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Underwater panther

Underwater Panther, National Museum of the American Indian

An Underwater panther, called Mishipeshu or Mishibijiw in Ojibwe, is one of the most important of several mythological water beings among many Great Lakes and Northeastern Woodlands Native American tribes, particularly among the Anishinaabe peoples.

Mishipeshu translates into "the Great Lynx". It has the head and paws of a giant cat but is covered in scales and has dagger-like spikes running along its back and tail. Mishipeshu calls Michipicoten Island in Lake Superior his home and is a powerful creature in the mythological traditions of some Native American tribes, particularly Anishinaabe tribes, the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi, of the Great Lakes region of Canada and the United States.[1][2] In addition to the Anishinaabeg, Innu also have Mishibizhiw stories.[3]

To the Algonquins, the underwater panther was the most powerful underworld being. The Ojibwe traditionally held them to be masters of all water creatures, including snakes. Some versions of the Nanabozho creation legend refer to whole communities of water lynx.[4]

Some archaeologists believe that underwater panthers were major components of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex of the Mississippian culture in the prehistoric American Southeast.[5][6]


  • Name 1
  • Description 2
  • Copper 3
  • Close encounters 4
  • Depictions in art 5
  • In popular culture 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


In the Ojibwe language, this creature is sometimes called Mishibizhiw, Mishipizhiw, Mishipizheu, Mishupishu, Mishepishu, Michipeshu,[1] or Mishibijiw, which translates as "Great Lynx",[7] or Gichi-anami'e-bizhiw ("Gitche-anahmi-bezheu"), which translates as "the fabulous night panther".[2][8] However, it is also commonly referred to as the "Great underground wildcat" or "Great under-water wildcat."[3][9] It is the most important of the underwater animals for the Ojibwa.[10]


Pictographs of a mishibizhiw as well as two giant serpents[1] and a canoe, from Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada. Attributed to the Ojibwe.[11]:71

In Native American mythologies of the Great Lakes, underwater panthers are described as water monsters that live in opposition to the Thunderbirds,[12] masters of the powers of the air. Underwater Panthers are seen as an opposing yet complementary force to the Thunderbirds, and they are engaged in eternal conflict.[11]:60

Underwater panther was an amalgam of features from many animals: the body of a wild feline, often a mountain lion or lynx; the horns of deer or bison; upright scales on its back;[11]:207 occasionally bird feathers; and parts from other animals as well, depending on the particular myth. Underwater panthers are represented with exceptionally long tails,[11]:59 occasionally with serpentine properties.[11]:60 The creatures are thought to roar or hiss in the sounds of storms or rushing rapids.[12]

Mishipizheu were said to live in the deepest parts of lakes and rivers, where they can cause storms.[11]:60 Some traditions believed the underwater panthers to be helpful, protective creatures, but more often they were viewed as malevolent beasts that brought death and misfortune. They often need to be placated for safe passage across a lake.[12] As late as the 1950s, the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Indians performed a traditional ceremony to placate the Underworld Panther and maintain balance with the Thunderbird.[4]

When ethnographer Johann Kohl visited the United States in the 1850s, he spoke with a Fond du Lac chief, who showed Kohl a piece of copper kept in his medicine bag. The chief said it was a strand of hair from the mishibizhiw, and thus considered extremely powerful.[2]


Mishipeshu is known for guarding the vast amounts of copper in Lake Superior and the Great Lakes Region. There seems to be substantial evidence that there was a very ancient and unknown people that mined the copper and moved the majority to an undisclosed location. Later, during the 17th century, the Jesuit Missionaries arrived in the Great Lakes Region. By that time, swiping copper from the region was extremely taboo and forbidden by the Ojibwa tribe. It was even worse to take it from the Great Lynx's home, Michipicoten Island; this was considered to be stealing from Mishipeshu himself.[13]

