Kate Dudding: The Celestial Bear

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The ancient people knew the sky very well. They used the sun, the moon, and all the stars to guide their journeys.

All the ancient people in the Northern Hemisphere discovered what we call the North Star, the star that does not move. We know that the North Star is almost directly above the North Pole, directly above the axis on which the Earth spins. So it never seems to move.

The ancient people didnít know that. But they had studied the night sky and discovered that the North Star was always in the same place above the horizon. For the people in the far north, the North Star is directly overhead. For those further south, the North Star is lower in the sky. Wherever their homes were, the North Star had its own constant place in the sky.

So the ancient people used the North Star to guide their journeys north and south. They always knew that when the North Star was returning to its normal place in the sky, that they were nearing home.

 

The ancient people also discovered that the stars near the North Star circle around it to the left each night. They discovered that where the pattern of stars started each evening depended on the season of the year. Many tribes dance circling to the left. At least one tribe in the Pacific Northwest always dances circling to the left "to keep the seasons in their proper order."

 

Many ancient people were fascinated by the four stars we call the bowl of the Big Dipper. To them, these four stars looked like a four-footed animal, with a star for its head, its tail, its front right paw and it back right paw. And perhaps, since this animal was sometimes down on all four paws, and sometimes standing up on two, many ancient people decided these four stars must be a bear. Bears mostly run on all fours, but will stand up to reach something up high, or to sniff the air for scents.

 

The Micmac Indians of Nova Scotia were one of the ancient people who called those stars The Bear. They also noticed that the stars we call the Corona Borealis looked liked The Bearís den. And they also saw 7 stars following The Bear: the first 3 being the handle of the Big Dipper, a reddish star, then a double star, and a single star, and the last 4 from Bootis, with the second of these being bluish. The Micmac decided that these seven stars were the seven birds hunting The Bear: Robin, Chickadee, Moosebird (a gray jay about the size of a blue jay, but with a smooth head), then Pigeon, Blue Jay, Owl, and finally little Saw-Whet Owl.

And this is the story the Micmacs tell about all these stars.

 

Every spring, when the sun awakens the sleeping earth, Bear emerges from her den. Immediately Chickadee sees Bear and calls out,

"Hunters, Bear has come out of her den. It is time for the hunt. Are you coming?"

Robin says, "Yes, I am ready."

Moosebird says, "I guess Iím ready."

And the others agree.

"Alright then," says Chickadee, "Robin, you lead the way. Iíll follow you, carrying the cooking pot. Moosebird, you follow me. That way, Iíll be between two of the large hunters and wonít get lost. Then, the rest of you follow: Pigeon, Blue Jay, Owl and Saw-Whet Owl."

So off the seven hunters set off, pursuing Bear all spring and all summer. But at the beginning of fall, the hunters in the rear start loosing the trail. First, Saw-Whet, too small to keep up, looses the trail, and then Owl, too heavy, looses the trail. Then Blue Jay and Pigeon loose it too and give up the hunt. Moosebird almost looses the trial in mid-autumn. But just then, Bear stands up on her two legs.

Robin cries out, "I can shoot her now!" His arrow shoots into Bearís chest and she falls over on her back, dead.

"Iím so hungry after the long hunt, I canít wait to cook the bear meat," Robin thinks. So he tears into Bearís body to get to the fat, and eats and eats and eats until finally he is finally sated.

Then he looks down. "Iím covered with blood. Iíll shake it off."

So he flies to the maple tree in the sky and shakes and shakes and shakes. Blood spatters all over the maple tree and some falls onto the trees on Earth. And that is why the leaves are tinged red each autumn. The maples on Earth turn the reddest because the maple tree in the sky got the most blood. What happens in the sky governs what happens on Earth.

Robin shakes off all the blood except the blood on his breast.

Just then, Chickadee arrives with the cooking pot. "Robin, youíll wear that blood on your breast as long as your name is Robin." And we all know that Chickadee was right about that.

"Now where are the other hunters?", Chickadee complains. "Itís time to cut up the bear meat, make the fire and cook the meat. Where is Moosebird and the others? Oh, I guess weíll have to start without them."

So Robin and Chickadee start doing all the work.

Meanwhile, Moosebird has found the trail again and he starts thinking. "If I hurry, I might be in time for the kill, or at least Iíll be there for the work after the kill."

