by Richard L. Dieterle

All living bears are descended from four Spirit Bears: White Bear, who resides in the north; Red Bear, who lives in the west; Black Bear, who lives in the south; and Blue (or Gray) Bear, who lives in the east and is chief over the grizzlies. [1] Because Earthmaker also made the original Spirit Bears the four cardinal winds, they have the additional power of controlling the weather. Some of this power was inherited by the mortal bears of earth. It is known, for instance, that bears always cause it to snow just before they give birth because they like to use the snow to wash their cubs. [2]

Besides their association with weather, bears have other connections that are more obscure in their significance. Wears White Feather (also known as "Wears a Sparrow Coat") could turn a bear into a burnt stump and back again. This suggests a symbolic connection between burnt stumps and bears (or bear meat). [3] In another story, a burnt gourd has the magical power to kill bears. [4] A human being who is destined to become a Thunderbird takes four bear hides and turns them into pontoons so that he can pursue a Nightspirit woman across the Ocean Sea. Inside each pontoon was a Thunderbird. [5] The bear hide pontoons recall the power of the primordial Bear Spirits to walk upon water. That they are a conveyance for the Thunderbirds to reach the Nightspirits suggests that bears also have an affinity for the Nightspirits. This is reinforced by the fact that the founder of the Black Bear subclan was a reincarnated Nightspirit. [6]

Besides connections to burn wood, water, and Nightspirits, bears are connected to other animals who are the model or image of a bear in that class of animals. The Thunderbirds often refer to game animals in more diminutive terms, calling Waterspirits, "beavers"; deer, "grasshoppers"; and bears, "crickets." [7] Here bears are thought of as mammalian counterparts to crickets, and crickets as insect counterparts to bears. Among birds, it is the kaǧi (crows, ravens) who are bears incarnate. The bears who founded the Bear Clan are said to have changed into kaǧi and back again as they came to shore. [8] When Turtle calls for a warpath, the kaǧi answer as "soldiers (mąnąpe) wearing very black clothes." [9] The term mąnąpe is reserved for members of the Bear Clan. A kaǧi is usually found in Bear Clan warbundles where it imparts the ursine spirit of strength in running. [10] (Clearly it is difficult to fit a bear into any kind of bundle.) Kaǧi and wolves are often found together at kills, so perhaps it is not surprising that wolves are strongly associated with bears as well. [11] Wolves, or their descendants in the Wolf Clan, are also connected with processes of water, wind, and the crossing of boundaries (such as shape-changing) [12], all of which are also attributed to the ursine nature. As a result of their affinity for one another, members of the Bear and Wolf Clans have a stronger friendship relation than is found between any other two clans. When the primordial Bear Spirits first went to earth to form the Bear Clan they encountered the tracks of their friends the wolves in the earth before them, and when they met, they sat opposite one another in the lodge. [13] When the Medicine Rite was first instituted, its origin was promulgated throughout the earth by a bear and a wolf; it was announced in the celestial realms by the two kinds of kaǧi. [14]

Some mythical figures express their affinity to bears by hunting them alone. [15] The two Snowshoe Spirits killed only bears when they went hunting. [16] The good spirit who turned the evil spirit Red Squirrel into the animal that we now know by that name, used to hunt nothing but bears. [17] The eldest brother of the ten brothers who took in the incarnation of the sun, himself hunted only bears. [18] However, in the story of Quail, it is the third brother who hunts only bears — the first brother hunts buffalo, and the second moose. [19]

