Wihio Tales


Joshua J. Mark
published on 23 May 2024

Wihio tales are the Cheyenne legends featuring the trickster figure Wihio, who appears, variously, as a wise man, fool, villain, or hero and is associated with the spider. Wihio Tales continue to be as popular with the Cheyenne today as they were in the past as they entertain while also teaching valuable cultural lessons.

Balanced Rock, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA
Balanced Rock, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA

The Wihio Tales of the Cheyenne are similar to the Iktomi tales of the Lakota Sioux nation, and both Wihio and Iktomi (also known as Unktomi) share similarities with trickster figures of other Native peoples of North America, including Coyote of the Navajo and Glooscap of the Algonquin. Like these others, Wihio may often be depicted as a fool who cannot understand the simplest instructions or as a clever clown or sage, but, in every case, his stories involve some form of transformation while also serving as teaching tools.

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This transformation can be as simple as learning not to trust in the goodness of strangers or not counting on outcomes one is not certain of or the suggested change, while seeming simple enough, might suggest deeper themes of a higher nature.

Wihio the Spider

Wihio's name is related to the Cheyenne word for chief and is also part of the name of the Creator – Heammawihio (also known as Maheo/Ma'heo'o) – the Wise One Above. Anthropologist and historian George Bird Grinnell (l. 1849-1938), who wrote extensively on the Cheyenne, notes:

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The dwelling place of Heammawihio is denoted by his name, which is composed of the adverb he'amma, above, and wihio, a word closely related to wi'hiu, chief. Wihio also means spider…and appears to embody the idea of mental ability of an order higher than common – superior intelligence. All its uses seem to refer to this mental power…The spider spins a web, and goes up and down, seemingly walking on nothing. It is more able than other insects, hence its name. (Cheyenne Indians, Vol. II, 88-89)

This being so, it may be surprising to read the Wihio tales in which the central character is so often depicted as a buffoon. In Wihio and Coyote, he victimizes the dogs and ducks and is then victimized himself by the coyote, and in The Wonderful Sack, he is both villain and fool as he steals the sack from the Man-of-Plenty but then cannot manage its use. In the Wihio tales presented here, he appears, more or less, this same way.

Whether he is the teacher or the one being taught, the Wihio character reminds the Cheyenne of the importance of observing tradition.

In Wihio Loses His Hair, he is fooled by two young girls and must think quickly to save face before his family. The Turning Stones and The Back Scraper both depict Wihio as too foolish to remember how to follow instructions. In other tales, however, he might appear wise or exceptionally clever, weaving his various webs of plans, which may – or may not – turn out as he hopes. Whether he wins or loses, though, he still imparts an important message; what that message is, is up to the individual to interpret.

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The importance of the number four in the latter two stories here is also seen in other Wihio tales and in many of the stories of the Plains Indians as the number is associated with the four cardinal points of the compass, which were considered sacred. Wihio, in forgetting how many times he has performed the magic – whether in these stories or others such as The Wonderful Sack – suggests he has forgotten the sacred nature of the four directions and so, by extension, his Creator Heammawihio. According to the Cheyenne belief, in forgetting one's Creator, one forgets oneself and suffers the consequences.

Those consequences may be both temporal and eternal, according to the Cheyenne belief, in that those spirits of the departed who had forgotten their Creator – and what was due to others and the created world – could not find their way home to Heammawihio in the afterlife. There is no judgment in the Cheyenne afterlife; those souls who are not welcomed to eternity by the Creator could be said to be those who, in life, failed to remember and follow simple instructions.

Cheyenne Beaded Hide Shirt
Cheyenne Beaded Hide Shirt
Wolfgang Sauber (CC BY-SA)

In another Cheyenne tale, Enough is Enough, not included here, the character of the Cheyenne Man is associated with Wihio who teaches White Man how to jump into trees on hot days to rest in the shade. In this story, Cheyenne Man remembers the sacred number four, and it is White Man who forgets, becomes stuck in the tree, and eventually starves to death. Whether he is the teacher or the one being taught, the Wihio character reminds the Cheyenne of the importance of observing tradition, of the Creator who established those traditions, and, ultimately, of what is most important in life.

