I was researching my tribe's clan history and came across something interesting. Osages, like most American Indian tribes, name their clans after either mythological creatures, or common animals (typically with a mythological backstory for the choice).

One of the other subclans caught my eye: "Puma in the Water". This appears to be a reference to a common American Indian mythological character, Underwater Panther. I had never previously heard of this creature.

Apparently, he is the opposite and nemesis of Thunderbird (which I had heard of)*. He's not an actual panther, but rather an aquatic hybrid creature with a feline body, but also horns, scales, and a very long tail.

enter image description here

However, every reference to Underwater Panther I could dig up was in the mythology of Great-lakes area Algonquin-speaking tribes. Osages are not Algonquians, but rather Mississippi Valley Sioxans. And yet, there Underwater Panther is in my tribal history.

Wikipedia does now mention some possibility of a connection with the Mississippians, but completely unattested. My tribe maintains that the Middle Mississippians were their ancestors, and there does seem to be some consensus that at least some of them were probably Siouxan. That's about the best breadcrumb I have.

So the question here is exactly how widespread was Underwater Panther mythology among the Native American tribes? What nations featured it? Is he everwhere that has Thunderbird as well?

* - Yes, Osages have a clan associated with Thunderbird as well.

  • Great question; hope to see more like it! Have you asked anyone from your tribe about this? They seem like they would be the most likely to know the answer.
    – user62
    Jun 5, 2015 at 1:06
  • @Christofian - I wouldn't have gotten this far without them.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 5, 2015 at 3:01
  • 1
    Could this article help?
    – plannapus
    Jun 5, 2015 at 7:40
  • @plannapus - Greatly. Without going through it in detail, I see at least 4 tribes on his list that are Siouxan, 2 of which are very closely related to Osage.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 5, 2015 at 8:01

5 Answers 5


The underwater panther is indeed a very widespread figure. Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography has a section titled "The Forms of the Underwater Powers", which gives brief descriptions of records of similar traditions from peoples spanning the Plains, Mississippi river, Great Lakes, and Southeastern United States. The figure is referred to in different ways, sometimes a Great Serpent, or Underwater Panther, or others. In common, though, it is a powerful being of the Underworld, usually has horns and combines qualities of multiple animals, and opposes the Thunderbird (or similar Overworld being).

To justify linking these traditions (Great Serpent and Underwater Panther), the author has this to say:

Although Western eyes might readily identify the two creatures as quite different species, the native view, rooted in shape-shifting and symbolic imagery, seems to find much less distinction between the two. It appears, in fact, that the two quite different images would be better envisioned as the two ends of a pole, with various morphs possible between the extremes.

Generally, the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex seems to be (very roughly) a reasonable fit, though I have seen some sources that dispute the usefulness of that model.

Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

Among the particular peoples called out in the aforementioned book as having such a tradition: Algonkian peoples (in general), Ojibwa, Illinois, Peoria, Shawnee, Miami, Plains tribes (broadly), Mitchigamea, Menominee, Meskwaki (Fox), Cree, Sioux, Muskogee (Creek), Potawatomi, Dakota, Delaware, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Omaha, Ponca, Winnebago, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot.

While the tradition is very widespread, I don't believe it would be safe to say that it appears everywhere that Thunderbird myths occur. For a counterexample, Thunderbird is a major figure in Pacific Northwest traditions, but to the best of my knowledge, Underwater Panther does not occur in that region.

  • 2
    +1. When I went looking Friday, I did run across this modern attempt to conflate the UP and proper snake stories, so this is a line of scholarly thought. As near as I can tell, the snake stories were mostly a Musckoegan(generally south-eastern) thing. One source even had a map showing snake tribes, UP tribes, and tribes that had both. Not as pretty as your map though. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 8, 2015 at 18:42
  • 1
    +1 great answer. I just have one question: you say "I have seen some sources that dispute the usefulness of that model [Southeastern Ceremonial Complex]" -- could you cite those sources? It's not that I doubt you, it's that I'm interested in learning more.
    – user62
    Jun 8, 2015 at 18:59
  • @T.E.D. Pretty! That map is ugly as homemade sin. The text is comic sans, for pity's sake. I just couldn't find a better one online. At any rate though, yes, I am (obviously) convinced by the case made to equate the two forms.
    – femtoRgon
    Jun 8, 2015 at 19:01
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    @Christofian - Here's the one I came across recently: Farewell to the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex
    – femtoRgon
    Jun 8, 2015 at 19:03
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    @femtoRgon - Well, it has color, shading, and location dots. So its +3 right there. I will admit that modern Americans rendering defunct tribal names in Comic Sans is literally adding insult to injury. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 8, 2015 at 19:06

