Were-Grizzlies and Other Man-Bears

by Richard L. Dieterle

The spirit chief of the race of bears called "grizzlies" [inset] is Blue (or Gray) Bear.1 The Grizzly Spirits that dwell with him have blessed men in the past with something of their own ursine natures. It is believed by many, for instance, that a man so blessed will behave in some respects like a grizzly bear.2 Such a man was Moraje, a warleader among the Hocągara who in battle would change into a raging grizzly bear.3 Other great warriors, such as Little Priest, are said to have been grizzly bears in some previous life, and as a result was cured in part by the singing of the Grizzly Songs.4

In some Hocąk stories people turn into grizzly bears and wreak havoc on their own communities. People who turn into grizzlies may be of either sex, but they are all driven by some kind of abnormal lust. When these people are infuriated, they turn into cannibal grizzly bears who are difficult, but not impossible, to kill. Furthermore, once dead, extraordinary measures must be taken to ensure that they do not return to life: the were-bear, as well as everything owned by the affected person, must be completely burned up and its bones pounded into powder. However, an unusually holy person may be able to use the powdered bones of the were-grizzly to resurrect its victims.5

Most were-bears live in human form, but betray their true nature in rather ursine behavior. Red Breasted Turtle, the younger brother of he famous Turtle, used to cleverly kill a deer for himself and his brothers, but every time he started to pack it home, a man would take it away from him. This happened four times, until Turtle himself finally waited in ambush for the man. When Turtle confronted him, he struck the man's head off. At the moment of his death, the man metamorphosed into a bear.6 A long legged Bear Spirit in the form of a human harassed Turtle's other brother, Porcupine, so Turtle killed him as well.7

There are other ways that the boundaries between bear and man can be blurred. Once a young woman showed great devotion to her slain brother and secured the hair of a powerful spirit to bring him back to life. This was a Bear Spirit and she bore him a son. He soon grew up to be strong, but was different from other boys in that he had tufts of hair all over his body, so that he was known as the "Shaggy Man." Unlike someone who was a were-bear by virtue of changing from human to bear and back again, the Shaggy Man was a literal cross between bear and human and possessed at all times some attributes of each of his parents.8

In world folklore the werewolf is probably more common than the were-bear, although as a shape-changing animal, the bear is often a complement to the wolf. In Norse mythology, we have alongside the ulfheðnar, who can transform themselves into wolves, the berserker, who are possessed by the spirit of the bear.9 This complementary pattern is seen as well in the Hocąk Wolf and Bear Clans who have a special friendship relation. Similarly, in Hocąk thought the were-grizzlies are like European "vampires," in the sense that extraordinary measures must be taken to make certain that they do not rise again from the dead.10

Links: Blue Bear, Bear Spirits, Island Weights.

Stories: 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 (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, Hocąk Clans Origin Myth, The Messengers of Hare, Bird Clan Origin Myth, The Hocąk 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: cannibal were-grizzlies: The Were-Grizzly, The Woman who Loved her Half-Brother, The Roaster, Partridge's Older Brother; friendship between wolves and bears: Wolf Clan Origin Myth.


1 Walter Funmaker, The Winnebago Black Bear Subclan: a Defended Culture (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Minnesota: December, 1986 [MnU-D 86-361]) 49. Informant: One Who Wins of the Winnebago Bear Clan.

2 Paul Radin (ed.), Crashing Thunder. The Autobiography of an American Indian (New York: Appleton, 1926) 137. Informant: Sam Blowsnake of the Thunderbird Clan.

3 John Blackhawk, "Wazunka," The Wisconsin Archeologist 7, #4 (1926): 223-226.

4 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. Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 300-301.

5 Paul Radin, "The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #1: 1-11; Paul Radin, "The Roaster," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #2.

6 Paul Radin, "Porcupine" Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #1: 1-43.

7 Paul Radin, "Turtle's Warparty," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #28: 1-74.

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

9 Robert Eisler, Man into Wolf (Santa Barbara: Ross-Erickson, 1978 [1948]) 13.

10 Paul Barber, Vampires, Burial, and Death (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).