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Native American Legends

Bear leads a boy astray

A Nez Perce Legend

A boy was out hunting, as he was accustomed to be, when Bear [xa' xats] captured him. She took him into her den and kept him there for a long, long time. One day she said to him, "You are going home to your mother and father. You are to go home for only a short time, and then you will return again." Bear prepared a lunch for him. It happened to be in the root digging season, and she prepared camas roots for his lunch. She repeated her instructions, "You are just going to visit them briefly. Then, tomorrow or the day after, you will return. Now, in going you must make a singing approach."

The young man's father and mother had, of course, come to believe that their son was dead. Bear gave him a song, and he set out. He traveled along; and when he was about to arrive he began to sing, "Sa' ya [the bear's name], the widow, led me astray; sa' ya, the mouth, led me astray." His parents now heard the song, and they rejoiced to find that their son was alive and that he had returned home.

The young man stayed with his father and mother for a few days. Then he said to them, "I came only to visit you, and now I am going back." It happened that the people there were catching many salmon. Now they gave the young man a large supply of salmon to take with him. He set out for home and arrived at the bear den to find Bear absent. She had gone out to dig roots. The young man decided, "Let me provide food for the poor one." He broiled a salmon for her.

Bear arrived soon. "Oh, salmon! That is wonderful!" she exclaimed. "There is some I have already broiled for you," the young man told her. "Oh, it is so overly cooked! I can't eat it like that," she told him. "Then I will eat it myself, and you can cook some in whatever way you like."

"Yes, you eat that," Bear agreed, and then she took a salmon and sprinkled it with dust to season it. "This is how it should be done. Oh, such good salmon," she said.

Now the young man said to her, "They told me that we should come, that they are catching so many salmon and that we ought to come." "But there are so many people there. It would be so embarrassing," Bear demurred. "Be that as it may, they are inviting us. We could go just for a short time," the young man replied.

"So be it, then; we will go," she consented. Here they prepared for their visit. Bear went out to dig camas roots to take with them. They were ready to go, at last. They went; they arrived. There were many, many people encamped, and they were making merry. They had all kinds of social activities. Bear's husband joined in the festivity. He danced, and he participated in all their various activities.

One day Bear said to her husband, "Let us go home now." "Not just yet. Let us go later," he replied. Bear persisted but her husband seemed most reluctant to leave. He kept putting her off.

At last Bear became angry. She knew that certain maidens were making merry with her husband. She decided, "I will kill them." She went out of camp into the brush. It was the season in which chokeberries and serviceberries were ripening, and the maidens used to go out frequently to pick and eat berries. Bear saw a party of maidens walking away from camp. She circled around them and lay down in the bushes ahead, near the path of their approach. She could hear them very clearly. They were talking excitedly to one another.

"And Bear's husband was giving me such special attention at the dance," one maiden was saying. When Bear heard her husband's name mentioned, a sudden deep hatred possessed her. "This is why he is always so unwilling to go! This is why he is always telling me, 'We will go later; we will go later,' " Bear mumbled in deep anger. The maidens came on. When they were near Bear, she jumped up and rushed at them. She bit one to death; she rushed at another one and bit her to death. Thus she killed all five of the maidens. Now she dug a pit and buried them. She was covered with blood, and even though she washed herself thoroughly, there was a pungent odor of blood about her. Then she tied a bandage around her head and went home. She lay down in the manner of one who is ill.

Her husband came into their lodge soon. Observing her apparent condition he asked, "What is the matter?" There was a heavy odor of blood in the lodge. "My head aches, and I was bleeding from the nose. I feel as if I am about to become very ill. I believe that we should go home," Bear replied.

The people about camp now had noticed the absence of the maidens, and at once they suspected Bear. They searched for the maidens and found where Bear had buried them. "There is no question about it now. Bear has killed them," the people agreed. And now Coyote pronounced judgment. "Bear has killed those five sisters. This woman who is a newcomer may not do such a thing; therefore, she, too, must be killed," he ruled.

Then the people went to Bear's husband and said to him, "The salmon are not running. We have not caught a single one lately. But we believe that your wife, Bear, being a powerful shaman, by taking a sweat bath would be able to cause salmon to run again." The husband now told the Bear what had been proposed.

"So embarrassing!" she exclaimed.

"Yes, but they are placing all their faith in you, and they have confidence in nobody else. Then, if you should cause a run of salmon, we should receive such a large quantity of dried salmon to take home."

"But so embarrassing!" repeated Bear.

"Then go into the sweathouse fully clothed," offered her husband. "All right, then I will do this for them," Bear consented at last. The people heated stones. Bear repaired to the sweathouse and there, fully clothed, she crawled in. The red-hot stones had already been piled inside. Then the people made a hole in the roof of the sweat lodge directly above the hot stones. Everybody gathered around. Now they began to pour water through the hole, and the red-hot stones gave off a terrific heat.

Inside, Bear said to herself, "Now they will kill me!" She began to writhe and struggle in the agony of death. The people poured and poured water through the hole, and then they all crowded around and sat on the sweathouse to hold Bear inside. She struggled in agony; she struggled fiercely from the suffocating heat. Her struggles ceased to last. She was suffocated. Then the people dragged her out of the sweathouse. She was dead. The people continued to live there.

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