Native People & Grizzly Bears
The Woman Who Married A Bear
Re-told by Louisa Willcox
I learned this story years ago. It has been with me so long, this has become my version, although there are hundreds of versions of this ancient story, which is told throughout the Northern Hemisphere. This is a story about a young woman who lived with her family near snow-capped mountains, at the edge of the known world. She wore a plain tunic with no beads, because her family was very poor. And even though her father and brothers were good hunters, there were many winters just before green-up, when there was hardly anything to eat . . . .
Grizzlies Walking Upright
The Modoc Creation Story...
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. 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. . .
Grizzlies in the Heavens
No constellation is more famous than the Big Dipper, which is also known as Ursa Major, the Great Bear. In French, Grande Ourse. Italian, Ursa Maggiore. German, Grosse Bar. Ursa Major and its neighbor Ursa Minor, the Lesser or Little Bear, are the first two constellations listed in the earliest star catalogues...
By Louisa Willcox
I am part of the dominant white culture that displaced and killed the first Americans, took their land, their wealth, their buffalo and gave them disease instead. I grew up in the land of the Leni Lenape and now live on what was an Indian summer camping area north of Yellowstone Park. Shoshone, Bannock, Blackfeet -- lots of tribes passed through. I would love to have seen it back then. And woolly mammoths too.
We all have much to learn and relearn from ancient cultures and their complicated relationships with wild animals. Where the grizzly bear lived, traditional people told stories about the grizzly bear as a relative, healer, mentor and guide. Everywhere people and bears crossed paths similar stories were shared about their interdependence.
This makes sense: bears are so much like us. They stand up on hind legs like we do. They eat the same things that we do (fish, nuts, meat, berries, roots). They nurture their young for years and teach them just about everything they need to go about making a living in the world. They are smart, powerful, resourceful, intelligent, with incredible memories and problem-solving abilities. Even their bare feet look like ours.
Who learned what from whom about what was good to eat and what was good for medicine? We were, undoubtedly, watching each other closely.
As scientists now know, the grizzly bear is an animal that can doctor itself (for example, by eating dirt in Yellowstone to clean its system out and replenish depleted potassium in the spring), and selects certain plants at specific times of year. Of course people wondered at such behavior, checked it out, and passed lessons on to the next generation. And bears may well have done the same as they watched people.
Many years ago, I heard a Shoshone story about the Woman Who Married a Bear. (see link above). Then I found another version, and another, then many more. In some, the woman was raped by the man (a bear in human skin), in some she was ill-mannered, in others she was ditzy. Some were long-winded, others a sketch. Some were place-based. I like the Northern Cheyenne one that also explained the creation of Obsidian Cliffs in Yellowstone (Goal Tribal Coalition). Some led into other stories about the offspring of the woman and the bear, the shape-shifters, who created a lot of mischief.
One time a friend in Canada sent me a binder an inch thick with different versions of Woman Who Married a Bear. From Norway and Russia, Poland and India. The interconnectedness of bears and people. Not one depicted the bear as a marauding beast of desolation, as so many recent European stories do.
The debate about grizzly bears and tribal values is nested within the broader contest about narratives shaping attitudes about peoples’ relations with a place in nature: the ancient interdependence between people, place and wild animals, versus the modern ethos of exploiting, controlling, and dominating nature, animals and less empowered people.
As we gear up for another fight over protection of Yellowstone grizzly bears (debunking delisting), it is important to reflect on the fact that the story each of us chooses to tell about the relationship we want to have with the grizzly bear, now and in future generations, will affect public deliberations. We are mistaken if we think that the debate is all about science and law, although that is what the technocratic managers would have you believe. This is a tactic designed to scare us off, with a “we are the experts, so trust us” ploy. (agency spin).
In a democracy, with an animal that lives largely on public lands owned by all of us, the debate is about what the broader public wants, not a privileged few. (towards democracy). And how much risk we are willing to let the government take – or not take with the fate of our grizzly bears.
Having been systematically left out of the deliberations about grizzly bears that have been contrived by management agencies so far--and despite their undeniably close relationship with the Great Bear--the tribes are leading the fight to redefine the story and terms of the debate. (www.goaltribal.org).
Grizzly bears are in trouble in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and throughout their range globally. It is hard to imagine a world without grizzly bears, but if you look at trends of human population growth, climate change and projected rates of change of bear foods, hostility of people living in bear country, the number of people carrying guns and willing to use them, the anti-carnivore sentiment of state game agencies in the west, the extreme deference of the federal government to the states, private property rights extremists, and other factors, it is hard to envision a world that will not significantly worsen for bears in upcoming years. Adding removal of endangered species protections and a trophy hunt of grizzly bears to these other threats is like pouring salt on a gaping wound.
To tribes, it is literally killing their kin.
The tribes offer the best hope to reframe the debate and inspire a different relationship with grizzly bears and their ecosystems at a particularly critical time.
For more information on the tribes, their relationships with grizzly bears, and what is happening, check out:
The Sacred Paw, by Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders
Giving Voice to Bear, by David Rockwell