Bear Spirits

by Richard L. Dieterle


After Earthmaker created this island on which we live, he created all living things, man being the very last of these. The first and foremost animal that Earthmaker created was a bear of pure white color, whom he placed in the north. This is White Bear. The second bear that he created was Red Bear, whom he placed in the west. Earthmaker next created in the east a kind of grizzly bear [inset], Blue Bear, who was the color of the sky, either blue, or as some say, gray. The last bear created by Earthmaker was Black Bear, who was placed in the south. These four kinds of bears were created as Island Weights to help stop the incessant spinning of the primordial earth. Spiritually, they were not only bears, but the four cardinal winds as well. White Bear was chief over polar bears, Red Bear held hegemony over the brown bears of earth, Blue Bear ruled over grizzlies, and Black Bear was chief of the terrestrial black bears.1 Others say that Black Bear was the eldest and White Bear the youngest.2 This is more consonant with a story in which the chief of the bears is known as "Black Fur," marking him clearly as a black bear.3 In one account, each of the Spirit Bears is the forefather of the four Hočąk Bear Subclans. The ambiguity of the black Spirit Bear probably derives from the temporary extinction of the Black Bear Subclan, which was later reinaugerated by Fourth Universe.4 There is good evidence that the proto-Winnebago-Chiwere predecessor to the Bear Clan was a Black Bear Clan. Black bears can be found in not only their nominal color, but white, gray, blue, and cinnamon as well.5 This is strongly suggested by a name collected by the Rev. J. O. Dorsey. He says that Čonąkera is "the ancient name of the Black Bear Gens, now known as the Hǫč Ikikaračara."6 Most accounts say that of the four spirit brothers, White Bear was sent down to earth to found the Hočąk Bear Clan.7 However, one account names Blue Bear as the founder,8 and the old name for the clan, Čonąkera, seems to be related to Foster's čonąkera, "the blue back of [a] wolf."9 Blue Bear, as chief of the fierce grizzlies (mąčo) is naturally blue (čo). When Black Fur sent a bear to punish an act of sacrilege, it debauched from a spring covered in blue earth, which in Hočąk is mą čo. Thus, it was easy to transform the bluish black bears into mąčo, grizzlies.10 The interregnum that arose from the extinction of the Black Bear Subclan would have caused the realignment of functions and hierarchy seen in the present day structure of the Bear Clan.

The four primordial Bear Spirits are really men who manifest themselves as bears. Bear clansmen, who are descended from these spirit bears, are manąpe or "soldiers" (police), not only because the ancestral bear spirits suppressed the primordial disorder of the earth, but because the bear has a furious spirit, and from the force of its temper, is hard to overcome.11 Originally, Earthmaker chose Bear to watch over the world, rather like a manąpe. However, his temper was so violent that soon every creature in the world lived in terror of him. Consequently, Earthmaker had to recall him.12 Originally, soldiers were generated from briars and thorns, creatures with sharp claws and talons, and all the other things of the earth that are the most dangerous and warlike of their kind.13 The function of the soldiers is to act as a police force, defending the law, guarding valuables and persons, and meting out punishment to evil doers. As such, they represent the opposite of chaos, which in world mythology is symbolized by waters, since this element of nature is of itself formless and fluid, incapable by its own nature of any definition. Consequently, we find many instances of bears walking on water, since the bear stands opposed to the element of chaos as the champion of law and order. Thus when the primordial bears came to this earth, they did so by walking on the waters.14

It is this same power to overcome and control chaos that is responsible for Bear Spirits controlling the wind. Because Earthmaker made the Spirit Bears the four cardinal winds, they control the weather generally. This power resides even in common terrestrial bears, and in certain Bear clansmen who have assumed this power from their spiritual ancestors. Ordinary bears, for instance, always cause it to snow just before they give birth because they like to use the snow to wash their cubs; and if a Bear clansman of special training pours a tobacco offering to Blue Bear, he can "hold" as many as four days. When a day is held, the sun moves through the sky, but the day itself remains fair for the period.15

The living bears that roam the earth today are descended from the original Spirit Bears.16 Once a Spirit Bear came to earth and mated with a woman and produced a man who was half bear and half human, who was known as "Shaggy Man" because of the tufts of bear fur found on his body. Shaggy Man had a bear as a half-brother whom he forced to walk on his hind legs wherever he went, and this is why bears are today the most bipedal of animals. In those days there was a race of giant bears just as there was a race of human Giants. By superior courage and wit, Shaggy Man conquered these giant bears and made the world safer for humanity.17

