by Theresa Kishkan
For Charles Lillard and Henry Tate, both wonderful story-tellers, both gone.
Lately I have been immersed in the ethnology of the Northwest Coast of British Columbia. Collections of Haida songs, Tsimshian tales, views of totems and masks: having traveled a little in the wet air hanging above the Skeena River, having dreamed of driving over the lava beds to the villages of the Nisga'a, planning a trip by boat to Haida Gwaii, I've been reading and looking at whatever comes across my desk. Sometimes a voice speaks out of a book so directly and unexpectedly that I pause, startled. It's like hearing a specific name in the wind's clamor or being overcome by a sudden memory of a mask with separate mouthpieces to articulate a story from several perspectives, maybe a Kwakiutl echo mask, the four mouths hidden away in a pouch until needed. Raven, frog, sea-anemone, bear.... It's the bear I've been listening for, and hearing when I'm lucky, and it's his story I want to think about here.
One of the books that arrived in the mail from a friend is The Porcupine Hunter, a gathering of Tsimshian fables, myths and moral tales (one might call them cautionary tales) written down by Henry Tate from 1903 until his death in 1913. Mr. Tate was a Tsimshian Indian from Port Simpson, near Prince Rupert, on the west coast of British Columbia. He collected the stories of his peolpe for Franz Boas, sending him thousands of pages of text in Tsimshian and English over a ten-year period; this material formed much of the background for Dr. Boas's own monumental work on the Tsimshian Indians for the Smithsonian Institute's Bureau of American Ethnology. Ralph Maud has transcribed some of Henry Tate's original texts and has gathered them together in a fascinating book where the spirit of Henry Tate-grammatical idiosyncrasies and quirky spellings intact-speaks across the decades to anyone listening.
My favorite tale in the collection is " The History of Kbi'shount" or "The Girl Who Married the Bear." Only one version of a story that is deep in the story-telling consciousness of the Northwest coast as well as inland, among the Tagish and Tutchone, Tate's telling is forceful. It takes place in the time between August and September, the month, Tate tells us, of wild berries picking. A girl, Half-summer, sister to four hunting brothers, goes berry-picking with the women of her village. She has demonstrated by her carelessness that she is not taking the berry-picking very seriously-her basket keeps breaking, the berries fall to the ground, and the other women are reluctant to assist her after this has happened more than once. She wanders away from them and meets up with a couple of young men:
Half-summer goes with the young men to a village unknown to her and after a series of incidents involving food, during which Mouse-woman reveals to her the reason for what is now becoming apparent was an abduction-Half-summer had slipped on a pile of bear excrement and had spoken disrespectfully to the pile-the girl becomes the wife of one of the Black Bear chief's sons.
I love the story for what it tells us about girls and authority, about ardor and the capricious nature of the human heart, the mysteries of sexuality, and finally for its insight into interspecies relationships. We have rules in our culture for getting along with each other and all manner of protocol affecting our associations with other humans. But "The Girl Who Married the Bear" reveals the extent to which native stories articulate the complexity and importance of rules that govern relationships between species, a profoundly symbiotic world where one respected not just the territory of another species but its dung, its bones, its very spirit as well.
Sometimes a story speaks to your own experience, your own dream-life, and you attend to it in ways that surprise you. For instance, this past spring a young male black bear was hanging around our woods. We'd seen a mother with a cub just up the mountain the previous year and I wondered if this was the same cub, weaned and sent away to fend for itself. We often have bears pass though our place but they don't stay because of our dogs. This one lingered, too inexperienced to know that the barking of dogs was a sign that he should find territory farther away. Day after day the dogs would race into the woods, bellowing, and every few days when we'd walk the trails, we'd find a new pile of scat, right there in the middle of the trail. He was bold and confident enough to let us know he was around. The scats were firm and large, threaded with grasses and sedges so I thought he was probably feeding down by Sakinaw Lake in a marshy area where sockeye spawn in December, a place where I wander in spring to collect plants left over from an old homestead now gone into memory.
