Image © Roger Hayden - all rights reserved
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.
The woman who married a bear
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 he rose and looked at her, and said, “Will you come with me to my village, which is far away, to the north.” That was beyond the edge of the known world! She hesitated – for about thirty seconds -- and then followed him through dark spruce- fir forests, up and over white glaciers at night, and down till they came to a rushing river, which he swam carrying her on his back.
Days later they stood on a ridge at sunset, looking down at a village with many fine lodges, finer than anything her people built. She saw people coming in from all directions, carrying meat – moose and elk and buffalo. She watched as one man approached the door of the biggest lodge, and slipped his tunic off at the door. And he was covered with dark fur.
Just then she felt a soft hand on her shoulder and heard a low voice in her ear, “Do not be afraid. These are my people and you are my wife now, and my family, who live in the largest lodge, will welcome you.” So she made her way to the largest lodge, and just at the door she turned around, and her husband too had taken off his tunic. He was a bear!
When she went inside, she was filled with the smell of meat cooking, and she could see by the fire light the shapes of bears. And she heard them shuffling and whispering and settling down for the night, talking about where they had been that day, and what they had done, like her people did. That evening, she ate well, and as she lay down by her husband, she was so happy.
The next dawn – and every dawn that summer -- her husband put on his human tunic, and she followed him out of the village. And he taught her the songs of the plants, and which were good to eat and which were good for medicine. White yampa, the crunchy bulbs of glacier lily, and arnica to heal the sores.
But when the last yellow aspen leaves had fallen, and snow dusted the peaks, her husband came to her and said, “You cannot stay here for the winter. You must go back to your people. But when the first spring bluebird arrives, if you still love me, you may return again. I ask you only one thing, say nothing about where you have been or who you have been with.”
So she went back, by herself, swam the river, and climbed the mountains, and crossed the glaciers, and dropped through the spruce-fir forest to her village. And her people were delighted to see her. “Why we had taken you for dead – maybe eaten by a wild animal, like maybe a bear! My, how well fed you are, and what fine clothes you are wearing! Where have you been and who have you been with?”
She would not say. But every day that winter, she taught her people the songs of the plants and which were good to eat and which were good for medicine.
And then in the spring when the first bluebird arrived, she left her village in the dead of night, and walked back through the forests and over the mountains and across the river, to her husband. And he was so happy to see her.
And every day that summer, he taught her more of the songs of the plants – elk thistle and yellow biscuitroot, and willow bark to ease the cramps. But when the eagles and hawks flew overhead and the creeks froze at night, her husband came to her and said, “You cannot stay here for the winter, and you must go back to your people. But when the first red buds appear on the dogwood, if you still love me, you may return. Again I ask you, do not tell anyone where you have been or who you have been with.”
So she made the long journey back to her people, and they were so excited to see her. But they were also very curious, and that winter they tried to tease and trick her into telling where she had been and who she had been with. But she would not say. Instead, all winter she taught her people more of the songs of the plants and which were good to eat and which were good for medicine.
Then in spring when the first dogwood buds appeared, she left her village and returned to her husband. And he was so happy to see her. And every day that summer he taught her more of the plant’s songs, all of them but one. Sweet bluebells, and tart miners lettuce, and kinnikinnick to bring on the dreams.
And then in the fall when the blueberry was all bright red, and the elk were squealing and crashing through the trees, her husband came to her and said, “This is the last time that I will ask you to return to you people for the winter, for next year I will teach you the last great song, and you can stay with me forever. But you must go back now, and come again, if you still love me, after the first ground squirrel pops its head above ground. And I ask you again, do not tell anyone where you have been or who you have been with.”
So she made the long journey back to her people’s village. But this time it was hard because she was carrying more than one. Again, her family was delighted to see her, but they were also dying of curiosity. And all winter they would not give her a moment’s peace and badgered her to tell them where she had been and who she had been with. Tell me tell me tell me. But she would not. Then right after the shortest day of winter, she gave birth to two beautiful boys who were strong and grew so quickly.
In the spring, when the first ground squirrel popped its head into view, she packed her boys on her back and left the village at night. But she did not know that her father and her brothers tracked her back. They were good trackers, but they got nervous when her footprints led them farther and farther away from edge of the known world.
Several days later, they stood at sunset on a ridge above a great village, with lodges finer than anything they had seen. They watched as the woman slipped into the biggest lodge. And a young man followed her, and just at the door of the lodge, he pulled his tunic off. He was a bear, and he was going in after her!
They rushed down the hill, and ripped open the door of the lodge, and killed every bear there with their spears.
And then the woman grabbed a spear, and killed her father and her brothers. Then she rounded up her sons, and went off to the wilderness, armed only with the songs that she had learned.
And those sons, they became famous for the magical powers they possessed, and the mischief they caused, changing shape from human to bears and back again. The woman never learned the last great song, but her sons did.
The elders say that this is a story about how we humans learned to make a living in the world, and what was good to eat and what was good for medicine. And why we cannot sleep through the winter, because we never learned that last great song.
But the elders understood that these stories have many layers, and that it is up to each one of us to decide what this story means to us.
Well to me, this is a story about taking risks and making sacrifices and about the creative power of love. But it is more than that. To me, this is about the limitations of human understanding and the consequences, sometimes, terrible ones, of our confusion.
But it is more than that. To me, the woman who married a bear is about new possibilities that are born of the union of the spirit of wild nature and the human spirit. And about discoveries that can only be made beyond the edge of the known world.