Image © Roger Hayden - all rights reserved
Grizzlies Walking Upright
Re-told by Louisa Willcox
Before there were people on earth, the Chief of the Sky Spirits grew tired of his home in the Above World, because the air was always brittle with an icy cold. So he carved a hole in the sky with a stone and pushed all the snow and ice down below until he made a great mound that reached from the earth almost to the sky. Today it is known as Mount Shasta.
One summer day, she put her basket on her back, the tump line across her forehead, and left the village with the other women to pick gooseberries that they would dry, and mix with elk fat to make pemmican to last the long winter ahead. The afternoon grew hot and she decided to sit down by a nearby stream, and rest and wash her arms that were pricked with thorns. She fell asleep.
When she woke up, the sun was down and the other women were gone. She jumped up and grabbed her basket – and the tump line broke. Her whole day’s work scattered on the ground.
When she looked up, there before her was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. He had long black braids tied with eagle feathers, and dark eyes that looked right through her. And his tunic was the fine deerskin, finer than anything her people made.
And from his chest down to his moccasins, he was covered with beads – blue and red and yellow. He stepped forward and offered to pick up her berries. But before she could respond, he had crouched down and began gathering them up. And she could see the muscles of his shoulders and back under his tunic.
Then the Sky Spirit took his walking stick, stepped from a cloud to the peak, and walked down to the mountain. When he was about halfway to the valley below, he began to put his finger to the ground here and there, here and there. Wherever his finger touched, a tree grew. The snow melted in his footsteps, and the water ran down in rivers.
The Sky Spirit broke off the small end of his giant stick and threw the pieces into the rivers. The longer pieces turned into beaver and otter; the smaller pieces became fish. When the leaves dropped from the trees, he picked them up, blew upon them, and so made the birds. Then he took the big end of his giant stick and made all the animals that walked on the earth, the biggest of which were the grizzly bears.
Now when they were first made, the bears were covered with hair and had sharp claws, just as they do today, but they walked on two feet and could talk like people. They looked so fierce that the Sky Spirit sent them away from him to live in the forest at the base of the mountain.
Pleased with what he’d done, the Chief of the Sky Spirits decided to bring his family down and live on earth himself. The mountains of snow and ice became their lodge. He made a big fire in the center of the mountain and a hole in the top so that the smoke and sparks could fly out. When he put a big log on the fire, sparks would fly up and the earth would tremble.
Late one spring while the Sky Spirit and his family were sitting round the fire, tile Wind Spirit sent a great storm that shook the top of the mountain. It blew and blew and roared and roared. Smoke blown back into the lodge hurt their eyes, and finally the Sky Spirit said to his youngest daughter, “Climb up to tile smoke hole and ask the Wind Spirit to blow more gently. Tell him I’m afraid he will blow the mountain over.”
As his daughter started up, her father said, “But be careful not to stick your head out at the top. If you do, the wind may catch you by the hair and blow you away.”
The girl hurried to the top of the mountain and stayed well inside the smoke hole as she spoke to the Wind Spirit. As she was about to climb back down, she remembered that her father had once said you could see the ocean from the top of their lodge. His daughter wondered what the ocean looked like, and her curiosity got the better of her. She poked her head out of the hole and turned toward the west, but before she could see anything, the Wind Spirit caught her long hair, pulled her out of the mountain, and blew her down over the snow and ice. She landed among the scrubby fir trees at the edge of the timber and snow line, her long red hair trailing over the snow.
There a grizzly bear found the little girl when he was out hunting food for his family. He carried her home with him, and his wife brought her up with their family of cubs. The little red-haired girl and the cubs ate together, played together, and grew up together.
When she became a young woman, she and the eldest son of the grizzly bears were married. In the years that followed they had many children, who were not as hairy as the grizzlies, yet did not look exactly like their spirit mother, either.
All the grizzly bears throughout the forests were so proud of these new creatures that they made a lodge for the red-haired mother and her children. They placed the lodge near Mount Shasta—it is called Little Mount Shasta today.
After many years had passed, the mother grizzly bear knew that she would soon die. Fearing that she should ask of the Chief of the Sky Spirits to forgive her for keeping his daughter, she gathered all the grizzlies at the lodge they had built. Then she sent her eldest grandson in a cloud to the top of Mount Shasta, to tell the Spirit Chief where he could find his long-lost daughter.
When the father got this news he was so glad that he came down the mountainside in giant strides, melting the snow and tearing up the laud under his feet. Even today his tracks can be seen in the rocky path on the south side of Mount Shasta.
As he neared the lodge, he called out, “Is this where my little daughter lives?”
He expected his child to look exactly as she had when he saw her last. When he found a grown woman instead, and learned that the strange creatures she was taking care of were his grandchildren, he became very angry. A new race had been created that was not of his making! He frowned on the old grandmother so sternly that she promptly fell dead. Then he cursed all the grizzlies:
“Get down on your hands and knees. You have wronged me, and from this moment all of you will walk on four feet and never talk again.”
He drove his grandchildren out of the lodge, put his daughter over his shoulder, and climbed back up the mountain. Never again did he come to the forest. Some say that he put out the fire in the center of his lodge and took his daughter back up to the sky to live.
Those strange creatures, his grandchildren, scattered and wandered over the earth. They were the first Indians, the ancestors of all the Indian tribes.
That’s why the Indians living around Mount Shasta would never kill a grizzly bear. Whenever a grizzly killed an Indian, his body was burned on the spot. And for many years all who passed that way cast a stone there until a great pile of stones marked the place of his death.