The Bear Feast Story
Illustrated By: Stella Wei
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An old man living in Alaska was sad. All of his friends and family were long gone. He began to wonder if he should leave the village and start a new life somewhere else. "If I lived someplace new, at least I won't be around all these memories anymore," he thought. But he also worried, "If I paddle away to another village and the people there see that I'm alone, they may think that I had to run away from my home village because I was accused of some disgraceful thing." Instead, he thought that he would just go off and live in the forest by himself.
The poor man was so sad, traveling alone in the woods, it actually occurred to him to go to the bears and just let the bears kill him. The bear village was by a large salmon creek, so he went over to the creek early in the morning until he found a bear trail, and he lay down across the end of it. He thought that when the bears came out along this trail they would find him, and that would be the end of him.
By and by, as he lay there, he heard the bushes breaking. Then a large number of grizzly bears came along. The largest bear led the rest. Then the old man became scared. All of a sudden, he realized that he did not want to die at all, and certainly not by bears. So when the leading bear came up to him, the old man stood up. He announced: "I have come to invite you to a feast."
At that, the leading bear's fur stood straight up. The old man thought that he was surely done for, but he spoke again, saying, "I have come to invite you to a feast, but if you are going to kill me, I am willing to die. I am alone. I have lost all of my family and my friends."
As soon as he had said this the leading bear turned around and growled to the bears that were following. Then the group of them turned back the way they had come. After a while the man turned and walked toward his village very fast. He wondered if the biggest bear had told the bears behind him to go back and get ready because they were invited to a feast.
"Well, in case that's the way it is, I better get ready to make a feast," thought the old man. As soon as he got home, he started to clean up. He took away the old sand around the fireplace and replaced it with clean sand. Then he went for a load of fresh wood. When he told the other people in the village what he was doing and why, they were all very much scared. They said to him, "What made you do such a thing? The grizzlies are our enemy. You do not want grizzly bears in your home." When he was back home, the man took off his shirt and painted his chest. He put stripes of red across his upper arm muscles, a red stripe over his heart, and another across the upper part of his chest.
Very early in the morning, after he had thus prepared, he stood outside of the door looking for his bears. Finally he saw them at the mouth of the creek, led by the same big grizzly bear. When the other village people saw the bears, however, they were so terrified that they shut themselves in their houses. But the old man stood by his door to receive his guests. He brought them into the house and gave them seats, placing the chief in the middle at the rear of the house, and the rest around him.
First he served them large trays of cranberries preserved in grease. The large bear seemed to say something to his companions, and as soon as he began to eat, the rest started to eat, too. They watched him and did whatever he did. The host followed that up with a course of salmon, with sprinkles of clover weed and dandelion on top for garnish. Then a course of deer meat with pine nuts. For dessert, raspberries with honey. After they were through, the large bear seemed to talk to his host for a very long time. It was almost as if the leader bear was giving him a speech, for he would look up at the smoke hole every now and then and act as though he were talking. When he finished, he went over to his host and licked the paint from his arm and chest. And so each of the other bears, in turn, did the same. The old man felt as if they were licking his sorrow away.
The day after all this happened, the smallest bear came back to the old man's hut in human form and spoke to the old man. He had been born a human being, he told the old man, but had been captured and adopted by the bears. This bear-man asked the old man if he had understood their chief, and he said, "No."
"He was telling you," the bear-man replied, "that he is in the same condition as you. That he, too, is old and has lost all of his friends. He had heard of you before he saw you, he said. He told you to think of him when you are mourning for your lost ones, as he knows how that is, too."
When the old man asked this bear-man why he had not told him that day, when the bears were at the feast, he replied that he was not allowed to turn into his human form and speak his native language while the bear chief was around.
After this, whenever the people of the village gave a feast, they would always invite an enemy to the feast. And they would become friends, just as the old man had done with the chief of the bears.
- Why did the old man invite the bear chief to a feast?
- Did you ever make friends with someone that others judged you for? What happened?
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"Inviting the Bears" is based on "The Man Who Entertained the Bears," a story from Tlingit Myths and Texts recorded by John R. Swanton (Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 39, story #64). Also a tidbit from "Inviting the Bears" is sourced to another story from said Tlingit Myths, "Origin of Iceberg House", story #21.
Adapted by Elaine Lindy. ©1998. All rights reserved.
The Tlingit is a group of Native American tribes inhabiting the Pacific coast of southeastern Alaska. Native Americans who live in Alaska are often confused with Inuit (Eskimo) peoples but they have entirely different origins. Native Americans are believed to have crossed the Bering Strait into Alaska about 20,000 years ago. The Inuits (Eskimos), a people of Arctic Mongolian stock, are believed to have crossed the Bering Strait into Alaska much more recently, about 2,000 years ago. Today, the largest concentration of Tlingit Native Americans is in Alaska, where many Tlingit work in the logging and fishing industries. In the 1990 United States census, 13,925 people claimed to be of Tlingit descent. The story "Inviting the Bears" was recorded in 1904 at Wrangell, Alaska.