In "The Girl Who Married a Bear," the girl who is lured away by the bear has slipped on bear excrement. In other versions of the tale, she repeatedly and willfully kicked at piles of bear scat on the berry-picking outing, something that is taboo in the northern cultures. You can study the droppings to know what the bears have been eating (and thus avoid dangerous areas) but the rules for girls are that you step around the mounds of scat, never over them, and you certainly don't kick at them or tread on them. Half-Summer is angry at slipping on the pile and exclaims, "Oh this big excrement was stick in my foot, alas it very nasty." This sounds like rather a mild insult, perhaps a momentary lapse of good conduct, but other versions of the tale have the girl wantonly treading on piles of bear dung since childhood, in clear disobedience to the teachings of her mother. In some versions she curses at the bear who has left droppings on the trail:
All the versions of the tale that I've read express no surprise that a girl who has displayed such disrespect would be taken by a bear to be its wife.
In the material I've been reading this winter, I've come across all sorts of rules for behavior during bear encounters. In his wonderful book, Giving Voice to Bear, David Rockwell says that among the Koyukon people (from northwestern Alaska), a woman threatened by a bear should expose her genitals and say, "My husband, it's me." This will shame the bear into retreating. The Parks Canada brochure, You Are In Bear Country, warns that you should not run or throw anything at a bear encountered while hiking or camping: "If the bear does not seem to be displaying aggressive behavior, talk softly in monotones and slowly back up. If a bear rears on its hind legs and waves its nose in the air, it is trying to identify you. Remain still and speak in low tones." Both methods are essentially appeals to the bear's good nature, it seems to me, and both acknowledge at least a suggestion of pseudo-humanity implicit or possible in bear behavior. It is not such a far distance from the initiation rites of many North American Indian tribes in which girls were isolated from their families during menstruation, a time for some when the young women were said to be "going to be a bear," to the directive in the Parks Canada brochure that "women should be extra careful" if camping during menses: "One recommended precaution is the use of tampons which should be disposed of in airtight plastic bags."
The girl who is taken by the bear adapts quite well to her new life, although she still remembers and longs for her brothers. She is happy with her husband, although torn between her human loyalties and her affection for this new family. When she and her new husband are preparing to choose a den for the winter, she keeps warning that her brothers know the den area and that the family bear-hunting dogs know it as well. In the Tate version, this is handled in a particularly evocative way. Wanting to know how effective these bear hunting brothers are in the field, the Black-Bear Chief asks the girl, "Now I'll ask just only one question, is this, How many mats are thy elder brother?" The girl replies, "[M]y elder brother's mats are sixty." (In other words, he is very successful as a hunter of bears.) Then, in a moment of poignant beauty, Tate tells us:
I thought this was a heartbreaking moment because there is no doubt that the bears anticipate their fate; the waters ran down on each noses. The image of these beautiful animals bowing their heads and crying at the thought of being connected, even through such a curious and irregular marriage, to such consummate hunters had me in tears when I first read this version. Each brother's prowess is described and eventually:
The moment comes when the chief asks his bears to gather wild carrots to take into their dens for the winter. The old bears announce that they will "lie underneath the olden fallen tree." Winter has come.
The rules for living among bears varied from tribe to tribe. Many people believed that bears were very close to humans, too close to be able to eat them with any sort of impunity. In fact, some southwestern tribes thought that bears were simply people without fire; eating them would be cannibalism. Some ate them only when faced with starvation. Some hunted black bears but not grizzlies. Others had highly elaborate rituals that allowed them to placate a bear's spirit and for some the bear was a spirit helper for shamanic ceremonies. James Teit's excellent ethnographic account of the Lillooet tells us that women did not eat bear flesh because to do so would prevent them from having more children or would dissolve any unborn child being carried in the womb.