I come from a long line of leaders and Chiefs of the Sauks. My clan is in English is called Beaver because there was not word for underwater panther in English. My true clan name is Underwater Panther. When my Grandfather Elmer Manatowa Sr died, they found two skins of the underwater panther which looked like a panther, with long nose, web feet, and tail like a beaver but longer like the panther. I is all the physical proof I need to know that the underwater panther actually did exist and roam this earth. My name is Canwah which means I rule the whirlpools in the water; my ancestors observed an underwater panther's behavior in the whirlpools and decided to name one of my ancestors after that characteristic and behavior of the underwater panther. We roamed northern USA, consequently, the name Canwah has been passed down through generations and to this day I have the name. The name Canwah will be passed on after I am gone from this earth. They say our home was Tama, Iowa but Wisconsin area I was taught is more accurate, we spent a lot of time in that area; but we were a mobile Tribe, did not have a set place where we lived, moving due to seasons, weather, and soil conditions for growing food.

  • I think normally this stack is not fond of people contributing entirely first-hand information. In this case I'm personally making an exception (so +1), rather than insisting you do something stupid like put this on a web page elsewhwere and link to it. Thank you so much!
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 22, 2015 at 12:52
  • OOC: I notice from Wikipedia that your tribe also has a "Thunder" clan. That wouldn't happen to be a similarly encrypted name for Thunderbird, would it?
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 22, 2015 at 12:56
  • 3
    @T.E.D. related meta discussion. I agree with you that we should be encouraging first hand accounts like this one. However, we should make sure that saying "I'm part of culture x" isn't a get out of jail free card from our academic standards.
    – user62
    Jul 22, 2015 at 14:15
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    Seconded, Christofian. Is this information only oral, or is there an peer-reviewed resource that examines it as well?
    – cmw
    Jul 22, 2015 at 16:14
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    I can't speak for Dee, but I know for my own tribe such things are semi-oral. For example, when my niece and brother-in-law went through their naming ceremony, there were some sheets we were given with clan and seating information. However, they looked hand-done (and photocopied half to death), and I couldn't find anything matching them online anywhere. Elders are (by definition) dying out too, so there's a tremendous need for scholarship on native tribes.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 22, 2015 at 18:24

There is a rock bluff shrine to the underwater panther (according to people at Washington University) partially on my dad's property in southeast Missouri, got alot of pictures done in red paint with 3 holes bore into the rock face,they are filled with mud now from flooding but one has smoke residue going up half the bluff, pretty sure it's in what was a Mississippian area but later the Osage around Fredericktown


specifically Osage keywords for searches: "The Great Snake," "The Great Serpent" "She'-ki," We'tsa ton-ga," "Old Woman" or "Old Woman who never dies"(The great serpent is her husband.) "Piasa," although a word made up by Europeans, would yield some information. Look for things by Francis LaFleshe, especially the Osage dictionary, Carol Diaz-granados, James Duncan, F. Kent Reilly, among others. Anything discussing Mississippian mound builder cosmology will be compare/contrasting to Osage.

  • I have a squirrled-away link to a scan of the LaFleshe dictionary online (I don't give it out for fear it will get taken down). I thought "She'-ki" was just their word for "Rattlesnake" though. I'll definitely look into those searches, but for the benefit of everyone else, can you give some kind of summary of what I should expect to find searching on those things?
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 18, 2018 at 0:46

Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) or Huron also have stories of a horned water serpent or creature. See Creation and Confederation the Living History of the Iroquois, Darren Bonaparte, ch.7.

  • Most of the other commonly-associated nations are great-lakes based, so this isn't surprising on a geographic level. It however is another non-Algonquian culture, like the Osage, so good info there.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 29, 2021 at 13:09

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