The Girl Who Became a Bear

Big Dipper

“Broken Back”, the Arapaho name for this star constellation

The following story, The Girl Who Became a Bear, is believed to be the explanation of how the Big Dipper came to be in Arapaho mythology. Philip Rapid/Rabbit shared the story with Alfred Kroeber in Oklahoma on August 15, 1899.

Professor Andrew Cowell, William C’Hair and Alonzo Moss explained some of the meanings behind the symbolism in their book, Arapaho Stories, Songs & Prayers. (pages 375-381)

As you read the story, here are a few things to be aware of…

Bear-claws are prominent in old Arapaho art according to Cowell and he believes the use of the bear claws is significant. He further theorizes that this story may be connected to Whirlwind Woman since the claw motif is linked to her and she is linked to the creation of the world.

The Big Dipper which is referred to as a bear in many cultures, is known as “broken back” or “broken shoulder” in Arapaho. And the three stars ‘hanging in the sky’ also refer to those ‘left behind.’

Now, the story!

A large tribe had set up camp. The children were pretending to be a bear in the sand. There was one who was an older girl.

When they were playing, “Heti-ce3-oobe hit-eihotoo-no!” (Bring it’s claws!) said this girl.

Then she tied its claws to her hands. She pretended to be a bear with its lodge in sandy hills – the mythical home of the dead.

There were a lot of berries at her lodge. The children would come and pick berries.

While they were picking the berries, the one who played bear would come out and pretend to charge furiously at them in attack.

There was a willow area where she would sleep. This one who actually did turn into a bear, she ripped open her younger brother’s back. I guess she hurt him badly. In the evenings all the children went home.

“Ceebeh-‘ei’tobee toh-woxuunoo’oo-noo.” (Don’t tell them that I have turned into a bear) this girl said.

Noottob-einooni neinoo, heti-yooton-oobe,” (When my mother asks about me, you must hide this from her),” she said.

Tooto’oe, heitobee-neehek, hoot-ne’-woteekoohu-noo,” (And anyway, if you tell, I’ll come storming into camp) the one who had turned into a bear said.
When her younger brother went home, well, I guess he didn’t tell that he had been injured. Once it was night again, when everyone went to sleep, then this boy’s injuries were noticed.

When he was asked about it, then he told how his older sister had turned into a bear. He was still in the process of telling the story, when every single dog in the camp started barking.

Then the one who had turned into a bear came storming into the camp. Right away the women and children got on the fastest horses available. Everyone fled in fear.
The young men remained behind to fight the bear. And now everyone had fled away, but the boy and his other sister were left tied together to a cottonwood tree, since he had told on his older sister.

The bear was still being fought. A scabby dog (kokuye3-ebii) had been left behind alone where the camp had been. It took pity on these two who were tied together.

Then it worked to loosen the rope with its teeth. It tore the rope asunder with its teeth. Once the children had freed themselves from the remaining strands, they began to flee in fear. They just followed whatever people were still in sight.

But right at that time this bear had slaughtered all those left behind to block her pursuit. Then she went running after everyone who was fleeing. The boy turned back to look as he was running. To his consternation, he saw that the bear was running this way.

These children had a ball with them. Whenever they kicked it, they rose up in the air with it. That’s what they did whenever the bear got close to overtaking them, until they both got tired out from running.

The ball spoke, “Neeso het-cih-‘ihckikuus-ibe.” (You must throw me up three times.)

Noh yeini’owoo’, het’cih’ihce3ei’on’ibe.” (And the fourth time you must kick me upward.)

Noh hootni’ihcino’oo-nee hinee hihcebe.” (And you will rise up to the sky.)

Hootn-oowoh-‘enitoo-nee,” (You will enjoy being there) said this ball to them.

Once again the bear had very nearly caught up to them. The boy threw the ball up three times. When the fourth time came, he threw it up. When it was coming back down, he kicked it up into the air from underneath.

They just rose upward with the ball. They are three stars hanging in the sky.

And after the bear failed to catch them, she became mad with rage. She fell backward, hollering. She didn’t stir.

That’s how far the snow goes.

(When listening to traditional narratives, people said “hiii” (snow)” to show that they were still awake and listening. Thus the end of ‘snow’ is the end of the story.)

To read more Arapaho legends, I recommend Arapaho Stories, Songs & Prayers by Cowell, Moss & C’Hair.

Hohou! – Jackie Dorothy, 2016

1 Comment

  1. These stories are a treasure of the true people of America. Thank you for giving us these ancient tales. I look forward to reading more & learning more of the beautiful, thought provoking legends.

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