This is the first half of an account of the tribe's encounter with the explorer Jean Nicolet in Green Bay (which extends west from Lake Michigan) in 1634.
First Encounters of the Ho-Chunk Nation and the French
....Now this is what the old men have said and handed down to us. Once something appeared in the middle of the lake. They were the French; they were the first to come to Winnebago. The ship came nearer and the Winnebago went to the edge of the lake with offerings of tobacco and white deerskins. There they stood. When the French were about to come ashore they fired their guns off in the air as a salute to the Indians. The Indians said "they are thunderbirds." Then the French landed their boats and came ashore and extended their hands to the Winnebago, and the Indians put tobacco in their hands. The French, of course, wanted to shake hands with the Indians. They did not know what tobacco was, and therefore did not know what to do with it. Some of the Winnebago poured tobacco on their heads, asking them for victory in war. The French tried to speak to them, but they could not, of course, make themselves understood. After a while they discovered that they were without tools, so they taught the Indians how to use an ax and chop a tree down. The Indians, however, were afraid of it, because the ax was holy. Then the French taught the Indians how to use guns, but they held aloof for a long time through fear, thinking that all these things were holy. Suddenly a Frenchman saw an old man smoking and poured water on him. They knew nothing about smoking or tobacco. After a while they got more accustomed to one another. The Indians learned how to shoot the guns and began trading objects for axes. They would give furs and things of that nature for the guns, knives and axes of the whites. They still considered them holy, however. Finally they learned how to handle guns quite well and they liked them very much. They would even build fires at night so that they might try their guns, fcor they could not wait for the day, they were so impatient. When they were out of ammunition they would go to the traders and tell their people that they would soon return. By this time they had learned to make themselves understood by various signs.
The second time they went to visit the French they took with them all the various articles that they possessed. Then the French taught them how to sew, how to use an ax, and how to use a knife. Then the leader of the whites took a liking to a Winnebago girl, the daughter of the chief, and he asked her parents for permission to marry her. They told him that her two brothers had the right to give her away in marriage so he asked them and they consented. Then he married her. He lived there and worked for the Indians and stayed with them for many years and he taught them the use of many tools.........
Account recorded by Paul Radin, published in Thirty-Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1915-1916.
This account (if it was accurately recalled, and passed down through tribe members, and accurately recorded by Paul Radin) is a fascinating resource to study the relationship between one set of foreigners and the Indians. I was particularly interested the reference to thinking the guns and knives as holy, and indicates the spiritual nature of the Indians' way of looking at life. I liked the part which spoke of the gift of tobacco, which the French didn't know what to do with. The fact that one man threw water over an Indian who was smoking, as he must have thought he was on fire! No hostility is reported in this account. The French and Indians mixed their cultures to the extent that one of the whites married the chief's daughter. It isn't clear what time scales separate the events as the account and the reporting were over 250 years apart.