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Legendary Native American Figures: Piasa Bird (Piesa)

Name: Piasa
Tribal affiliation: Miami, Illini, Sauk
Pronunciation: usually pie-a-saw or pee-a-saw
Also known as: Piesa, Paillissa, Piasa Bird
Type: Monster, giant bird

The "Piasa Bird" is not actually a Native American monster-- it is a character from an adventure story written by a white author in 1836. Although the story is narrated as if it were an actual Indian legend, it is not. The author, John Russell, stated that his Piasa story was merely inspired by 17th-century Indian cliff paintings in Illinois. (The narrator's discovery of a grisly graveyard of the Piasa monster's victims was also fictional, if you were curious!)

The Piasa cliff paintings had faded away by the time Russell wrote his story, but a Jesuit priest visiting the area drew a picture of one of them in his journal, which you can see here. The monster represented in these "Piasa" paintings was almost certainly the Underwater Panther, a magical beast of great ceremonial importance throughout this region which was described as having the form of a cougar with a scaled body, antlers, and a long prehensile tail. Note the lack of any wings. Underwater panthers are aquatic monsters never depicted as flying in Native American mythology.

From that point, non-Indian artists and authors took over. Locals have been reproducing images of the "bluff monster" since the early 1800's, in much more accessible locations than the originals (which were located high up a sheer cliff face.) Some of the replicas looked like crude teenage graffiti, while others were quite artistic. Increasingly, they had nothing to do with the original anymore, instead resembling Greek manticores or hippogriffs. At some point, the replicas sprouted wings. Russell's adventure story declared the monster a giant bird and gave it the name "Piasa" for the first time-- a name which has stuck to this day. As for the cliff paintings, the originals-- faded nearly into invisibility-- were destroyed by quarrying in the mid-1800's. The image that is periodically repainted on the Alton rocks today is a design created by a white artist in 1924, which bears little resemblance to the original rock art.

So where did the name "Piasa" really come from? The likeliest thing is actually that the author just made it up himself. The Internet didn't exist in those days, and Russell didn't talk to any Native American people before writing his story. Still, it's possible that the word "Piasa" could have real Native American origins. Paissa (also spelled Payiihsa) is a Central Algonquian word meaning "little people," used to refer to a race of mythical dwarves. They looked nothing like either the Indian cliff paintings or a giant winged bird, but the Little People were credited with making rock carvings in many Algonquian tribes, so maybe Russell heard of such a story and made a slightly garbled connection. Another possibility is that Piyesiw is a Cree name for the Thunder-Bird. The Cree have never lived in the Illinois area, but authors at that time did not always care much for historical details like that. A third possibility is that the father of the Sauk chief Black Hawk was named Pyesa; Russell may have 'borrowed' the name from Black Hawk's autobiography, which was published three years before he wrote his story.

Piasa Stories

The Piasa: An Indian Tradition of Illinois:
    Reprint of Russell's original 1836 story about the Piasa Bird.
Legend of the Piasa Bird:
    An embellished version of Russell's Piasa story, with one of several modern (and very non-Indian) winged depictions of the Piasa monster.
Piasa Bird Is Pure Fiction:
    Article about the invention of the Piasa legend.
The Piasa or Piasa Bird:
    Interesting essay about the story of the Piasa, including photos of several modern paintings of the beast done by non-Native artists.

Recommended Books of Related Native American Legends

Algonquian Spirit:
    Excellent anthology of stories, songs, and oral history from the Miami and other Algonquian tribes.

Additional Resources

 Illinois legends
 Illinois language
 Sac-Fox language
 Illinois words
 Illinois Indians
 Woodland Native cultures
 Algonquian language



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