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Native American ties to USA Groundhog Day

Created: 02 February, 2013
Updated: 26 July, 2022

By Roy Cook

Punxsutawney was first settled by the Delaware Indians. This name comes from for the location “ponksad-uteney” which means the “town of the sand flies.” The word, woodchuck also has Indian origins, coming from the legend of “Wojak, the groundhog.”The English word for woodchuck, or groundhog, comes from the Native American legend of Wojak. Wojak was considered by the Delaware Indians to be an ancestral grandfather, having begun life as an animal and becoming a man. It was the Delaware Indians who settled the area halfway between the Allegheny and Susquehanna Rivers, in the area of what would later become the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

The name DELAWARE was given to the people who lived along the Delaware River and the river in turn was named after Lord de la Warr, the governor of the Jamestown colony. The name Delaware later came to be applied to almost all Lenape people. In their language, this belongs to the Algonquian language family, LENAPE (len-NAH-pay) which means “The real People?” Their ancestors were among the first Indians to come in contact with the Europeans (Dutch, English, and Swedish) in the early 1600s. The Delaware were called the “Grandfather” tribe because we were respected by other tribes as peace-makers since they often served to settle disputes among rival tribes. They were also known for our fierceness and tenacity as warriors when they had to fight, but they preferred to choose a path of peace with the Europeans and other tribes.

Many of the early treaties and land sales they signed with the Europeans were in their people’s minds more like leases. The early Delaware had no idea that land was a commodity and that it could be sold. The land belonged to the Creator, and the Lenape people were only using it to shelter and feed their people. When the poor, bedraggled non-Indian (white) people got off their ships after the long voyage and needed a place to live the Lenape shared the land with them. The non-Indians gave us a few token gifts for our people’s kindness, but in the mind of the Europeans these gifts were in their treacherous minds actually considered the purchase price for the land.

The Delaware people signed the first Indian treaty with the newly-formed United States government on September 17, 1778. Nevertheless, through war and peace, the USA continually betrayed Treaties but took the land illegally. The Lenape ancestors had to continue to give up their lands and move westward (first to Ohio, then to Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, and finally, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma). One small band of Delaware left our group in the late 1700s and through different migrations are today located at Anadarko, Oklahoma. Small contingents of Delaware fled to Canada during a time of extreme persecution and today occupy two reserves in Ontario (The Delaware Nation at Moravian town and The Munsee-Delaware Nation). 

Returning to the groundhog, In his diary, dated February 4, 1841, Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morrison wrote that “Last Tuesday, the 2nd was the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.” This entry represents the first American reference made to what would become Groundhog Day.

Also a Cherokee Legend about the Groundhog

Seven wolves once caught a Groundhog and said, “Now we’ll kill you and have something good to eat.” But the Groundhog said, “When we find good food we must rejoice over it, as people do in the Green-corn dance.

I know you mean to kill me and I can’t help myself, but if you want to dance I’ll sing for you. This is a new dance entirely. I’ll lean up against seven trees in turn and you will dance out and then turn and come back, as I give the signal, and at the last turn you may kill me.”

The wolves were very hungry, but they wanted to learn the new dance, so they told him to go ahead. The Groundhog leaned up against a tree and began the song, Ha’wiy’ëhï’, and all the wolves danced out in front, until he gave the signal, Yu! And began with Ha’wiy’ëhï’, when they turned and danced back in line.

“That’s fine,” said the Groundhog, and went over to the next tree and started the second song. The wolves danced, out and then turned at the signal and danced back again.

“That’s very fine,” said the Groundhog, and went over to another tree and started the third song. The wolves danced their best and the Groundhog encouraged them, but at each song he took another tree, and each tree was a little nearer to his hole under a stump.

At the seventh song he said, “Now, this is the last dance, and when I say Yu! You will all turn and come after me, and the one who gets me may have me.” So he began the seventh song and kept it up until the wolves were away out in front. 

Then he gave the signal, Yu! and made a jump for his hole. The wolves turned and were after him, but he reached the hole first and dived in. Just as he got inside, the foremost wolf caught him by the tail and gave it such a pull that it broke off, and the Groundhog’s tail has been short ever since.

Here, in sunny southern California, most of the groundhogs have moved over to the flower fields of Encinitas for the colorful selections. So, keep an eye on your shadow and look forward to the warm, sunny pow wow days ahead. Mehan.