Some anthropologists have suggested that "The Girl Who Married a Bear" is a teaching story, developed to give a framework for rules associated with bear hunting; the bear gives clear directions to his wife for the treatment of his body, bones, organs and skin once it becomes evident that he is to be killed by the human brothers brought to the den by a variety of devices. In her monograph on the story, Catharine McClellan says that, "His [the bear's] course of action also makes it possible for Indians ever after to cope with the presence of grizzly bears, for he gives explicit instructions how his brothers-in-law should treat his corpse and how peace ceremonies can be carried out between humans and the bears they kill." For me its lessons are also enigmatic, serving to instruct us at a deeply subliminal level in matters of interspecies relationships. It does this by creating an atmosphere that is closer to poetry than to traditional prose narrative. The anthropologist Julie Cruikshank speaks of two domains of narrative in northern aboriginal stories, one being "a historical temporal, secular human world" and the other being "a supernatural, timeless domain which corresponds with 'myth time'". She stresses the importance of narrative to people's lives, citing examples from her field work among Tagish and Tutchone women where women insisted that particular stories be included in family histories she was helping them to compile. They made little distinction between the quantifiable data of their lives-who was born when, to whom, who married whom, etc.-and the mythic tales of supernatural journeys, marriages with animals, and so on. In fact, the women were emphatic about the necessity of making the stories available to young people as part of school curricula.
In most versions of "The Girl Who Married a Bear," time is distorted as it might be in a dream. In the den the bears sleep for months but, waking, the girl feels as though she has only slept one night. Sometimes the girl remembers her past life and sometimes it is like she dreamed it. There is mystery associated with the campfires and meals; the girl knows the bear makes the fires but they are different, somehow, and he cooks meals of groundhog and gopher but she never sees him doing it. Salmon she has skinned and dried disappear and it seems the bear caches them in his body:
This story has intrigued me since I first heard it some years ago, driving the Yellowhead highway with my family between Hazelton and Terrace. On a stretch where the road followed the course of the Skeena River, we tuned in a radio station that was broadcasting a Tsimshian storyteller and "The Girl Who Married a Bear" was one of the stories told as we drove through the rain towards Prince Rupert, the powerful words fading out occasionally as we lost the signal. We saw a number of bears that trip, one skidding down the river bank on his rump to try for sockeye which we'd seen fishermen dip-netting and gaffing above the narrow chasms at Moricetown. The words of the storyteller evoked the heat of the den, the closeness of the bodies, husband, wife and cubs, curled in a dark heap under the earth. I remember hearing the part about the brothers finding their sister with her grizzly mate and, later, the intensity of the moment when she told them they had killed their own brother-in-law. In the Tate version, we are prepared for the possibility that the dogs will find Half-summer because of their fondness for her: "One dog's name was 'Red' the other was 'spots,' and these two dogs are very lover of the young girl."
It is a story about deep transformation. The bears burrow under trees to hibernate for the winter, and it is the smell of their bodies in the landscape, rubbed on balsam firs as they passed, grease in the sand and rocks, that is their undoing; it brings the hunting dogs and the brothers-in-law. In one version of the tale, told by Jake Jackson, an Inland Tlingit, there is a moment when the girl, pregnant with the bear's child, plans her betrayal with all the potent drama of a Russian novel:
The tender attention paid by the wife to her husband's body, the detailed steps of her betrayal, and the subtle note of portent, all serve to heighten the drama. It comes as no surprise that the youngest brother discovers the snowball some months later and follows the track of it with his dogs who have smelled something both familiar and dangerous and run barking to the den.