Then Moosebird think some more. "Or, if I take my time, Iíll get there just in time for the meal. I think Iíll do that." And thatís what he did. In fact, Moosebird has never again hunted for himself. He always arrives after the kill. The Micmac call him He-Who-Comes-In-At-The-Last-Moment.

So when Moosebird comes in at the last moment and finds Robin and Chickadee, Chickadee cries, "Where have you been, Moosebird? Youíve missed all the work. The meal is almost ready."

"Oh, I almost lost the trail," replies Moosebird. "Can I still have some food?"

"Certainly," said Robin. "That is our tradition, to share our food."

"Oh, all right," sighs Chickadee. "At least you are in time to join Robin in the dance of thanksgiving while I continue to stir the pot."

So Robin and Moosebird dance around the fire circling to the left, thanking each other and the Great Spirit for their present happiness. And then they all eat.

But this is not the end of Bearís story.

All winter, her skeleton lies on its back, but her spirit has entered another bear who also lies upon her back in the den, invisible, and sleeping the winter sleep. When the spring comes around again, this bear will again leave the den, will again be hunted and then killed. And her spirit will enter the next bear sleeping in the den.

So this cycle repeats each spring, when the sun awakens the sleeping earth.

Yes, the ancient people knew the sky very well. And some people still look to the stories of the sky to help guide them in their journeys through life.

Sources

Hagar, Stansbury, ca. 1901. "The Celestial Bear," a Micmac tale, in Journal of American Folk Lore, Vol. 13, pg. 92-103. This is my primary source. Part of this article is excerpted, without siting this reference, in Legends and Lore of the American Indians, edited by Terri Hardin, Barnes and Noble Books, 1993, pg. 37-40.

 

Brown, Joseph Epes, 1982. The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co. A paragraph on pg. 38 helped me understand why so many Indian myths and legends contain animals.

Doty, Thomas, 1999. " The Bear." . These are lovely commentaries by Thomas Doty, who also supplied me with some of these references.

Doty, Thomas, 1999. " Circling the Seasons." .

Jobb, Jamie, 1977. The Night Sky Book. Boston : Little, Brown. This contained many fascinating stories about ancient people and how they used the sky as their clocks and calendars.

Leach, Maria, 1967. How The People Sang the Mountains Up: How and Why Stories. New York: The Viking Press. There is a short version of the Micmac story on pgs. 133-134, with a very helpful annotated bibliography on pg. 156.

Miller, Robert D., 1996. The Miller Planisphere. Illinois: Datalizer Slide Charts, Inc. This helped me visualize the movement of the stars throughout each night as well as throughout the year.

Milord, Susan, 1996. Tales of the Shimmering Sky. Vermont: Williamson Publishing. This book contains a version of the Micmac legend as well as commentary and activities for each of its ten global folktales.

Mitton, Jacqueline and Simon, 1982. Discovering Astronomy. London: Stonehenge Press, Inc. This is a very informative introduction to astronomy with many helpful illustrations.

Robbins, Chandler S., Bertel Bruun, and Herbert S. Zim, 1966. A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America. New York: Golden Press.

Rockwell, David, 1991. Giving Voice to Bear. Colorado: Roberts Rinehart Publishers. I found the introduction and first chapter particularly helpful concerning background information about Indian myths, with a focus on bear myths. It also contains illustrations of many bear-related artifacts and an extensive bibliography.

Speck, Frank G. and Jesse Moses, 1945. The Celestial Bear Comes Down to Earth. Reading Public Museum and Art Gallery, Scientific Publications, Number 7. While most of this 92 page publication details the bear sacrifice ceremony of the Munsee-Mahican in Canada, there are some references to related myths and legends.

Staal , Julius D.W. 1988. The New Patterns in the Sky by, The McDonald and Woodward Publishing Company.

 

Micmac History http://www.dickshovel.com/mic.html

Stoneeís Lore, Legends and Teachings. Lore for June.http://www.ilhawaii.net/~stony/696myths.html This is a story about the same constellation but with four brothers hunting the bear.

Copyright © 2003 Kathryn Eike Dudding. All Rights Reserved.

 


Kate Dudding (518) 383-4620
8 Sandalwood Drive kate@katedudding.com
Clifton Park, NY 12065-2700 USA
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