The Woman Who Fought the Bear

retold by Richard L. Dieterle


There once was a band of people who were always giving Bear Feasts and came to be blessed by a great Bear Spirit. One member of the band fasted very hard, and made himself very pitiable. Finally, he dreamed and was blessed by a Bear Spirit. The spirit came before him and said, "Human! I bless you with war powers: on your first warpath you shall gain the fourth war honor; on your second, you shall have the third war honor; on your third warpath, you shall achieve the second war honor; and on the fourth warpath you shall achieve the first war honor, and your sisters shall parade through the village with the prize!" He was overjoyed to hear this, but there were yet more blessings. The spirit continued: "Human! I bless you with life: for as long as the Creator gave you to live, that long shall you live; I bless you with the full extent of life given to you. Human! I also bless you with my body: if you pour me a pipe full of tobacco, then you shall not fail to kill a bear on your hunt. Do not abuse the bears, and you shall never want for food. Human! I really bless you. Never before have I blessed anyone in all the eons that I have lain here. As long as your posterity lasts on this earth, that long have you dreamt for them. If they keep up the feasts well, I shall extend to them the same blessings of war and life; and if they offer me tobacco, I shall not fail to accept it. If they offer me a kettle at the feast, I shall accept it with thanks. This single thing I warn you against: if you offer me food or tobacco you must at all costs keep it away from unclean women. It is I, the Chief of Bears, who have blessed you."

Ever since then when the First Bear Moon becomes visible, they would always give a Bear Feast. They would use no meat, but only the produce of the earth. They would always try to obtain the Bear Chief's favorite foods, which he said were maple sugar and blueberries. They would boil in the kettle dried corn and ground green corn, which they would mix with fruit and ground sugar. The feast was held in the dark of night. When all this was accomplished, the host sent his attendant around to invite the guests. When the lodge was filled to capacity, the host arose and said, "Relatives, take a seat here! Greetings to you all! It is not of our own devising that we offer tobacco to the spirits — this knowledge came to my grandfather from Black Fur (Hįsepga?), Chief of the Bears, when he blessed him. Thus we offer a kettle to him. And we make this request: should war come to us may we come away with honors. We also ask for life, as this is what our grandfather dreamt for us, it is said. Thus we give him a pipe full of tobacco, two kettles of food, and some tree sap. Then we shall eat." After the attendant filled everyone's plate, the host arose again and spoke: "Relatives! When the plates are filled, it is time to eat; but do not eat with your right hands." Then the fires were put out, and everyone ate with their left hand in pitch darkness. Another feast just like this one was given in the spring as well.

The following year, the host set aside some choice dried corn so that it could be offered to Black Fur when the Bear Moon first appeared in the sky. This corn was special to him, and he took care that no one would touch it, for he knew that the Bear Spirit was anxious to have it. It chanced that his two unmarried girls had their menstrual periods, and went to the seclusion hut to fast. After the first day of their fast, they were anxious to eat, but as no other food could be found, their mother boiled some of the sacred corn for them, even though they were not clean.

One day their mother was out with her stick tanning a hide near a spring that emerged from blue earth. There her two girls were also. Then, unexpectedly, out of the spring came a powerful bear, and it fell upon the girls and tried to kill them. The mother took her stick and kept stabbing the bear with it, but he paid no attention to her. He just kept attacking the two girls who had defiled the feast. Finally, he killed both the girls, but their mother also stabbed him to death. The bear was covered with blue clay (mą čo), and they say that it was not an earthly bear, but a Spirit Bear, that came to punish the two girls for eating the feast corn unclean.

Ever since that day, this band has never given another Bear Feast.1


 
The Grizzly Bear

Commentary. "all the eons that I have lain here" — The reference that the Spirit Bear makes to having "lain here" since the beginning of time, suggests his role as an Island Weight. The bear in question is called "Black Fur," but other sources within the Bear Clan seem to prefer "Black Bear," although he is rarely said to be the oldest.

"do not eat with your right hands" — The proper way to eat food under normal circumstances is with the right hand. So why do they use the "wrong" hand during the Bear Feast? The answer is connected with an odd fact about bears: in the paws of bears the counterpart of the thumb/big-toe is on the outside of the foot, and the little finger/toe is on the inside. This creates a rather odd looking foot and track, as though the paws were switched. Therefore, the right "hand" of the bear is actually a left hand, so that correct eating for the bear would employ that hand rather than the right one. In a waiką about bears, the hero avenges himself upon evil giant bears in a humorous episode in which the origin of this ursine oddity is told:

Then, as soon as they came out of the water, there was a cloud of arrows. They shot them. The villagers scattered, taking flight. And this one who was there, one of them, they called "Little Orphan." This little orphan so hurredly stepped into his moccasins that he wore them on the wrong sides of his feet. They said, "Hohó, Little Orphan has worn his moccasins on the wrong side. Because he did this, thus it will be." They are all wearing them put on wrong on the wrong side. ... And because Little Orphan put his moccasins on the wrong way, that is why bears’ feet have the shape they do, it is said.2

In keeping with this explanation, the Kutenai call Grizzly Bear, "Left-Handed One."3

"The bear was covered with blue clay" — The avenging bear is said to have been covered in blue earth, which in Hočąk would be mą čo (where čo embraces the green part of the spectrum as well). Mąčo also denotes grizzly bears, whose chief is Blue (Čo) Bear. Blue Bear created the first soldiers who helped found the Soldier (Mąnąpe) or Bear Clan of the Hočąk nation. Members of the Blue Bear Subclan are in charge of priestly functions and the timing of feasts, which explains why the bear has these color associations.