Gary Snyder looks at a Tlingit version of this story in his essay, "The Woman Who Married a Bear," and tells us that the young woman who marries the bear and then tries to come back to her human family has been too altered by her experience with the Bear Husband to go on as a human. At first she is isolated by her people, given a separate camp in order to gradually re-enter the life of her village. Much is made of the fact that she will need new clothing in order to return. In Maria John's splendid version, the girl tells her brothers, "...tell mother to sew a dress for me so I can go home. Sew a dress for the girl, and pants and a shirt for the boy. And moccasins." In one Tlingit version, she becomes a bear and kills her brothers. In Tate's version, the woman's children go off to their father's people after an incident with their human grandmother when she doesn't recognize them as her grandchildren. Their mother lets them go: "sorrowful mother was very sorrow." In this version, she is an outsider to both cultures, a taboo-breaker in her own and a betrayer of her grizzly husband among bears. But as well as teaching lessons about proper treatment of a bear's corpse and respect between species, the story reverberates across the cultures, giving form and beauty to the darker secrets of sexuality.
All summer we'd hear our dogs barking, but farther away, probably driving the young bear around the other side of the lake where there was more privacy. I imagined him to be around the mouth of Ruby Creek where it enters Sakinaw Lake, a protected haven of blossoming hardhack, bullrush and thickets of blackberry bushes. It thrilled me to know he was out there, possibly to be encountered on the high trail to Klein Lake-we found scats there, too, and my older son saw him once while mountain-biking-or maybe even up in our berry patch on Mount Hallowell, come August, the month of wild berries picking. Once, walking in the woods, my younger son and I smelled the sudden sharp stink of bear and knew that he must've just passed; the dogs shot into the dense bush, bellowing at the tops of their voices.
One of my deepest memories involves a bear rug. It was on a floor next to a fireplace and I remember lying the full length of it, trying to match my body to the bear's. The hairs were glossy black and coarse and I plunged my fingers deep into the coat to get some sense of their texture. The smell was earthy and I remember feeling drowsy in the warm room. A fairy-tale I loved in those years was "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" and in that story, a girl is sold by her family to a mysterious white bear who carries her to his palatial home deep within a mountain. In the course of the tale, we discover that the bear is a prince who has been bewitched and by her loyalty, courage, and finally love, the young girl frees him from the spell, giving him back his human form and then living with him happily ever after. The directive from the bear that the girl not look at him while he is sleeping echoes other versions of "The Girl Who Married a Bear," notably the versions told to Catherine McClellan by Tommy Peters, an Inland Tlingit:
and the version by Maria Johns, of coastal Tlingit ancestry:
(The girl in Maria John's story has yet to discover that the good-looking young man, marked with red paint on his face, who has helped her with her berries and then made a fire for her and cooked gophers is really a bear.)
"East of the Sun, West of the Moon" is a story, one of many, that offered a metaphor for the emerging sexuality of girls, one that went a considerable distance to acknowledge the mysteries inherent in desire. Like "Beauty and the Beast," "Hans My Hedgehog" and "Bearskin," the tale of the young girl taken by the white bear addresses the attraction of adolescent girls to risk and the unknown (I think of this every time I see a teenaged girl hitchhiking alone on the highway or else clinging to the back of a black-leather clad, helmeted man on a large motorcycle...). This attraction is beautifully articulated in Denise Levertov's poem, "An Embroidery (1)." Two girls, Rose Red and Rose White are preparing a meal for a bear:
The bear arrives, eats the meal and falls asleep on the hearth while the girls sing to him. Then the two of them get into their feather bed, Rose Red to dream
But Rose White can't sleep, possibly because she is aroused by the presence of the bear who represents something more than domestic bliss for her:
The parallels with the Tlingit and Tagish tales are fascinating but for me the most interesting aspect is the fact that the young girl in "The Girl Who Married the Bear" does not have her relationship to her bear lover sanitized by a fortuitous transformation on the part of the bear to the more acceptable form of a human prince. Rather, the experience with the bear is the source of her transformation: little by little she grows extra fur (an allusion to the changes brought by puberty), teeth, her metabolism adapts so that she is able to sleep for long periods and wake to eat briefly before sleeping again, and of course she has been able to conceive children in her relationship with her bear husband. (A beautiful piece of ivory sculpture from the Dorset Culture shows a woman taking the penis of a bear into herself. As impossible as the union sounds, the sculpture makes it seem entirely natural.) Unfortunately for her husband, the girl's transformation is not complete enough and she allows him to be sacrificed so that she can return to her human family. Yet the old adage is true, you can't go home and expect life to continue as though nothing had happened. In some versions of the story, she dons a grizzly bear cloak that her brothers have asked her to wear so that they can practice their hunting skills. She warns them that she doesn't want to wear the cloak but they insist and her mother coaxes her to go along with their request. She knows that if she wears the cloak, she will become a bear for once and for all. They insist and so she wears the cloak and kills her human brothers, running off afterwards in the direction of the bear dens, sometimes with her cubs and sometimes leaving them in the human camp. She is the one who is changed beyond imagination or perhaps by imagination.
