The Bear Feast

Hočąk - English Interlinear Text

(11) "Hąho, your reward (?) is apparent. Ho, it is good. (12) Come, here it is: in this are they summoned to be remembered. I am told that should we even be equal to this task, we should send something back whence it came. Here it is, put on the kettle, I have placed the kettle over there. There was only this little kettle, here it is; I had only one offering. Here is my offering in this. Then in this act I plead for all that live, for all of these. It is said that it is not equal to the offerings of a big feast. So this is what they say. And it is said that from where we are about to go, that our ancestors would remain in their (spirit) home. (13) And these would be in a state of expectation. This is what is said. This is what they meant. They meant this offering. And I will tell you: we will pour tobacco for them; place four forks there, place them by the fire. Listen, I'm going to pour tobacco; listen, at the side where it is cold (the north); (since) this is the way that the Creator had created it.

Then he places you, the four brothers, here. When we start off there, these are the things that we ask to be remembered by, (14) to wit: tobacco, feathers, and the kettle — here they are. These offerings, here they are. And the Creator made you this way, that Light and Life would be the kind of thing that you would be in charge of. We in turn ask this of you: when you take this, we also ask of you, that we too will receive this kind of thing. What we asked to be remembered by, here they areeeeee! Thus it is said. These are the ones from whom we took life. And they promised to do this. (15) As we say this, we are pleading for all of them, as many of the relatives as there are. Thus it will be, they say. That is where we arose from. Then they say that life will be strong, it is said. Here they are.

This of which I am telling you, lay them here, as this is for what this council is pleading; it is said that this sort of thing we have in our rules. And we must be very cautious to act in accordance with them, it is said. (16) They say that after you put away a kettle, you must use it at that place only. They say to do this way only, and not otherwise." The attendant said, "Ready." He said, "Whatever you are going to eat with, whatever their number, go and get them!". They should only bring their own spoons. There he brought them back a little plate which he placed there, and around it they seated themselves. He turned down the fire, "Go and sit, holding your spoons with your left hands, you will be using your left hand. When you eat, none of you must talk, nor any of you laugh. Do just the way that I am saying. (17) When we sing the songs, the meal will begin. We are going to sing now:"


Hočą́́́gᵋra nągúra howahuhaíreną.
Hočą́gara are coming on the road.

Hočą́́gᵋra Hočąk hit’e hahuhaíreną.
Hočā́gara are coming speaking Hočąk.

Pežē hagējīni hekjéžē?
Who can be behind?

Pejē wągēja nihekjéžē?
Who can be above?

Thus it is said: "From there we beg for life," this being the sort of thing that they say. "We caused difficulties," they would say.

And the meal was over. "It is good. You have come for us that we have this little rite done, and we thank you for your having eaten for us. (18) And they told us that it was from this kind that we had originated; it was for this that we had pled for in this rite. We should do it very carefully, and in this way have you acted very faithfully for us. It is good. You have eaten for us very well. It is good. Indeed have we done it: I salute you."

It is ended.

Commentary. "we should send something back whence it came" — the proposition expressed is that the bounty of the earth is a gift of the Spirits, and now, through the rite at hand, the recipients of this bounty have an opportunity to return the favor by giving the Spirits things of value to them.

"a state of expectation" — in the story "Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle," the process of offerings is portrayed. There it is shown that spiritual forms of the earthly offerings appear at the outskirt of the Spirit village, where interested Spirits go to view them, and if they are desirable, they will pick them for themselves. In feasts, the kettles of food magically appear in the Spirit village, where all may partake of them. So, inasmuch as the ancestors will also be given offerings, it follows that these offerings will appear in spiritual analogues in their village for them to consume. Therefore, they will be awaiting this moment with pleasant expectations. The counter-expectation is that the grateful Spirits will grant the sacrificers what they most wish to have, (extended) Life, at least to the extent to which it is possible for them to grant it.

"north" — the chief subclan is that of White Bear. The Spirit White Bear, patron of this subclan, resides in the north and is identified with the polar bear.1 Since he is the chief, just as his subclan is the chief subclan of the Bear Clan, so the offering is placed at his cardinal point.

"the four brothers" — all rites of this character have Spirit impersonators, almost always taking the form of the Spirits who govern the four cardinal points. Each is situated at the cardinal position appropriate to his direction. This is especially important in the Bear Clan, since it is held that the four Island Anchors are White Bear (north), Red Bear (west), Black Bear (south), ad Blue/Gray Bear (east). Each is the patron of a subclan of the Bear Clan, the whole clan being in common patrilinear descent, making them all brothers.

"Light and Life" — the Hočąk is hąpjōni, from hąp, "light" and -jāne, -jōni, a suffix indicating an upright position. Light (Hąp) here, and especially in the Medicine Rite, is a metaphor for life, leading Radin to translate it as "Light and Life".

"the ones from whom we took life"wą̄kšík hiwi’į́winą, cf. Miner, wą̄kšík hįwį’į́wįná, "our ancestors (those who brought us into the world, to life)."

"he turned down the fire" — bears are primarily active at night. A story was told about this. 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.2

Kim A. Cabrera   Kim A. Cabrera
Bear Tracks Compared to Human Tracks

"left hands" — names denoting left handedness are found in the Bear Clan. Part of the reason for this is that the inside digit on each foot of a bear is at least the same size as that of the outside part of the foot. More pronounced is the angle from the innermost to the outermost toe: in a human left footprint, the toes slope downward from right to left; on a bear, it is for the last four toes, the opposite direction. Furthermore, the curve of the inner side of the footprint, corresponding to the instep, is found on the side of the big (first) toe; on a bear, there is a slight curvature on the opposite side of the foot. Consequently, bear tracks leave the impression (literally and figuratively) that a bear's left and right have been switched. This explains such names as Aráčgega, "Left-Handed", as well as why people in the Bear Feast eat their food using only their left hands and why the ancestor of all bears is noted for, in a panic, having put his moccasins on the wrong feet.

Notes to the Commentary

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]) 13, 59, 65. Dr. Funmaker is a member of the Hočągara 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. Informant: One Who Wins of the Bear Clan.
2 Oliver LaMère and Harold B. Shinn, Winnebago Stories (New York, Chicago: Rand, McNally and Co., 1928) 87-89. Informant: Oliver LaMère (Bear Clan).


Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Notebook 24, pp. 11-19; and Winnebago III, #7, pp. 7-10.