Close encounters

There are a few stories that might be of true believers of this great beast. A Jesuit missionary named Claude Dablon told a story about four Ojibwa Indians who embarked on a journey to the home of Mishipeshu to take some copper back to their home, and use it to heat water. The very second they pushed off and backed into the water with their canoe, the eerie voice of the water panther surrounded them. The water panther came growling after them, vigorously accusing them of stealing the playthings of his children. All four of the Indians died on the way back to their village; the last one surviving just long enough to tell the tale of what had happened in his final moments before he finally died. During the 1840s there was a copper rush; people there had realized the value of copper which was for the taking around Isle Royale and Keweenaw Peninsula. There was great suffering and accidents to which many key people and vessels fell victim. The steamer Cumberland was lost at the Rock of Ages Reef on Isle Royale. Another ship, by the name of Algoma, was sunk in a storm during 1885, and forty-five people sunk to a watery death in the creature's lair.

Depictions in art

The underwater panther is well represented in pictographs. Historical Anishnaabe twined and quilled men's bags often feature an underwater panther on one panel and the Thunderbird on the other.[11]:59 Norval Morrisseau (Ojibwe) painted underwater panthers in his Woodlands style artworks, contemporary paintings based on Ojibwe oral history and cosmology.[11]:207[12] The emblem has been embellished, and appears as a decorative motif on muskets.[14]

The Canadian Museum of Civilization includes an underwater panther in its coat of arms.[12]

In 2003, archaeologist Brad Lepper suggested that the Alligator Effigy Mound in Granville, Ohio represents the underwater panther. Lepper posits that early European settlers, when learning from Native Americans that the mound represented a fierce creature that lived in the water and ate people, mistakenly assumed that the Native Americans were referring to an alligator.[15]

In popular culture

The Grimm episode "Mishipeshu" involves the possession of a young Native American by an underwater panther.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Conway, Thor (2010). Spirits in Stone. Sault Ste. Marie, ON: Heritage Discoveries. 
  2. ^ a b c Kohl, Johann (1859). Kitchi-Gami: Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway.  
  3. ^ a b Barnes, Michael. "Aboriginal Artifacts". Final Report - 1997 Archaeological Excavations La Vase Heritage Project. City of  
  4. ^ a b Bolgiano, Chris (August 1995). "Native Americans and American Lions". Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.  
  5. ^ Townsend, Richard F. (2004). Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand.  
  6. ^ Reilly, F. Kent; Garber, James; Steponaitis, Vincas P., foreword (2004). Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms. Austin, Texas:  
  7. ^ Freelang Ojibwe Dictionary
  8. ^ "The fabulous night panther" is a translation from Anishinaabe language into French to German, which then was translated into English. The direct translation would be something closer to "The greatly revered lynx." See Freelang Ojibwe Dictionary
  9. ^ Gidmark, Jill B. (November 30, 2000). "Mishi-Peshu". Encyclopedia of American literature of the sea and Great Lakes (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press): 168.   ISBN 978-0-313-30148-3; 10.1336/0313301484. 568 pages.
  10. ^ Lemaître, Serge. "Mishipeshu".  
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Penney, David W. (2004). North American Indian Art. London: Thames and Hudson.  
  12. ^ a b c d e Strom, Karen M. (August 3, 1996). – Cultural Preservation"Missipeshu"Morrisseau's . Native American Indian Resources. Retrieved October 1, 2011. 
  13. ^ Godfrey, Linda S. (2006). Weird Michigan: your travel guide to Michigan's local legends and best kept secrets. New York: Sterling Publishing Co.  
  14. ^ Fox, William A. "Dragon Sideplates from York Factory, A New Twist on an Old Tail". Manitoba Archaeological Journal 2 (2): 21–35. Retrieved December 25, 2012. 
  15. ^ Lepper, Brad; Frolking, Tod A. (2003). "Alligator Mound: Geoarchaeological and Iconographical Interpretations of a Late Prehistoric Effigy Mound in Central Ohio, USA". Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13 (2): 147–167.  

Further reading

  • Lore, David (January 21, 2001). "Man pounces on panther theory about mound".  

External links

  • American Museum of Natural History on Mishepishu
  • Odawa twined bag with images of the Underwater Panther, NMAI
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