The bear in our woods only ever came up by the house once, early on an October morning; we heard a commotion outside, heard the dogs barking wildly right by the house, and then gradually getting farther away. When we got up, we found that our compost heap had been torn apart, the enclosure where we keep our garbage cans ripped apart and one can emptied on the driveway, and muddy bear-paw prints on the back trunk of our small car where I'd left a sack of dog food the day before, intending (then forgetting) to bring it into the house. And looking closely, we could see that he'd actually bit through the bumper of the car, trying to get into the trunk. The breadth of his jaw was formidable. He was confident enough, even tailed by dogs, to leave a huge pile of dark purple scat, flecked with the seeds of ripe salal and blackberry, on the side of the garden. No one walked on it, no one tread over it, even by accident, and the pile stayed until the big rains of November washed it away. And these December days, when we walk by the marshy area to see the carcasses of sockeye washed up on the shore of Sakinaw Lake, I keep my eyes and ears open for him.
Recently I dreamed of the bear-skin rug, brought up out of deep memory for this thinking about bears. In the dream I was stretched out on the rug as I was as a child, arms reaching up the shoulders of the skin as though I was being carried on a journey, willingly, by the fine body that once wore this skin. I was no longer a child, though, but the woman I am now, middle-aged, mother of children, one a daughter on the very edge of puberty. And it came as no surprise to me as I dreamed of the bear-skin, that it turned to me, not a pelt removed from its proud owner, but the bear himself, beautiful and whole, turning to me to embrace me. What I felt was not desire, exactly, but recognition, that here was the natural consequence of riding the bear-skin in imagination, here was the return of the lord of the forest. And I was willing to go with him.
In a way, what the story confirms is that fertility and desire are to some extent beyond our reason; sexuality is an ancient conundrum, a riddle, something far more mysterious than the human construct our age, poised at the threshold of the millennium, has us believe it to be. Beyond our reason, mammals exist, aware of one another across the boundaries of species and propriety. When I crouch in the woods to pee on our walks, my dogs (two spayed females) wait for me to rise before pausing and peeing in the same place. And I sometimes wonder, seeing their noses at work in the air, what it is that lets them know a bear is near. Does a thread of danger pass through the air like spider silk or something richer and enigmatic, the smell of power? In the Parks Canada directive to seal tampons in an airtight plastic bag, what is left unspoken is whether the bears would come because of the odor of blood, anyone's blood, or because they knew that fertile women were among the group. "If a bear rears up on its hind legs and waves its nose in the air, it is trying to identify you." And how will it know? By smell again, or by the exposing of one's genitals: "My husband, it's me...?"
What the story of "The Girl Who Married a Bear" tells us is complicated and original, that for those of us who live in their territory, the bears are integral to our lives in the way that the plants are, and the birds, the snakes sunning themselves in the warm grass, that we must learn to read the signs of their passing and pay attention to the messages therein. It is no wonder that people have worshipped bears as symbols of fecundity, as a Goddess in some incarnations and as a bridegroom in others. We can see the piles of bear excrement in a number of ways. The seeds and grasses, fish eggs and insects contained therein are microcosms of the world, the very stuff of creation. And perhaps most fascinating in terms of femininity and risk, the piles are a warning, that we have entered bear country and must mind our step; and they are an invitation, not to be taken lightly, to enter the world of the bear's embrace:
Postscript: May 1997
It's nearing the long weekend when my daughter will join girls of her age to ride on a parade float as queens and princesses of May in our community. For this they need dresses, or gowns, really, and a willing group of mothers to help plan and decorate the float.
