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Native American Bear Mythology

Bears figure prominently in the mythology of nearly every Native American tribe. In most Native cultures, Bear is considered a medicine being with impressive magical powers, and plays a major role in many religious ceremonies. Bears are symbols of strength and wisdom to many Native Americans, and are often associated with healing and medicine (since bears continue fighting after being seriously injured, Native Americans often believed they were capable of healing their wounds.)

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Among the Pueblo tribes, bears are considered one of the six directional guardians, associated with the west and the color blue. The Zunis ascribe healing powers to bears and carve stone bear fetishes to protect them and bring them luck. A bear's claw was one of the talismans frequently included in medicine bundles, and warriors in some tribes wore necklaces of bear claws to bring them power and strength. There were also many taboos regarding bears in different Native American tribes-- the use of hunting seasons (to avoid killing mother bears with their cubs) was the most common, but in some tribes, it was considered disrespectful and dangerous to insult bears, step on their scat, or even utter their names outside of certain ritual contexts. Among the Innu, it was taboo for children or unmarried women to eat bear meat, and some Apache tribes did not eat bears at all.

In folklore, Bear is often portrayed either as a sort of enforcer figure who punishes disrespectful or improper behavior among other animals and people, or as a humorless "straight man" for weaker but cleverer trickster characters to play against. Bear personalities in these stories range from wise and noble, to morally upright but somewhat stupid and gullible, to aggressive and intimidating, but in most cases, they do not bother people who have not done anything wrong. (There are a few exceptions to this-- in some tribes, such as the Cherokee, bears are sometimes portrayed as violent enemies of humans, although they are still an important clan animal to the Cherokees. Some tribes also tell stories about monsters resembling man-eating bears the size of elephants, which prey on innocent people and must be slain by heroes.) The devoted maternal behavior of female bears is often noted in folktales, with mother bears sacrificing themselves for their cubs or adopting human children.

Bears are also one of the most important and widespread clan animals in Native American cultures. Tribes with Bear Clans include the Creek (whose Bear Clan is named Nokosalgi or Nokosvlke,) the Chippewa (whose Bear Clan and its totem are called Nooke,) Algonquian tribes such as the Mi'kmaq and Menominee, the Huron and Iroquois tribes, Plains tribes such as the Caddo and Osage, the Hopi (whose Bear Clan is called Honngyam or Hona-wungwa), the Navajo and Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, and Northwest Coast tribes such as the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nisgaa-Gitksan, and Salishan tribes. Bear was an important clan crest on the Northwest Coast and can often be found carved on totem poles. And many eastern tribes, such as the Caddo, Lenape, and Iroquois, have a Bear Dance among their tribal dance traditions.

Native American Bear Gods and Spirits

Aincekoko (Zuni)
*Big Rump Bear (Mohican/Shawnee)
*Hairless Bear (Penobscot)
*Katci-to'wack'w (Cree)
Hon Kachina (Hopi)
Mashkuapeu, the Bear Master (Innu)
Muwin (Micmac)
Naked Bear (Iroquois)
Stiff Legged Bear (Eastern tribes)

Native American Legends About Bears

*Mooin, the Bear's Child * Legend of the Bear Clan * A Bear Tale:
    Wabanaki Indian legends of a boy adopted by a bear family.
Lox and Bear * How Lox Beguiled The Bear:
    Wabanaki legends about the Wolverine tricking Mouin the Bear to his death.
How Wolverine Froze To Death * Rabbit's Adventure with Bear:
    Native American legends from various tribes featuring Bear as a magically powerful being who trickster characters unsuccessfully try to imitate.
Bear Medicine:
    Dene legend about a man who hibernated with a bear and received a special gift of bear-hunting medicine.
Brother Bear Legend:
    Menominee folktale about a lost man who took shelter with a bear.
The Travails of Mrs. Bear:
    Micmac Indian legend of an overly trusting Bear Woman learning to be more wary.
Mi'kmaq Bear Story:
    Mi'kmaq Indian myth about Bear's journey to bring medicine to the people.
The Badger and the Bear:
    Lakota Indian story about a bullying bear punished for turning on a badger family that had helped him in his time of need.
How the Bear Lost His Tail:
    Ojibwe legend about Otter tricking Bear into losing his tail.
*How Women Were Given Menstruation:
    Legends from the Siouan tribes and their neighbors about a hero killing his grandmother's lover the Bear.
*They That Chase After The Bear (A Star Story) * Spirit Bear Myth:
    Fox Indian legend about a bear and three hunters that turned into stars.
*The Hunting of the Great Bear:
    A similar Iroquois legend about four hunters, a dog, and a bear who became a constellation.
*The Legend of the Bear Cubs:
    Innu myth about two young bears escaping from a cannibal monster.
*Trickster Kills The Children:
    Arapaho legend about an incautious bear family falling prey to the dangerous trickster Nihansan.
The Woman and her Bear:
    Inuit legend about a childless woman who adopted a polar bear cub.
*Mammoth or Stiff-Legged Bear:
    Academic discussion of Native American stiff-legged bear mythology.
*The Hunting of Great Bear:
    Iroquois legend about the celestial hunt for the Great Bear.
*Blue Jay And Lizard And The Grizzly-Bears:
    California Indian legend about the destruction of a family of selfish grizzly bears.
* The Power Of Buffalo And Bear:
    Caddo legends about the origin and powers of buffalo and bear medicine.

Recommended Books of Bear Stories from Native American Myth and Legend
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Mayuk the Grizzly Bear:
    A Northwest Coast Native American legend about Bear presented by the Sechelt Nation of Canada.
The Polar Bear Son:
    Charming picture book based on an old Inuit legend about a woman who adopts a little bear cub.
Bear Lore and Legend:
    Children's book presenting three illustrated Native American stories about bears.
Giving Voice to Bear: North American Indian Myths, Rituals, and Images of the Bear:
    Interesting anthropology book about the importance of bear spirits to Native American religious traditions.
Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies:
    Book by a Karuk elder about the meanings of Indian animal spirits, including a chapter on bears.
The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature:
    Book about the relationship between bears and humans throughout history.
Native American Animal Stories:
    A great collection of American Indian tales about bears and other animals, told by Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac.

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