woods and waited. Along came Bear, who jumped on top of Porcupine. But the little animal just curled up into a ball. Bear had to go away because the thorns pricked him so much.


Nanabozho (an Ojibwa trickster figure and culture hero) saw what happened. After Porcupine explained, Nanabozho took some Hawthorne branches and peeled the bark off until they were white. Then he put some clay on the back of Porcupine and stuck the thorns in it. Nanabozho used his magic to make it part of Porcupine’s skin, then they went back to the forest and waited. Wolf came along and saw Porcupine and jumped on him, but the new quills pricked at him and Wolf ran away. Bear was also afraid of the quills and Porcupine was safe. This is why all porcupines have quills today.


Another Ojibwa legend counsels what can happen when you don’t respect the porcupine. Two young girls went out to set traps one nice winter day. When they happened upon a porcupine, the older girl said, “Let’s take that porcupine and pull out all his quills so he freezes.” The younger girl said, “No, no! Don’t do such a thing.”But the first girl caught the porcupine and plucked out his quills and hair.


Once she let him go, he climbed to safety in a tree. When he reached the top, he faced north and sang to Ka-bi-bo-na-kay (the north wind) asking him to send the greatest snow storm ever known. Soon it began to blow from the north, terribly cold, with driving snow. The girls became frightened and started for home, but in the blinding snow they lost their way and became separated. The younger girl at last stumbled into camp, exhausted and half frozen, but the girl who had tortured the porcupine was never seen again.






There was once an old woman living all alone on the shore of Lake Superior. She had a little girl living with her whom she called her daughter, though she did not know exactly where the child came from. They were very poor and the little girl went into the woods and dug wild potatoes or gathered rose betties for them to eat. The little girl grew up to be a woman, but she kept on doing the same work, getting potatoes and berries and picking up fish that were washed ashore. One day when doing this she had a strange feeling as though the wind were blowing underneath her clothing. She looked around her but saw no signs of anyone. After a while she went home.

As soon as she entered the house her mother saw that she looked troubled and bewildered. Her mother asked, “Did you see anyone? Did anyone speak to you? The girl replied, “I saw no one and heard no one speak to me.” After a time the mother noticed that the girl was pregnant and questioned her again but the girl replied as before, that she had seen no one.


The only thing strange to her was the sensation of the wind blowing about her which she had described to her mother. When the time came for her to be delivered there was a sound as of an explosion and the girl disappeared, leaving absolutely no trace. The old woman threw herself on the ground and wailed because her daughter had disappeared. She searched everywhere but could find no trace of her. Finally, in looking among the leaves, she saw a drop of blood on a leaf. She picked it up carefully and put it beside her pillow.

After a while, as she lay there, she thought she heard some one shivering and breathing near her head. She lay still, not knowing what to do. She heard the breathing near her head constantly. As she lay there wondering what it could be she heard a sound like that of a human being. She said, “I guess I am going to be blessed.” As she lay there a voice spoke and said, “Grandmother, get up and build a fire. I am freezing.”


The old woman arose and looked around, and there beside her lay a little boy. She took him up and caressed him. She got up and made a fire to warm him, and behold the child was Winabojo. All the spirits that roam the earth were frightened at the birth of Winabojo, for they knew his power. Throughout his human life he was a mysterious being with miraculous powers. He grew rapidly in strength and soon began to help his grandmother. He dug potatoes and brought fish and berries for her.

One day, when he had grown to be almost a man, he asked his grandmother what was the largest fish in the lake. She replied, “Why do you ask? It is not good for you to know. There is a large fish that lives over by that ledge of rock, but it is very powerful and would do great harm to you.” Winabojo asked, “Could the great fish be killed?” His grandmother replied, “No, for he lives below the rocks and no one could get down there to kill him.”


Winabojo began to think about this and he made up his mind that he would learn to fight so that he could kill the great fish. He got some wood and began to make bows and arrows. Then he asked his grandmother if she knew of any bird whose feathers he could put on the arrows to make them effective. The old woman replied “No. The only bird whose feathers would make the arrows effective is a bird that lives in the sky, at the opening of the clouds. One would have to go up there to get the feathers.” Winabojo began to think how he could go up there and get the feathers that he was determined to have. At last he said to himself, “There is a high cliff on the edge of the lake. I will go up there and stay a while.”

When he reached the high cliff he wished that he might change into a little rabbit. So he became a little rabbit and lived there. One day he went on a very high part of the cliff and called to a big bird, saying, “Eagle, come here. I am a cunning little animal. I would be a nice plaything for your children.” The bird flew down and saw the little rabbit playing there. The rabbit was the cunningest thing he had ever seen. The big bird was the thunderbird and he alighted on the top of the high cliff, near the little rabbit. Finally he took the little rabbit and flew up, up toward the opening in the sky.


When the thunderbird came to his nest he called to his children, “I have brought you something very cunning to play with.” His wife spoke to him very crossly and said, “Why did you bring that rabbit up here? Have you not heard that Winabojo is on the earth? There is no knowing what you have picked up.” But the little rabbit was very meek and quiet, letting the children play with him as they liked. The big birds were seldom at home as they went away to get food for their children.

All at once one day, Winabojo began to talk to himself and he said, “There children throw me around as though I was nothing. Don’t they know I came here to get some of their feathers.” The next time the old birds went away he changed into his human form, took a club, killed the little thunderbirds and pulled off their feathers. He hurried around and tied the feathers up in bundles for he was sure the old birds would soon be home.


When all was ready he jumped off. He was not killed because he was a manido (spirit) and nothing could hurt him. He was unconscious for a time after he fell on the earth but he was not hurt. Soon there was a great roaring in the sky with flashes of lightning. The thunderbirds were coming after him. Winabojo jumped up when he saw the flashes of lightning and heard the thunder. The lightning was the flash of the thunderbirds’ eyes and the roaring was their terrible voices. He snatched up the bundles of feathers and ran for his life.

Wherever he went the flashes and the roaring followed him, but he held on to the feathers. He had gotten what he wanted and he did not intend to lose them. The thunderbirds kept after him and at last he felt that they were tiring him out. He began to fear that he would be killed after all. The thunderbirds came so close that they almost grasped him with their claws. He was getting bewildered. They were almost upon him when he saw an old, fallen birch tree that was hollow. He crept into the hollow just in time to save his life. As he got in the thunderbirds almost had their claws on him.


The thunderbirds said, “Winabojo, you have chose the right protection. You have fled to a king-child.” There they stopped. They could not touch him for the birch tree was their own child and he had fled to it for protection. There he lay while the thunder rolled away and the flashes of the thunderbirds’ eyes grew less bright. He was safe.

When the thunderbirds had gone away Winabojo came out of the hollow birch tree and said, “As long as the world stands this tree will be a protection and benefit to the human race. If they want to preserve anything they must wrap it in birch bark and it will not decay. The bark of this tree will be useful in many ways, and when people want to take the bark from the tree they must offer tobacco to express their gratitude.” So Winabojo blessed the birch tree to the good of the human race. Then he went home, fixed his arrows with the feathers of the little thunderbirds and killed the great fish.


Because of all this a birch tree is never struck by lightning and people can safely stand under its branches during a storm. The bark is the last part of the tree to decay, keeping its form after the wood has disintegrated, as it did in the tree that sheltered Winabojo.


The little short marks on birch bark were made by Winabojo but the “pictures” on the bark are pictures of little thunderbirds. It is said the bark in some localities contains more distinct pictures of the little thunderbirds than in others.


Source: Forty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology To The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1926-1927.

bottom of page