If you’ve ever gone to Lake Superior you may have heard of a creature that lives in the lake and on Michipicoten Island where it guards its hoard of copper. It is important to first talk about the island because it sounds like something out of a scooby-doo episode. It’s the third largest island in Lake Superior and it’s the most remote. There are numerous shipwrecks along the coast from failed attempts to visit the island. The shoreline can be difficult to navigate due to the island being made of ancient lava bedrock and the mist that usually covers the shore. The island was once home to many copper mines that were worth millions and fisheries in the early 1900s, though the fisheries eventually shut down and the mines were abandoned when nothing of value was found despite the natives in the area telling the Europeans that there was an abundance of copper on the island.
The creature that calls this lake and island home is known by just a few names, 45 to be exact. The name Mishipeshu translates roughly to “The Great Lynx” but most refer to it as the underwater panther. This creature has many descriptions such as; the head and paws of a large cat, antlers like a deer or bison, scaly body that also has patches of feathers, razor-like fins along its back, fur, and a very long prehensile tail. Its antlers, scales, and fur are said to be made of pure copper. The sounds of the Mishipeshu are said to be like the hissing of rushing rapids or the roar of a mighty storm. Speaking of storms it is said that the creature lives in the deepest parts of the lake and is able to create large waves, storms, rapids, and whirlpools. The creature has also been said to break through the ice in the winter, causing people to fall in and drown. Any lake could be a home for one of these creatures, but some are known to have a sudden change in appearance, such as abrupt strong wind, fog, deep depressions, or specific colorations, all of these are signs of a great lynx.
Tales of the Mishipeshu have been a part of tradition for several tribes in the great lakes region, more specifically, the Odawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Algonquin, Shawnee, Crees, Menominees, and the Anishinaabe. There are a few theories on the creatures intentions, some believe that it’s a dangerous creature that brings death and misfortune while others see it as a guardian of precious metals in Lake Superior and the great lakes region, in this case the precious metal would be copper. Sometime in the 1950s, the Prairie Band of Potawatomi native americans performed a traditional ceremony to placate the Underwater Panther (basically to keep him happy) and to maintain balance with his enemy, the Thunderbird. (Thunderbirds rule the skies and the upper world while the Mishipeshu rules the waters and the lower world.)
Sometime in the 17th century when missionaries began arriving in the great lakes region, the Ojibwe tribe considered taking copper to be taboo and it was extremely forbidden. Taking copper was even worse if it was taken from the creatures home on Michipicoten island as it was seen as stealing.
A Jesuit missionary by the name of Claude Dablon told a story of four Ojibwe people who had journeyed to the island to gather copper and bring it back to their village so they could use it to heat water. As soon as the group pushed off from the island after gathering the copper, they heard the eerie voice of the water panther. It growled and accused them of stealing the playthings of his children, all four of them died during the return trip to the village, only one survived long enough to tell what had happened moments before he died. It is said that if travelers offer Mishipeshu tobacco he may grant safe passage over the lake. The Algonquins believed that the Mishipeshu was a bringer of protection, healing, and medicine. Their medicine bundles were often made of snakeskin much like the reptilian body of the water panther. The creature is also capable of granting bountiful hunts, fishing, and food if it’s in a good mood. There is also a game that used to be played in the Churchill river area called Mishipeshu that showcased the creature’s drowning power. Someone would be selected to be the water panther and this person’s goal was to catch their friends and throw them into the water.