Native American Legends
The boy who lived with Bears
An Iroquois Legend
There was once a boy whose father and mother had died and he was
left alone in the world. The only person he had to take care of
him was his uncle, but his uncle was not a kind man.
The uncle thought that the boy was too much trouble and fed him
only scraps from the table and dressed him in tattered clothing
and moccasins with soles that were worn away. When the boy slept
at night, he had to sleep outside his uncle's lodge far away from
But the boy never complained because his parents had told him always
to respect people older than himself.
One day the uncle decided to get rid of the boy. "Come with
me," he said. "We are going hunting."
The boy was very happy. His uncle had never taken him hunting before.
He followed him into the woods. First his uncle killed a rabbit.
The boy picked it up to carry it for the uncle and was ready to
turn back to the lodge, but his uncle shook his head. "We will
go on. I am not done hunting."
They went further and the uncle killed a fat grouse. The boy was
very happy, for they would have so much to eat that surely his uncle
would feed him well that night and he began to turn back, but the
uncle shook his head again. "No," he said, "we must
Finally, they came to a place very, very far in the forest where
the boy had not been before. There was a great cliff and at its
base a cave led into the rock. The opening to the cave was large
enough only for a small person to go into. "There are animals
hiding in there," the uncle said. "You must crawl in and
chase them out so that I can shoot them with my arrows."
The cave was very dark and it looked cold inside, but the boy remembered
what his parents had taught him. He crawled into the cave. There
were leaves and stones, but there were no animals. He reached the
very end of the cave and turned back, ashamed that he had not fulfilled
his uncle's expectations. And do you know what he saw? He saw his
uncle rolling a great stone in front of the mouth of the cave. And
then everything was dark.
The boy tried to move the stone, but it was no use. He was trapped!
At first he was afraid, but then he remembered what his parents
had told him. The orenda of those who are good at heart is very
strong. If you do good and have faith, good things will come to
you. This made the boy happy and he began to sing a song.
The song was about himself, a boy who had no parents and needed
friends. As he sang, his song grew louder, until he forgot he was
trapped in a cave. But then he heard a scratching noise outside
and stopped singing, thinking his uncle had come back to let him
out of the cave.
However, as soon as he heard the first of many voices outside his
cave, he knew that he was wrong. That high squeaking voice was not
the voice of his uncle. "We should help this boy," said
the high squeaking voice.
"Yes," said a very deep voice which sounded warm and
loving. "He is all alone and needs help.
There is no doubt that we should help him."
"One of us," said another voice, "will have to adopt
And then many other voices, voices of all kinds which seemed to
speak in many languages agreed. The strange thing was that the boy
could understand all these voices, strange as they were.
Then the stone began to move and light streamed into the cave,
blinding the boy who had been in the darkness for a long time. He
crawled out, very stiff and cold, and looked around him. He was
surrounded by many animals!
"Now that we have rescued you," said a small voice from
near his feet, "you must choose which of us will be your parents
now." He looked down and saw that the one who was speaking
was a mole.
"Yes," said a great moose standing in the trees. "You
must choose one of us."
"Thank you," said the boy. You are all so kind. But how
can I choose which one of you will be my parents?"
"I know," said the mole. "Let us all tell him what
we are like and what kind of lives we lead and he can decide."
There was general agreement on that, and so the animals began to
come up to the boy one by one.
"I'll begin," said the mole. "I live under the earth
and dig my tunnels through the Earth Mother. It is very dark and
cozy in my tunnels and we have plenty of worms and grubs to eat."
"That sounds very good," said the boy, "but I am
afraid that I am too big to go into your tunnels, friend Mole."
"Come and live with me," said the beaver. "I live
in a fine lodge in the midst of a pond. We beavers eat the best
bark from the sweetest trees and we dive under the water and sleep
in our lodge in the winter time."
"Your life is very interesting too," said the boy, "but
I cannot eat bark, and I know that I would freeze in the cold waters
of your pond."
"How about me?" said the wolf. "I run through the
woods and fields and I catch all the small animals I want to eat.
I live in a warm den and you would do well to come with me."
"You too are very kind," said the boy, "but all
of the animals have been so kind to me I would not feel right eating
"You could be my child," said the deer. "Run with
us through the forest and eat the twigs of the trees and the grass
of the fields."
