Med thumb spearing salmon by torchlight  an oil painting by paul kane.

You never want to say one religion is better than another, unless you’re talking about the religion of the Menominee Indian tribe, which is clearly the best. Or at least, their stories are the most charming. Case in point: they believed that a clever, shape-shifting rabbit god created the darkness and that sleep was controlled by the Master of Night, a small, invisible man who’d sneak into your bedroom and thwack you with a pillow.

The Menominee Tribe once spread over all of Wisconsin and parts of Michigan and Illinois as well. Today, 8,551 tribal members exist today, with about half of them living on their 235,523 acre reservation 45 miles northwest of Green Bay.

Their chief deity is Manabush (also known as Nanabozho), a shape-shifting trickster spirit sent down to earth by the good spirit. The deity, who routinely took the form of a rabbit, spread knowledge and performed great feats armed only with bravery and cleverness. He defeated a sea serpent by letting himself be eaten so he could slay the beast from the inside. He stole tobacco from a giant and turned the giant into a grasshopper by luring him off the edge of a cliff twice.

(Basically, he’s basically Bugs Bunny with magic powers.)

The Great Rabbit Nanabozho (Untitled) Norval Morrisseau

Anyway, among his many great and impressive accomplishments is the creation of night itself. According to Menominee tradition, a compromise between Manabush and the owl split time into day and night.

Manabush could see better when the sun shone, and wanted it light all the time so he could always see clearly. The owl saw better in the dark and wanted it night all the time. To settle whether the world was in light or dark, they held a chanting contest, with Manabush saying “light” and the owl saying “night.” The owl lost when he accidentally repeated Manabush’s word. But the rabbit, a compassionate god, was considerate of the owl and let night fall after each day.

As it happened, people like Manabush couldn’t see well in the dark and needed something to do all night.

That’s where the Master of Night comes in. Beckoned by Manabush, the invisible magic sprite has a kind of Midas touch. But instead of turning things to gold, contact with him turns wakefulness into sleep.

According to Menominee oral traditions, the Master of Night travels from home to home, using his magic to give humans the gift of sleep. He brings weariness with two methods: observation and battery. The less intrusive of the two is his stare, which he uses to fatigue people who are away from their beds. When he finds people already in bed, he hits them in the head with something soft, like a pillow, to knock them into dreamland.

Master of Night_MAIN

It’s a weird job for a god, and he’d surely be noticed by witnesses if not for his stature and , you know, the magical nature of his appearance. The stories say he is short, between three or four feet tall. And while stories say he is human, he does have the power to turn invisible. 

The Master of Night spreads sleep in accordance with age, visiting babies first and then children before adults and the elderly. Getting struck by the master of night was a sign of good luck. Receiving such a blow meant that you would live to an old age. If you had were restless, it meant the Master of Night accidentally skipped you.

So, next time you can’t sleep, just tell everyone the tiny man beckoned by a clever rabbit didn’t hit you with his pillow last night. It’s way more interesting.