Looking back, lake spirits and “monsters” were thought to live in Devil’s Lake since the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In the late 1800’s when the first settlers came to the area, the locals, whose ancestors had lived here since that last glaciation, told stories of a battle that ultimately created Devil’s Lake.
Thunderbirds are everywhere within the history and culture of Native Americans. Thunderbirds were strong, massive creatures large enough to lift humans right off of the ground and carry them away! While each story has some variation, generally the Thunderbirds where the good guys who controlled the upper world and sometimes kept bad people in line. The underworld was often controlled by water spirits. Some said that the Thunderbirds were created specifically to control water spirts.
Well, our story tells of a long-ago battle that had been fought right where Devil’s Lake is located today. The Thunderbirds (Our heroes!) led a full-on assault on water spirits who were inhabiting the depths of an unnamed body of water that existed here far back in history. (Maybe the mysterious river geologists talk about today!) The Thunderbirds would fly high into the clouds and fire thunderbolts down into the water and surrounding shores. The water spirits fought back by throwing large stones into the air and creating waterspouts, swirling tempests from the depths of the water would rise to ensnare the Thunderbirds and pull them down. The pitched battle went on for days and days.
In the heat of the battle, trees were ripped from the ground. Even the stone cliffs were split, crushed and crumbled under the enormous firepower of the warring spirits. The land was laid waste and the lake created. And of course, now you know why the lake is surrounded by broken rocks and boulders! Even when the first surveyors arrived at Devil’s Lake in the 1800s, they described a place that was hard to move through and a lakeshore that took them a full day to navigate. If you pull out a photograph from the beginning of the last century, you can see the bluffs looked much different, and dare I say, more “war-scarred” than they do today. (Photo above.)
Finally, the battle ended. The Thunderbirds had vanquished the water spirts. Having won the battle, they returned north to their nests according to the story I’ve been told many times over the years. Interestingly, an Ojibwe legend tells us that the Thunderbirds lived in all directions. They arrived each spring with other migrating birds to battle the water spirits in the summer when they were most dangerous. Then the Thunderbirds would also head south in the autumn.
This legendary battle is just one possible reason Devil’s Lake was named, “Sacred Lake” or Ta-wa-cun-chuk-dah,” by the Ho-Chunk people. Other translations you probably know such as Spirit Lake, Holy Lake, Bad Spirit Lake and of course, Devil’s Lake.
But that’s not the end of the story. The water spirits didn’t all die. Some survived. Which will lead to our next article in a few days when we’ll look at the stories of the Devil’s Lake Monster.