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  • Kara Newcastle

Myth Monday: Water Panthers (Native American Legend)

Myth Monday: The Water Panther (Native American Legend)

Agawa Rock - Mishipeshu

By D. Gordon E. Robertson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sea serpents and lake monsters were not unknown to the Native Americans; for hundreds of years before Columbus blundered his way to the New World, many native tribes told stories of, and thoroughly believed in non-human entities that lived in the water, and these things were vastly different from your everyday manatees, dolphins, whales, seals, and sharks. Many of these things were serpent-like, and some were a unique blend of feline and fish.

Among the Native Americans of the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, it was well-known that creatures called water panthers or water lynxes (sometimes water tigers or lions, sometimes as underwater panthers) lived in large, deep bodies of water such as lakes and rivers. These things were huge, distinctly cat-looking, but instead of fur they were usually described as having fish scales or scales made of copper, sometimes feathers, hand-like paws, long tails, saber-like teeth, curved horns or deer antlers, and a sharp ridge running along the length of their lithe bodies. When they hissed or roared it sounded like raging floodwaters.

Water panthers were revered as being god-like, guardians of the water (their natural elemental opposite were the Thunderbirds, and when the two races met they fought viciously.) The panthers were sometimes thought to be benevolent; it was believed that one could politely ask a water panther for help when fishing, and, if the water panther was in a good mood, it would send a good catch. On the other hand, they could be malevolent, causing floods, whirlpools, storms, and even brittle ice, and would readily become aggressive if their territory was infringed upon. Those who didn’t pay their respects to the water panthers were often knocked out of their canoes or dragged into the water and drowned; finding white sand in the mouth of a drowning victim was a sure sign that a water panther had taken its revenge.

Water panthers were thought to be In northern Michigan, Mishipeshu or “the Great Lynx” (spellings vary; also known as Gichi-anami’e-bizhiw, “the fabulous night panther”) was extremely possessive of the copper mines there, and didn’t hesitate to kill anyone who tried to take the metal away. One story tells how four Ojibwa men took some copper and tried to paddle across a lake with their loot. Instantly, a huge Mishipeshu surfaced, roared that the men were stealing its children’s toys and chased them across the lake, killing three of them. One managed to survive just long enough to reach his village and tell his people what had happened.

A Cree legend tells of the time a water panther named Wi Katca fell in love with a maiden and they married. When the woman became pregnant with the water panther’s children, many of her relatives were horrified and decided that they would kill the hideous hybrid creatures. Hearing the threats made against his family, the enraged Wi Katca unleashed a flood that wiped out most of his wife’s village, saving her and their children. Satisfied, Wi Katca drew the waters back, and those that survived the flood rebuilt their village, calling it the “old town”--which we now know as Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Most people have never heard of the water panther, but its legacy still lurks. The coat of arms for the Canada Museum of Natural History features a water panther. An episode of the TV show Grimm, titled “Misipeshu,” featured a girl who was possessed by the water spirit. Last I heard, Pay Master Games was releasing a RGP game called Going Native: Warpath and included the water panther as one of its miniatures. Periodically, a creature is sighted in Lake Superior; it’s called “Pressie” by the locals, since it’s frequently seen near Presque Isle River, but some believe it to be an actual water panther.

And if you want to see something really cool, head over to Agawa Rock on the Ontario side of Lake Superior. There you’ll find ancient pictographs of many mythical creatures, including Mishipeshu! (Please be nice and follow park rules.)

Depiction of a water panther

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