Bears, despite otherwise being at the top of the food chain, are a much valued source of meat and hide. However, the fierceness of bears makes them difficult adversaries in the hunt. When the spirits met to order the natural world, Bear said he would offer himself as food provided that the spirits would command perpetual night on earth. "If humans want bear meat," he said, "they can just grab a bear by the hair and drag him inside." The spirits laughed and said Bear was far too violent in temperament to be dragged anywhere by the hair. [20] If real hunting prowess needs to be expressed, it is usually in terms of how many bears hunters kill. The hunters Turtle ordered to bring back meat for his feast returned with ten deer and ten bears. [21] A particular prowess in hunting bears is often proof positive of supernatural powers. Someone who can simply kick a mound or stump and have a bear fall out of it dead has given an indication of powers beyond what normal humans possess. [22] Bears must be hunted only after careful ritual preparation. They say that Hare was the one who founded these rites. First a sweat bath must be prepared, and as the vapors fill the chamber, the hunter must concentrate his mind so that his thoughts reach to the most minute elements of nature. Corn is set boiling over the fire, and tobacco offerings are made to the spirits. As they sing the Blackroot Songs, the bear is drawn to look in the hunter's direction, as bears can hear whatever is going on in the ritual. The hunter may feel the bear's mind turn towards him. The dance songs that follow, combined with the aroma of the offerings, make the bear want to come to the hunter. As the hunter looks into the fire, an ember that jumps towards him may indicate that the mind of a bear has turned in his direction. The next day, the hunter is able to tell his dogs from what direction the bear's mind came to him, and they set out that way in search of their quarry. The dogs will reach the bear's den and try to drag him out. Once he is out, the hunter can shoot him with his arrows. [23] The best time to hunt bears is in the winter when they are hibernating. Bears emerging from hibernation are groggy and disoriented [24], and are therefore much easier to kill. However, at other times of the year other techniques have to be used. There is an interesting practice known as "shouting at bears." One man attempts to drive a bear in a certain direction by yelling, "Ooooooooooooo!!" while others attempt to cut the bear off and shoot it. [25] The meat of bears is greasy, although it has a taste similar to pork. One Hočąk favorite is bear ribs served with corn. Bear fat can also be made into oil. It is said that a good steam bath vapor can be made by squirting bear oil from a bear stomach onto the hot stones. [26]

Spirits, while sojourning on earth, have often had encounters with bears. A man was once married to a woman who could turn into a bear. He had such control over bears that he was able to feed a starving tribe with one bear apiece. His nephew founded the Bird Clan of the Hočąk nation. [27] In another story, a bear made passionate love to Redman's wife, so he shot both of them dead and hung their heads on the tree in which the bear lived. [28] One day a bear came along and met Trickster who seemed to have a beautiful new feathered tail. The bear wanted such a tail for himself. (As it happens bears have the shortest tails — barely more than flaps of skin — that any other carnivore. [29]) The tail was actually a buzzard whose head Trickster had trapped in his rectum. He released the buzzard whose head had gone bald, then tricked the bear into letting him manipulate his rectum to receive his "tail." Instead, Trickster ripped out the bear's entrails, killing him. [30]

Human interactions with bears, apart from hunting, often involve blessing from Bear Spirits. (For which see Bear Spirits) The Bear Clan in particulars honors bears with its bi-annual Bear Feast, held when the First Bear Moon becomes visible. On the Hočąk calendar, there are two Bear Moons, the Hųjwičonįną (First Bear) and the Hųjwioragnįna (Last Bear). They occur in January and February respectively. The first of these has been called "Little Bear's Time," on account of the birth of bears in the hibernation den. Sometimes it is simply called Hunjwíra, the "Bear Moon." The second Bear Moon is also called Big Bear's Time, or Hųčwixątera (Big She-Bear Season, or Big Bear Moon); alternatively, it is simply called Húnjwioràgenina, the "Last Bear Moon." [31] It is during the Bear Moons that it is best to hunt bears, since if they can be flushed from their dens, they will be groggy and disoriented and therefore far easier to kill. It is also at this time that the very important Bear Feast is conducted. The participants eat only the produce of the earth, especially the favorites of the Chief of the Bear Spirits, which is maple sugar and blueberries. The fires are extinguished so that it is pitch black, and everyone eats with their left hands in silence. [32] [more on this rite] In addition to the Bear Feast, humans also honor bears in the activities of the Society of Those Who have been Blessed by the Grizzly Bear. [33] Since the grizzly bear is holy, at least some hold to the idea that eating its flesh is forbidden. This is the premise of the condemnation of the Twins by their father for engaging in this practice. [34]

Links: Bear Spirits, Bear, White Bear, Blue Bear, Black Bear, Red Bear, Were-Grizzlies and Other Man-Bears, Kaǧi, Moon, Trickster, Hare, Turtle, Sun, Waterspirits, Nightspirits, Thunderbirds, Wears Sparrows for a Coat, The Twins.