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The following stories are taken from By Cheyenne Campfires (1926) by George Bird Grinnell, republished by University of Nebraska Press in 1971.

Wihio Loses His Hair

One day, Wihio was walking about when he saw two young women sitting on the ground. He went up to them, saying to himself, "Here are my nieces." He had never seen them before and did not know who they were. Then he said to them: "My nieces, I am glad to see you. I have lice in my hair. I want you both to pick the lice out of my head."

He lay down on the ground and one got on each side of him, looking for the lice.

While they were doing this, he fell asleep and, when he was asleep, the two girls got cockle burrs, as many as they could find, and stuck them all through his hair; then they both left him and went away. After a time, Wihio awoke and found his head completely covered with the burrs. He tried to touch his hair, but he kept pricking his fingers.

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After feeling his head, he started off to back to his lodge. As he was going along, he saw a mouse running in the grass. Wihio said: "Stop, my nephew; I want to see you a minute."

The mouse said to him, "What is it you want?"

Wihio replied, "My head is full of cockle burrs, and I want you to gnaw off all my hair."

He lay down on the ground and the mouse gnawed his hair all off, leaving his head quite bare. When Wihio got up he saw his hair lying in a bunch before him, full of burrs. He said, "That is good, I feel better now."

He walked on to his lodge and, when his wife came out and saw that he had no hair, she said to him, "What have you been doing?" and struck him on the back. Wihio said: "Wait; do not strike me. I have heard a very bad story. Come here, my children," and he embraced them. "I heard you were all dead, so I had my hair cut off. It very nearly killed me when I heard you were all dead."

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The Turning Stones

One day, Wihio was walking along over the prairie when he saw a man going about commanding stones to turn over and, at once, they turned over without being touched.

Wihio watched the man until he had done this several times, and then he walked up to him crying, and spoke to him, saying, "My brother, I am poor; take pity on me. I want to do this."

The man said, "Do not cry, my friend; this is easy. I will tell you how to do it; but if I tell you, you must do just as I say; otherwise, trouble will come to you."

The man gave him his power and told him to exercise it only four times, and Wihio said he would do so. He was glad to have this power, and he turned over one rock after another; but, after he had done this two or three times, he could not remember how many times he had done it, and when he turned over the fourth stone, he said, "This is three times."

When he tried it the fifth time, the great stone, instead of turning over away from him, as all the others had, turned over toward him and began to roll at him. Wihio ran back to get out of the way, but the stone rolled after him, and chased him far until he was very tired and could just stagger along ahead of the rock, which was hitting his heels at every step. Presently, Wihio fell down, tired out, and the rock rolled over him, and held him to the ground, lying on his chest.

Wihio struggled and squirmed, but he could not move the stone. After he was caught, he called for help. The buffalo came, and ran at the stone, hitting it with their heads, and trying to push it away, but they only broke their horns; they could not move it. Other animals tried, but they could not do it. Wihio kept looking about for help, but there was none.

At last, he saw a bird in the sky – a nighthawk flying – and called to it, saying: "Ah, little brother, this stone has been saying bad things about you. It said you had a round head and big eyes, a pinched-up beak and a wide mouth, and that you were a very ugly bird. I told him not to speak so, but when I said this to him, he jumped on me and holds me down."

When the nighthawk heard this, he flew far up in the sky, and then darted straight down and struck the stone squarely in the middle, and it broke into many pieces, which flew in different directions. Then Wihio was able to get up and walk away.

The Back Scraper

A long time ago, a man was seen down close by the water, standing on his hands and knees, while a woman was scraping his back with a flesher. When she got through, and the man stood up on his feet, there was a big pile of scrapings – chips shaved off as from a buffalo's hide – and they cooked and ate these.

Wihio came down the stream and, when he saw what was going on, he began to cry, saying, "I wish I could do as my friend does."

The man said to him: "Do not cry, my friend; you may do as I do. Whenever you get very hungry, and your children are hungry, you may do this, but do not repeat it more than four times."