My daughter's gown is finished, a blue so true to nature that I keep seeing it around me-in the opening buds of pulmonaria and scilla, the intense spring sky, the carpet of a flower I'm not familiar with over in an abandoned homestead by Sakinaw Lake where we go to collect long lengths of ivy to garland the sides of the flatbed truck that the mothers are transforming into a spring grove for their daughters.
The bear has been around again this spring. We haven't seen him yet although the dogs have been barking and running into the woods in the early mornings and we've seen the piles of excrement on our walks for the past two weeks. I've been studying them, wondering at the diet of the bear, how he can sustain himself on grasses and what appear to be shoots of thimbleberry and primeval horsetails. Wondering too, when I find piles on the trail that is one of our property boundaries, whether he was entering our woods or leaving them when he left his mark.
Depending on whether you think of May as early spring or late spring turning to early summer, this is the month of seals' cubs or the month of eggs in the Tsimshian calendar. I've been watching the violet-green swallows courting for the last month and taking dry grass into the little house they return to year after year by the vegetable garden. And there have been shards of pale mossy shell or speckled gray fragments on the trail, possibly as a result of the ravens' nest-robbing that I know is taking place because I hear the ravens all day long, plotting and scheming in the tall cedars. And my daughter, nearly twelve, is in full bloom, her small breasts filling out the bodice of the blue gown, and her moods changeable as the moon.
On the eve of the last day before the final decorating bee, she comes with me to the tangled garden on the creek feeding into Sakinaw Lake. We've gone to the creek in the fall with a biologist friend who monitors a small coho run and nearby there's a sockeye run, the rosy fish spawning in gravel about six feet off the shore of the lake. We know the bears come for the fish then because we find the carcasses pulled up into tall grass and we've seen the eagles waiting in the trees. I find myself wondering if the bears keep the memory of these succulent fish in their minds all summer, waiting and feeding on greens, grubs, even crayfish that I've seen in the creeks, but all the while longing for salmon flesh and the tender eggs. And is it memory that takes them up the mountain on late summer mornings for ripe blackberries, memory that brings them to the strong fence around our orchard where trees of pears and apples sit in the grass like maidens?
My daughter swims while I pull ivy down out of the trees. She amuses herself by holding her feet very still until bullheads come to nibble at her ankles. Then she wraps herself in a towel and comes to find me. We probably have enough ivy but I want to cut some extra now rather than having to come back for it if more is necessary. We make our way carefully through the periwinkle, a little wild patch of lilies of the valley, and some vicious canes of blackberry.
"Oh look," says my daughter, pointing, and there is a fresh pile of bear dung, right in the path we are traveling, a place we have come to before, looking for clumps of daylilies and poppies gone wild. She knows the story of the girl who married the bear and she knows about the necessity of minding one's way, about the dangers and pleasures of encountering animals in these coastal woods.
"He's been eating grass," I tell her. "See how the stools are threaded with it. You can even see the seeds."
All around us the wild grasses are growing, heavy with seeds not yet ripened. The sound of the water is lovely, running to the lake, tiny smelt making their way down to it and eventually across it to the ocean. The sun is setting over the hump of Nelson Island and the woods are getting darker. It doesn't feel like it did half an hour ago, before we found the pile of dung, shafts of light coming through the spaces between maples and conifers and filtered sun dappling the ground.
"Time to go," I tell my daughter, "and stay with me, please."
We fill our arms with ivy, draping the long vines of it over our shoulders, and walk to the truck parked over by the boat ramp. I am holding her hand. Birds are singing so beautifully and the noise of the creek is so loud with snow melt and weeks of rain that we say nothing as we leave.
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