Alliance with a Bear Spirit may make it possible to kill bears at will. The uncle of the founder of the Bird Clan had a wife who appeared to be a Bear Spirit. When he was taken prisoner, she was in human form, but when he escaped to rendezvous with her, she had assumed the form of a bear and was seen walking across the waters of the lake, through his wife, presumably, the uncle had control over bears, and could hunt them successfully at will.18 Red Squirrel, when he was still human, was able to hunt bears with the aid of a burnt gourd and a white bear. The white bear was a Spirit Bear who could cause bears to appear for the hunt. All Red Squirrel had to do was shake his gourd, and the bear would fall dead.19

Some Bear Spirits are evil. One of Grandmother Earth's brothers, Bear, was such a spirit. Hare once visited this uncle of his bringing a gift of a bag of acorns which Bear eats up completely. Bear tells his nephew that someone else must have done it, and that all he did was to eat half an acorn. In the end, his nephew tricks him so that he is shot dead by Hare's thunder-arrow.20 In a parody of this story, Bear tells Trickster that the only way that he can see Earthmaker is to die, so Trickster induces a group of archers to shoot him, but since he is immortal they can't kill him. He weeps so many tears over his foolishness that they form Lake Winnebago.21 Sometimes lesser Bear Spirits can be enlisted in activities that border on sorcery, as in the case of Red Squirrel and the white Bear Spirit. However, true to the form of an evil spirit, Red Squirrel became greedy, and a good spirit changed him forever into the mundane squirrel of our own times.22 One Bear Spirit married into the Giants. When the Giants gambled in a game of "chips" with Turtle for human lives, they called upon their ursine brother-in-law to play for them. He lost and Turtle promptly dispatched the Giants that had been wagered.23 The Twins encountered a Grizzly Bear Spirit in the west near a hill. The grizzly attacked them, bolling over Flesh, and actually killing him. Ghost brought Flesh back to life, and the two of them dispatched the bear. They took the meat home to share with their father, but he was appalled that they had killed a grizzly. He said that such animals were holy and that they must clean out the kettle in which they cooked the meat.24

Some Waterspirits seem to share in the nature of Bear Spirits. There is one variety called a Hųč-Wakjexi, "Bear-Waterspirit," which presumably has ursine features to its body, and unknown behavioral proclivities in the direction of bears.25

Other Bear Spirits are discussed under Bear and Were-Grizzlies and Other Man-Bears.


Links: Spirits, Bears, White Bear, Blue Bear, Black Bear, Red Bear, Were-Grizzlies and Other Man-Bears, Bear, North Wind, South Wind, Earthmaker, Island Weights, The Creation Council, Kaǧi, Bird Spirits, Hare, Earth, Trickster, Turtle, Squirrels, Giants, Waterspirits.


Stories: mentioning (spirit) bears (other than were-bears): White Bear, Blue Bear, Black Bear, Red Bear, Bear Clan Origin Myth, The Shaggy Man, Bear Offers Himself as Food, Hare Visits His Grandfather Bear, Grandmother Packs the Bear Meat, The Spotted Grizzly Man, Hare Establishes Bear Hunting, The Woman Who Fought the Bear, Brass and Red Bear Boy, Redhorn's Sons, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, The Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Hočąk Clans Origin Myth, The Messengers of Hare, Bird Clan Origin Myth, The Hočąk Migration Myth, Red Man, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, Lifting Up the Bear Heads, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, The Two Boys, Creation of the World (v. 5), Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, The Brown Squirrel, Snowshoe Strings, Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, The Spider's Eyes, Little Priest's Game, Little Priest, How He went out as a Soldier, Morning Star and His Friend (v. 2), How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Trickster's Tail, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Warbundle Maker, cf. Fourth Universe; featuring Bear as a character: Hare Visits His Grandfather Bear, Bear Offers Himself as Food, Hočąk Clans Origin Myth, The Hočąk Migration Myth, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth, The Woman Who Fought the Bear; featuring White Bear as a character: White Bear, The Creation of the World, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 7); mentioning Red Bear: Brass and Red Bear Boy, The Spotted Grizzly Man, The Journey to Spiritland, The Creation of the World, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 7), Red Bear; featuring Blue Bear as a character: Blue Bear, The Creation of the World, The Creation Council, Bear Clan Origin Myth; mentioning grizzly bears: Brass and Red Bear Boy, The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Were-Grizzly, The Spotted Grizzly Man, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, The Roaster, Wazųka, Little Priest's Game, The Story of How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store, Migistega's Magic, The Woman who Loved her Half-Brother, The Two Boys (giant black grizzly), Partridge's Older Brother, The Chief of the Heroka, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Dipper (white grizzly), Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Creation of Man (v. 9), The Creation of Evil, cp. The Woman Who Fought the Bear; featuring Black Bear as a character: The Creation of the World, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 7), Black Bear; featuring were-bears as characters: The Were-Grizzly, The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Spotted Grizzly Man, Brass and Red Bear Boy, Partridge's Older Brother, Turtle's Warparty, The Woman who Loved her Half-Brother, The Roaster, Wazųka, Porcupine and His Brothers, The Shaggy Man; mentioning kaǧi (crows & ravens): Kaǧiga and Lone Man, Bear Clan Origin Myth (vv. 2, 3), The Hočąk Arrival Myth, The Spider's Eyes, The Old Man and the Giants, Turtle's Warparty, The Shaggy Man, Trickster's Tail, The Healing Blessing, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Ocean Duck.