"No, friend deer," the boy said, "You are beautiful
and good, but you are so fast that I would be left far behind you."
Then an old bear-woman walked over to the boy. She looked at him
a long time before she talked and when she spoke her voice was like
a growling song.
"You can come with us and be a bear," she said. "We
bears move slowly and speak with harsh voices, but our hearts are
warm. We eat the berries and the roots which grow in the forest
and our fur would keep you warm in the long season cold."
"Yes," said the boy, "I would like to be a bear.
I will come with you and you will be my family." So the boy
who had no family went to live with the bears. The mother bear had
two other children and they became brothers to the boy. They would
roll and play together and soon the boy was almost as strong as
"Be careful, though," the old bear-woman cautioned him.
"Your brothers' claws are sharp and wherever they scratch you,
you will grow hair just like them." They lived together a long
time in the forest and the old bear-woman taught the boy many things.
One day they were all in the forest seeking berries when the bear-woman
motioned them to silence.
"Listen," she said. "There is a hunter." They
listened and, sure enough, they heard the sounds of a man walking.
The old bear-woman smiled. "We have nothing to fear from him,"
she said. "He is the heavy- stepper and the twigs and the leaves
of the forest speak of him wherever he goes."
Another time as they walked along, the old bear- woman again motioned
them to silence. "Listen," she said. "Another hunter."
They listened and soon they heard the sound of singing . The old
bear- woman smiled. "That one too is not dangerous. He is the
flapping-mouth, the one who talks as he hunts and does not remember
that everything in the forest has ears. We bears can hear singing
even if it is only thought, and not spoken."
So they lived on happily until one day when the old bear-woman
motioned them to silence, a frightened look in her eyes. "Listen,"
she said, "the one who hunts on two-legs and four-legs. This
one is very dangerous to us, and we must hope he does not find us,
for the four-legs who hunts with him can follow our tracks wherever
we go and the man himself does not give up until he has caught whatever
it is that he is hunting for."
Just then they heard the sound of a dog barking "Run for your
lives," cried the old bear-woman "The four-legs has caught
And so they ran, the boy and the three bears. They ran across streams
and up hills, but still the sound of the dog followed them. They
ran through swamps and thickets, but the hunters were still close
behind. They crossed ravines and forced their way through patches
of thorns, but could not escape the sounds of pursuit. Finally,
their hearts ready to burst from exhaustion, the old bear-woman
and the boy and the two bear-brothers came to a great hollow log.
"It is our last hope," said the old bear-woman. "Go
They crawled into the log and waited, panting and afraid. For a
time, there was no sound and then the noise of the dog sniffing
at the end of their log came to their cars. The old bear-woman growled
and the dog did not dare to come in after them. Then, once again,
things were quiet and the boy began to hope that his family would
be safe, but his hopes were quickly shattered when he smelled smoke.
The resourceful hunter had piled branches at the end of the log
and was going to smoke them out!
"Wait," cried the boy in a loud voice. "Do not harm
"Who is speaking?" shouted a familiar voice from outside
the log. "Is there a human being inside there?" There
came the sound of branches being kicked away from the mouth of the
log and then the smoke stopped. The boy crawled out and looked into
the face of the hunter--it was his uncle!!
"My nephew!" cried the uncle with tears in his eyes.
"Is it truly you? I came back to the cave where I left you,
realizing that I had been a cruel and foolish man . . . but you
were gone and there were only the tracks of many animals. I thought
they had killed you.
And it was true. Before the uncle had reached home, he had realized
that he had been a wicked person. He had turned back, resolved to
treat the son of his own sister well from then on. His grief had
truly been great when he had found him gone.
"It is me," said the boy. "I have been cared for
by the bears. They are like my family now, Uncle. Please do not
The uncle tied his hunting dog to a tree as he nodded his agreement.
"Bring out your friends. I will always be the friend of bears
from now on if what you say is true."
Uncertain and still somewhat afraid, the old bear- woman and her
two sons came out of the log. They talked to the boy with words
which sounded to the uncle like nothing more than animals growling
and told him that he must now be I human being again.
"We will always be your friends," said the old bear-woman
and she shuffled into the forest after her two sons. "And you
will remember what it is to know the warmth of an animal's heart."
And so the boy returned to live a long and happy life with his
uncle. a friend to the bears and all the animals for as long as
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