Comparative Material: The Omaha believe that menstruation began when Hare threw not wildcat blood (as in Hočąk), but the blood of the black bear on Grandmother.4


Links: Bear Spirits, Bears, Bear (I), Blue Bear, Black Bear, Island Weights.


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, 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, Hare Establishes Bear Hunting, Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth; about fasting blessings: Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Difficult Blessing, The Boy Who Became a Robin, The Boy who would be Immortal, The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits, The Seer, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Nightspirits Bless Jobenągiwįxka, Disease Giver Blesses Jobenągiwįxka, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, Aračgéga's Blessings, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, Great Walker's Medicine, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, Thunderbird and White Horse, The Man who was Blessed by the Sun, Holy Song, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, The Plant Blessing of Earth, The Blessing of Šokeboka, Heną́ga and Star Girl, The Tap the Head Medicine, The Sweetened Drink Song, Ancient Blessing; dealing with menstrual pollution: Hare Kills Wildcat, The Roaster, The Red Man, Bluehorn's Nephews; mentioning feasts: Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth (Chief Feast), The Creation Council (Eagle Feast), Hawk Clan Origin Myth (Eagle Feast), Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth (Waterspirit Feast), A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga (Mąką́wohą, Waną́čĕrehí), Bear Clan Origin Myth (Bear Feast), Grandfather's Two Families (Bear Feast), Wolf Clan Origin Myth (Wolf Feast), Buffalo Clan Origin Myth (Buffalo Feast), The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits (Buffalo Feast), Buffalo Dance Origin Myth (Buffalo Feast), Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle (Buffalo Feast), The Blessing of Šokeboka (Feast to the Buffalo Tail), Snake Clan Origins (Snake Feast), Blessing of the Yellow Snake Chief (Snake Feast), Rattlesnake Ledge (Snake Feast), The Thunderbird (for the granting of a war weapon), Turtle's Warparty (War Weapons Feast, Warpath Feast), Porcupine and His Brothers (War Weapons Feast), Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega) (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), Big Thunder Teaches Čap’ósgaga the Warpath (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), White Thunder's Warpath (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), The Fox-Hočąk War (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), Šųgepaga (Winter Feast = Warbundle Feast), The Man Whose Wife was Captured (v. 2) (Warbundle Feast, Warpath Feast), Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth (Warpath Feast), Kunu's Warpath (Warpath Feast), Trickster's Warpath (Warpath Feast), The Masaxe War (Warpath Feast), Redhorn's Sons (Warpath Feast, Fast-Breaking Feast), The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits (Fast-Breaking Feast), The Chief of the Heroka (Sick Offering Feast), The Dipper (Sick Offering Feast, Warclub Feast), The Four Slumbers Origin Myth (Four Slumbers Feast), The Journey to Spiritland (Four Slumbers Feast), The First Snakes (Snake Feast), Spear Shaft and Lacrosse (unspecified), Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts (unnamed); mentioning springs: Trail Spring, Vita Spring, Merrill Springs, Big Spring and White Clay Spring, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, Bear Clan Origin Myth, vv. 6, 8, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Bluehorn's Nephews, Blue Mounds, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, The Lost Child, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Wild Rose, The Omahas who turned into Snakes, The Two Brothers, Snowshoe Strings, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Nannyberry Picker, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, Rich Man, Boy, and Horse, The Two Boys, Waruǧápara, Wazųka, The Man Who Fell from the Sky, Turtle and the Witches.


Themes: a person who fasts receives blessings from the spirits: The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, The Nightspirits Bless Jobenągiwįxka, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, Redhorn's Sons, The Boy Who Became a Robin, The Seer, Maize Comes to the Hočągara, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Boy who would be Immortal, The Thunderbird, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, Great Walker's Medicine, Šųgepaga, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna, Heną́ga and Star Girl, A Man's Revenge, Aračgéga's Blessings, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, The Man who was Blessed by the Sun, The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, The Man who Defied Disease Giver, White Thunder's Warpath, A Man and His Three Dogs, The Oak Tree and the Man Who was Blessed by the Heroka, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, The Diving Contest, The Plant Blessing of Earth, Holy Song, The Tap the Head Medicine, The Blessing of Šokeboka, The Completion Song Origin, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, The Nightspirits Bless Čiwoit’éhiga, Sunset Point, Song to Earthmaker, First Contact (v. 1), The Horse Spirit of Eagle Heights; a spirit is quoted as he gives someone a blessing: Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Nightspirits Bless Jobenągiwįxka, Disease Giver Blesses Jobenągiwįxka, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, The Man Whose Wife was Captured, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, Aračgéga's Blessings, The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, Great Walker's Medicine, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, Thunderbird and White Horse, The Plant Blessing of Earth, The Completion Song Origin, The Man who was Blessed by the Sun, Thunder Cloud is Blessed, The Difficult Blessing, The Blessing of Šokeboka, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Bow Meets Disease Giver, Heną́ga and Star Girl, Sunset Point, A Peyote Vision, The Healing Blessing; bear people eating with their left hands: Bear Clan Origin Myth, Hare Visits His Grandfather Bear; bears prefer the pitch dark of night: Bear Offers Himself as Food; menstrual pollution has dangerous consequences: The Red Man.


Notes

1 "How the Old Woman Fought the Bears Who Came to Kill the Women Who Had Taken Part in a Feast During their Menstrual Period," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3881 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Library, ca. 1912) Winnebago I, #7f: 1-17. The first part of this story is also told in Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 253-254, and a brief reference to the Bear Feast is made on p. 180.

2 Paul Radin, "The Hairy Man," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #9: 1-89 [71-72].

3 "Coyote Taunts the Grizzly Bear," in American Indian Trickster Tales, selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz (New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1998) 27.

4 Roger Welsch, Omaha Tribal Myths and Trickster Tales (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981) 36.