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Ted Stillwell: The legend of the big bear

The Examiner

Long before Europeans arrived in the Midwest, Native American Indians had lived off the land for thousands of years. Without the assistance of those very people the white man may very well have perished in those early years following the arrival in America by Christopher Columbus.

All Europeans could see were rich riverbanks for fishing, an endless supply of furs and wildlife, and great land for farming. The claim the Indians had to the land was universally nullified. The new Americans saw only “free land,” and they were drawn toward it as if by a magnet.

Here in our neck of the woods, the Osage Tribe was paid for its land claims, but in other parts of the country that was not always the case. Even though the Indians moved on elsewhere and whites built great cities on the old hunting grounds, many influences of the Indians were left behind and incorporated into our present-day world. Many are obvious like the names of cities and states. How many can you think of right off the bat? Illinois, Kansas, Omaha, Wichita and Missouri are Indian names.

Many Native American beliefs and legends also are a part of our world. Even in our night sky overhead. For example, the Milky Way is a monumental collection of stars. To the naked eye it appears to be a hazy ribbon cutting across the celestial night sky. To some Indian beliefs, it even looks like a pathway. The Cherokee believed it was made of flour. To many of the California Indians and to the Pawnee, it was the path of the dead.

The Pomo Tribe saw the Milky Way as the massive footprint of a bear that had once walked across that part of the sky. The Big Dipper is one of the more prominent constellations in our local night sky. The Fox Indians saw a bear in the four stars outlining the bowl of what we call the Big Dipper. The Kiowa called the Dipper the Big Bear. They tell a story about Tsoai, the boy who turned into a bear:

Eight children were at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been.

The sisters were terrified. They ran, and the bear came after them. They came to a tree stump, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them to climb upon it, and as they did so, it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were beyond its reach. It reared against the trunk and scored the bark all around with its claws. 

The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.

As a writer and an artist, I can see in my mind’s eye a picture of the boy being transformed into the bear. In the drawing that accompanies this legend the boy struggles to release his spirit, while his physical self transforms into the bear. The metamorphosis is almost complete. The seven sisters have been cast into the night sky and, through the brightness of their fear, have become the Big Dipper, or as the Kiowa refer to it, “the Big Bear.”

Reference: “The Native Americans,” by David Hurst Thomas.

Reach Ted W. Stillwell at Ted@blueandgrey.com or 816-896-3592.

A native legend
Ted Stillwell