Wihio went on his way and, when he reached home, he told his wife what he had seen and got down on all fours and told her to scrape his back.

She was afraid, and said to him, "What are you going to do? Do you not know that this will hurt you?" But he said, "Go ahead and do as I tell you." So she scraped his back and cut off a quantity of scrapings, as if from a buffalo hide, and they cooked and ate them.

A short time afterward, Wihio's children again were hungry, and again he got down on all fours and had his back scraped. The children were glad when they saw him do it; they knew that they were now to get something to eat.

Now, Wihio forgot that he had done this before, and this time, when he got up, he said, "Now I have done this once." The third time it was done, he said, "This is twice." The fourth time, he said, "This is three times."

Then, one day, he said, "Now I can do this once more" – but it was really the fifth time – and when his wife began to scrape his back, she scraped skin off, and it hurt, and Wihio began to shout with pain and dodged away.

After this, Wihio went back to the man he had seen and complained that the fourth time he had been hurt. But the man said, "You did this too often, and have made a fool of yourself." He passed his hand over Wihio's back and healed the wounds so that they no longer hurt.

After he had healed him, the man spoke to his wife and said, "Let me have your dress." The woman took off her dress and handed it to him, and the man took it and cut some pieces from it and threw them into the kettle with the rest of the dress; and after they had cooked for a while, presently he took them out, for they were pieces of fine back-fat.

Then Wihio began to cry, saying, "I wish I could do what my brother can."

The man said: "Do not cry, brother, you can do this; but you must not do it more than four times. Also, while the food is boiling, you must stir the kettle four times." Then Wihio went home glad.

After he had reached home, he said to his wife: "Now, today I have learned something. We will no longer be hungry. Let me have your dress."

The woman said to him: "Ah, you have been off somewhere, and you have learned something. This time you had better be careful." Nevertheless, she gave him the dress, and he began to cut it up. Then the woman scolded, crying out, "Here, what are you doing with my dress?"

"Wait," said Wihio, "you shall see." He put the pieces in the kettle and, when it was boiled, he took out pieces of fine back-fat. The children began to jump up and down and to dance and clap their hands. With the meat in the pot was the dress, as good as ever.

After this, Wihio did this again, and again got food, but he made a mistake in his counting so that, when he had done this the third time, he counted it as twice, and the fourth time as three times.

Now, Wihio was about to do this once more, the last time – as he thought – and he asked the man to come and eat with him. He put the dress in the pot, stirred it four times, and then began to look for meat in the pot. But there was none there, only the skin dress boiled and all shrunk up to a ball.

The invited man said to Wihio: "You do not do things as I tell you. You always make mistakes." He stirred the kettle four times, took out meat, and they ate. Now the man rose to go and said to Wihio: "I cannot teach you anything more; you do not do things right. It is useless to teach you." Then he went away.

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About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
Joshua J. Mark is World History Encyclopedia's co-founder and Content Director. He was previously a professor at Marist College (NY) where he taught history, philosophy, literature, and writing. He has traveled extensively and lived in Greece and Germany.


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Questions & Answers

What are Wihio tales?

Wihio tales are the Cheyenne legends concerning the trickster figure Wihio.

Are the Wihio tales the same as the Iktomi or Coyote tales?

No. The Wihio tales come from the Cheyenne nation; Iktomi is the trickster figure of the Sioux and Coyote of the Navajo. The figures are similar but not identical.

What are the Wihio tales about?

The Wihio tales all concern the adventures of the trickster Wihio and teach valuable cultural lessons. The stories all have to do with some form of transformation.

Were the Wihio tales all written at the same time?

Probably not. There is no way to date the composition of any of the Wihio tales as they were passed down through oral transmission for generations until they were written down in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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APA Style

Mark, J. J. (2024, May 23). Wihio Tales. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/article/2463/wihio-tales/

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Mark, Joshua J.. "Wihio Tales." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified May 23, 2024. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/2463/wihio-tales/.

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Mark, Joshua J.. "Wihio Tales." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 23 May 2024. Web. 17 Jun 2024.