Myths and Legends of the Black Bear
The first humans to admire, revere and respect Black Bears were the Native Americans of Eastern North America. The Cherokee were the nation that dominated these mountains before the arrival of the Europeans. Some historians claim the Cherokee have inhabited these southern highlands for only 500-years, after migrating here from the Great Lakes or the Ohio Valley region. Though the Cherokee did live in the upper Mid-West, their myths, legends and tradition have placed their origins here, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Smoky Mountains dating back thousands of years.
Archeological studies at an ancient, prehistoric Native American man-made earth mound, has unearthed evidence confirming that the Cherokee people are descendants of the ancient Tsalagi people, which originated here some ten thousand years ago. This very important archeological site lies along the southern reaches of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The ancient village is located along the northern banks of the Tuskasegee River in Swain County North Carolina and is situated between the towns of Cherokee and Bryson City. The access point to the site is on the northern end along US 19/74.
This ancient mound village is called Kituwah, also known to the Cherokee people as the “Mother City,” site of the Scared Fire of Keetoowah. The Cherokee still consider this a very sacred site. The site consist of an ancient mound surrounded by level fields and enclosed by tall mountains and foothills, there are currently no inhabitants at the village site.
This ancient mound village is open to the public to view by those who respect sacred sites and native culture. Today, the Cherokee still use the ancient village grounds for occasion tribal events. It is disrespectful for visitors to stand on the mound or allow children to play on it. The grounds are not available for gathering by the public without direct permission from the Tribal Council.
It is believed that the Cherokee began returning to their mountain homelands in mass around the 1400’s A.D., this return was likely prompted by conflicts with other northern tribes. The Cherokee were here at the time when DeSoto and his army of Conquistadors arrived in the area during the 1550’s.
At the height of the Cherokee nation’s dominance around 1650 A.D., the Cherokee Nation inhabited parts of 7 states in southeastern North America, occupying at least 200 Cherokee towns.
The Cherokee would have known well the Black Bear in the northeastern parts of North America as well as the southeastern regions of North America. The Black Bear, also known as the “American Bear” has in the past, had a long-range for habitat across the North American continent, including Black Bear sightings that have ranged from Florida to Alaska. Today the reasons we associate the Black Bear with mountainous regions is the fact that it’s the last remaining wilderness that wild bears have left to inhabit from the overall encroachment of humans across this vast nation.
The Cherokee, along with all the other Northeastern American tribes were comfortable living with the local Black Bear population. Yet it’s the mountains of the southern Blue Ridge, especially the sacred mountains that “Smoked,” that have given rise to many Cherokee myths and legends concerning the Black Bears.
Though the Cherokee believed in monotheism, one God, they often saw reflections of the Great Spirit in nature and wildlife. Figuratively speaking all religions contained symbols that include a relationship between the physical world and the spiritual world. Things like serpents and weeds reflect a dark negative world where as doves and olive branches represent love and peace. While lions and lambs stand for courage and innocence.
The White Bear (on a rare occasion, Black Bear are born with a natural white fur) was a significant part of the Cherokee ceremonial or religious practices. It could be speculated that there was a personal attraction or spiritual kinship to the Black Bear by Native Americans. This could have derived from the Black Bear’s physical characteristic. Black Bears stand upright, offer vocal content (bear grunts, moans groans and blowing,) and their forearms and paws move similar to humans wearing large mittens with claws.
The Cherokee Nation consists of seven clans, the Blue Clan, Long Hair Clan, Bird Clan, Paint Clan, Deer Clan, Wolf Clan and Wild Potato Clan. It is the Wild Potato Clan that also is known as the Bear Clan plus the Raccoon Clan, or Blind Savannah Clan. The relations between the Wild Potato Clan and their alias the Bear Clan may come from the idea of foraging. The Wild Potato Clan was known to gather wild potato plants in swampy areas and along streams to make flour or bread for food. Black Bear are considered omnivorous and are quiet efficient at foraging numerous plants, berries and nuts as well as meat and fish, another similarity that they had with the Cherokee people, their diet.
Cherokee tales of the Black Bear are legendary here in the mountains, tales that can be either fact based, spiritual or mythical in origin. These Black Bear legends, along with many more Cherokee legends are affectionately shared in order to maintain a native tradition, relating this knowledge to others so that they won’t be lost from posterity. What the Cherokee people felt and believed about the Black Bear, add to the overall make up of who the Cherokee are as a people and their connection to this world, and as individuals connected to the spirit world itself.
The Cherokee have often seen the Black Bear of the “Smoking” Blue Ridge Mountains, as a symbol of a guide or as a spirit guide, an elder and an ally to the Cherokee people. Tales are told revealing their personal relationship with the bears in both the spirit world and in the physical world. The Cherokee not only revered the Black Bear as a spirit guide and personal totem, the black bear was also a resource for clothing, bedding, food, oil or grease, bone tools and jewelry-like adornments. A bear skull with hide could be used as a headdress while other items such as claws or robes of hide could be worn or used in their ceremonial practices, or worn as a sign of achievement by brave warriors or hunters.
With all that has happen to this land of the New World since the arrival of the first Europeans roughly 500 years ago, it is the Cherokee and the Black Bear that have stood the test of time and have diligently and bravely remained here in these mountains with all odds against them. A priceless bond united in brotherhood between man and beast, a legacy of myths, legends and facts that remain a treasure for us all to cherish.
Below are several legends and myths of the Cherokee concerning their brother in both life and in spirit, the Black Bear, the beloved and noble beast that has always maintained a rightful and sacred relationship with these Blue Ridge Smoky Mountains.
(information via the BlueRidgeHighlander.com)