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.

Themes: hunters are sent out for bears and each comes back with one: Turtle's Warparty, Great Walker's Warpath, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hočągara; dragging a bear to the kill by his hair: Bear Offers Himself as Food, The Green Man, How the Thunders Met the Nights; shouting at bears: The Brown Squirrel, The Shaggy Man; threatening four times to shoot a bear, and causing the bear to cry: The Shaggy Man, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans; a man kills a game animal by simply striking the knoll (or stump) in which it is hiding: Redhorn's Father, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Old Man and Wears White Feather, Trickster and the Children, Snowshoe Strings.


[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] Funmaker, The Bear in Winnebago Culture, 65-66.

[3] Paul Radin, "Old Man and His Grandfather," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #53, 1-107.

[4] 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.

[5] Paul Radin, "Mązeniabera," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #21: 1-134.

[6] Funmaker, The Winnebago Black Bear Subclan, 51-57, 180.

[7] Radin, "Mązeniabera," Notebook #21.

[8] Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 181-182. Informants: a member of the Bear Clan and his father.

[9] Paul Radin, "Turtle's Warparty," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #28, p. 65.

[10] Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 502.

[11] The American Wolf, on Wild Discovery (Discovery Television Network). Viewed on July 6, 2000.

[12] Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 190, 192.

[13] Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 181-186. Informants: members of the Bear Clan.

[14] Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 302-311.

[15] Radin, "The Squirrel," Notebook #21.

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

[17] Radin, "The Squirrel," Notebook #21.

[18] Paul Radin, "Morning Star (Wiragošge Xetera)," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #8: 1-93.

[19] Oliver LaMère and Harold B. Shinn, Winnebago Stories (New York, Chicago: Rand, McNally and Co., 1928) 65-74. Informant: Oliver LaMère (Bear Clan).

[20] LaMère and Shinn, Winnebago Stories, 87-89.

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

[22] Radin, "Old Man and His Grandfather," Notebook #53.

[23] Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 111-113.

[24] Gary Brown, The Great Bear Almanac (New York: Lyons and Burford, 1993) 154.

[25] Radin, "The Squirrel," Notebook #21; Paul Radin, "The Hairy Man," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #9: 1-89.

[26] RS, "Snowshoe Strings," in Radin, Notebook #60.

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

[28] Paul Radin, "The Red Man," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #6: 1-72.

[29] Brown, The Great Bear Almanac, 78.

[30] J. W., Untitled, in Radin, Notebook 72, Story 51.

[31] The list of contemporary months is found at the following website: The Ho-Chunk Nation > Culture > Language > Lesson 17: The Twelve Moons.

J. Owen Dorsey (?), Winnebago Ethnography, Misc. (Smithsonian Institution: National Anthropological Archives) MS 4558 (102).

Thomas J. George, Winnebago Vocabulary, 4989 Winnebago (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, 1885). Informants: Big Bear of Friendship, Wisconsin, and Big Thunder.

The moons of the Wisconsin and Nebraska Hočągara are found in Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 76-77. Informant for monthly activities was a member of the Bear Clan.

[32] Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 180, 253-254; 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 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Library, ca. 1912) 1 - 17.

[33] Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 299-301; Cf. John Harrison, "The Story of Little Priest," Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3892 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago III, #11a, 224-241 (= 269-286). Told in June, 1903. The end of this was translated and published in Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 300-301.

[34] "The Epic of the Twins, Part Two," in Paul Radin, The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic. A Study in Comparative Literature, Part I (Basil: Ethnographical Museum, Basil Switzerland, 1954) I.69-70.