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Buried at Duck Creek Cemetery: The story of medicine man apprentice Skinny Otter

HOWARD – With traffic frequently moving well-above the posted 35 mph speed limit, the average traveler most likely flies past the field at the southwest corner of Velp Avenue and Riverview Drive without noticing the arched iron arbor and identifying information on top – 1800 Duck Creek Cemetery.

Still today just a stone’s throw from the west bank of Duck Creek, Howard’s Duck Creek Cemetery was established as a burial ground by the Menominee who had a village there.

When French fur traders and other settlers joined the Menominee in the late 1700s, they, too, were buried in the cemetery – then in the midst of a heavily-wooded forest.

Traditional Menominee coffins were constructed of birchbark or other wood, or could even be a hollow tree. The coffined, unembalmed body was placed in a shallow grave.

To protect against the elements and especially wild animals, three logs were positioned over the grave – two laid on the ground with a third across them. Stakes were used to hold the logs in place.

Some graves were marked by wooden crosses that eventually gave way to the harsh Wisconsin elements.

In 1840, a young Menominee medicine man apprentice named Skinny Otter was buried at Duck Creek Cemetery.

The son of Blue Feather and White Beaver (which is the mother and which is the father is uncertain), Skinny Otter was born in the summer of 1813.

His father was at Fort Detroit fighting alongside Tecumseh, a celebrated Shawnee warrior and “great and magnanimous chief.”

He believed that “all the tribes of Indians… formed but one nation,” and that the tribes should unite and not give up their lands to the government.

After Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames on Oct. 5, 1813, Skinny Otter’s father returned to the Duck Creek settlement and met his son, whose childhood name was Hungry Boy.

Hungry Boy was enraptured by his father’s stories of Tecumseh, and was particularly interested in Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, one of two surviving triplet brothers and known as “The Prophet.”

He preached a return to traditional Native American ways, an unwavering rejection of the white man’s culture, and absolute abstinence from alcohol.

One evening French voyageur Joseph Rioux and his son, Lucas, joined Blue Feather, White Beaver and Skinny Otter around a “cook fire” in the busy Menominee village.

Joseph came to Wisconsin in the early 1800s. Lucas’ maternal grandfather was Frenchman Joseph Roy, who built the first trading post at Duck Creek in 1776.

As Skinny Otter “helped himself to another dish of boiled wild rice seasoned with maple sugar,” the friends shared a story.

When it became time for Hungry Boy’s rite of passage, he paddled by canoe to Grassy Island, then six miles long in the southern waters of Green Bay and long since washed away.

Here at this sacred site Hungry Boy spent several days in isolation and without food and water.

Surrounded by nature, he cried out to the spirit world for a vision that would help him understand his life’s purpose and his role in the tribal community.

As Hungry Boy fasted and prayed, a nearby colony of young otters lost their fear of the human invader and began to interact with him.

In his vision, Hungry Boy learned he would serve his people as a medicine man.

Before leaving, he took a rock and smashed the head of a young otter.

With the dead otter he returned to his village, shared his vision, and was given his adult name, Skinny Otter.

A talented seamstress and beader, Skinny Otter’s mother used “a hand loom, appliqués, dyeing, sewing and elaborate panels” to transform the otter skin into a work of art – a “Midi bag” where Skinny Otter would store his medicinal roots and herbs.

Acting as counselor, healer of sickness and illness, spiritual mentor, prophet, liaison between the earthly and spirit worlds, and the “keeper of myths, legends, traditions and tribal wisdom,” medicine men had considerable influence and were highly revered within the tribe.

The medicine man’s chants, dances, rituals, and sacred objects (like pipes, ceremonial clothing, prayer sticks, and medicine bags) were intended specifically to provide them with the power to invoke the good spirits and exorcise the evil ones.

Despite his youthful affinity for the teachings of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, and despite his apprenticeship to a medicine man, 26/27-year-old Skinny Otter found himself in a “drunken brawl” with a Chippewa named Batty Sick at the Duck Creek trading post.

The two had been arguing when Skinny Otter pulled out his musket, aimed it at Batty Sick and pulled the trigger – but it failed to fire.

The two then commenced a violent struggle for possession of the weapon.

Batty Sick prevailed. He rose up, aimed the musket, and killed the defenseless shaman’s apprentice.

Lucas Rioux and his brother-in-law, Louis Fontaine, buried Skinny Otter with his beautiful Midi bag, his pipe, tobacco, a small mirror, and a handkerchief – accoutrements necessary for the long road west to Che-pah-munk, the land of eternal happiness.

His grave was covered with three logs.

In her History of Brown Co., Wis. (1876), Bella French wrote that the white settlers “deprived” the Menominee of their guns so that they couldn’t execute Batty Sick.

So the Menominee women exacted the tribe’s revenge themselves.

Batty Sick was “massacred… by pounding his head and disjointing his hands, thus making a horrid spectacle of his body, which was afterward brought to the Indian burial ground, and there left exposed to view until some of the more pitying people put it out of sight.”

Whether or not Batty Sick was buried at the Duck Creek Cemetery is unknown.

As to the exact location of Skinny Otter’s grave, that has been lost to the ages.

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