Themes: having the power to control the winds and/or the weather: Deer Clan Origin Myth, Bear Spirits, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 1, v. 5), Blue Bear; a class sorts into the four colors: blue, white, red, and black: Hare Kills Flint, Pigeon Clan Origins, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 7), Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store, Eagle Clan Origin Myth.


Notes

1 Walter W. Funmaker, The Bear in Winnebago Culture: A Study in Cosmology and Society (Master Thesis, University of Minnesota: June, 1974 [MnU-M 74-29]) 12-18, 59, 61-66. Dr. Funmaker is a member of the Winnebago tribe. His informant was Walking Soldier (1900-1977), a member of the Bear Clan. Walter Funmaker, The Winnebago Black Bear Subclan: a Defended Culture (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Minnesota: December, 1986 [MnU-D 86-361]) 48-49. Informant: One Who Wins of the Winnebago Bear Clan.

2 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 184. Youth apparently functions as a symbol of vigor and power, an alternative form of primacy that rivals temporal priority.

3 Paul Radin, "How the Old Woman Fought the Bears Who Came to Kill the Women Who Had Taken Part in a Feast During their Menstrual Period," Miscellany (American Philosophical Library, ca. 1912) 1 - 17. The first part of this story is also told in Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 253-254, and a brief reference to the Bear Feast is made on p. 180.

4 Funmaker, The Winnebago Black Bear Subclan, 51-57, 180. Informant: One Who Wins of the Winnebago Bear Clan.

5 Gary Brown, The Great Bear Almanac (New York: Lyons and Burford, 1993).

6 James Owen Dorsey, Winnebago-English Vocabulary and Winnebago Verbal Notes, 4800 Dorsey Papers: Winnebago (3.3.2) 321 [old no. 1226] (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, 1888) 82 pp., sv conakera (conokera).

7 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 182-186. Informant: a member of the Bear Clan.

8 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 186-187.

9 J. O. Dorsey, Winnebago-English Vocabulary and Winnebago Verbal Notes, sv conakera (conokera). I have not found this citation in Foster.

10 Radin, "How the Old Woman Fought the Bears," Miscellany 1 - 17; Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 253-254.

11 Funmaker, The Bear in Winnebago Culture, 65-66.

12 Joi StCyr, Why Spider has Eight Eyes, in David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 96.

13 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 186-187.

14 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 181-182; J. W., Untitled, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook 72, Story 51: 1-5.

15 Funmaker, The Bear in Winnebago Culture, 65-66.

16 Funmaker, The Bear in Winnebago Culture, 65-66.

17 Paul Radin, "The Hairy Man," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #9: 1-89.

18 J. W., Untitled, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook 72, Story 51: 1-5.

19 Paul Radin, "The Squirrel," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #21: 1 - 85. Hočąk syllabary text (by Sam Blowsnake?) with an interlinear translation by Oliver LaMère.

20 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 98-100.

21 Waukon G. Smith (Thunderbird Clan), "Origin Story of Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin," in David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 25.

22 Radin, "The Squirrel," Notebook #21.

23 Paul Radin, "Spear Shaft and Lacrosse," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #36: 1-81.

24 Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. A Study in Comparative Literature, Part I (Basil: Ethnographical Museum, Basil Switzerland, 1954) 58-74.

25 RS [Rueben StCyr ?], "Snowshoe Strings," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #60: 4-33.