Bear Woman: A Tragic Tale


There once was an Ojibwe girl who lived a very tragic life. She was one of three surviving members of a family of seven, the others having been killed by wolves. She had been raped by her French Metis employer, and expelled from the house by the man's wife after signs of pregnancy appeared. After the baby's birth, she gave the child to his father out of depression, as she could not raise the child born from rape. Then she left the settlement to join a band of Ojibwe who hunted buffalo south of the Red River. She was well respected in her work with her people, and she was paid well for she was very smart. The men would bring back meat and she would make pemmican and buffalo hides to trade at the Hudson's Bay Post.


One time some men asked her with whom she had left her baby. She said that she had given it back to the father, and they answered that she was very brave to give away her baby. She said, “Yes, I'm brave. If there were anybody going to war against the Sioux, I would go along.” The men taunted her and joked that she would not go because she would be too much of a coward, and that she was saying these things only because she was afraid. They even said to her that she couldn't take this French half-breed away from his wife when she had tried to do it (although she had been raped).


About four days later some men came along who were going to the Sioux country for a battle. Some of the men of her party yelled to her, “Here come the men that are going for a battle!” They were just teasing her, but she jumped up and said, “I'm going along. I don't care if I get killed either. I was supposed to die long ago anyway and it was only on account of my brother and sister that I lived through the attack of the wolves! And now I don't care if I die, because I threw my baby away, and I also disgraced myself by having the child of a married man.” So she went. The warriors did not want her to go, but one man said to let her go, that they could use her for bait. So they did let her go with.


After several days of walking into the Sioux country, the Ojibwe finally came near an enemy camp. The Ojibwe stayed hidden through the night and decided to wait for morning to attack. They all eventually fell asleep. During the night, while they slept, the Sioux discovered the war party and their warriors came and circled around the Ojibwe. The chief of the Sioux saw there was one woman there with the warriors. He told his men not to kill her – perhaps so he could take her as a wife.


The girl wakened from her sleep. She heard the Sioux circling around her people, but she bravely crawled toward the bush to get a better look in the dark. She saw the Sioux men all around, but she was able to find a place where she could crawl out unseen. Once clear, she jumped up and ran, and as she was running along she came to a hole and crawled in. Soon she heard yelling as the Sioux attacked.


She stayed hidden in her hole and did not move. She believed she would be found anyway, and as she sat in this dark place listening to the shouts of men, something came to the mouth of the hole and crawled in. She was not frightened. It came closer and lay down and pushed her further into the hole. She felt It and It had fur. After a while the noise of the battle was quieting down, and she thought of crawling out of the hole, but the furry thing crawled out first. In the faint light of the breaking dawn, she saw it was a big bear! The bear reached in, pulled her out of the hole, and looked at her. It then started to walk away. She felt that the bear wanted her to go somewhere, so she followed it. Finally, she followed it to a lake where there were canoes. As the bear walked around on the shore, she got into a canoe and started paddling as hard as she could. When she looked back, the bear was tearing up all the remaining canoes. Just as he was tearing up the last canoe, the Sioux men came running down, yelling. The bear ran away along the shore, as fast as he could. Because all their canoes were wrecked, the Sioux could not follow the girl. All they could do was stand on the shore and watch her escape.


Eventually, the girl came to a place of rapids. She saw another bear there. She was frightened because she did not know what was meant by this. Then she remembered that when she was a little girl she used to dream about a big bear that went around with her and protected her from everything. Confidently, she got out of the canoe and began to portage it until she could put back in the water, then she paddled onwards. Then she came to another rapids and saw yet another bear standing there. and again she took the canoe over another portage.


Eventually it was night and she grew tired. She slept in the canoe. When she woke up it was daylight. She saw the bear swimming across the river, and she knew it wanted her to cross. Soon she rounded another point on the river and came to a big lake. As she entered the lake, she saw the bear standing in one place on his hind legs looking into the distance. She also looked that direction and saw smoke from a fire. Then, the bear looked at her, turned, and walked into the bush. The girl then paddled towards the place where she saw the smoke.


By the time she reached the shore it was quite dark. She crept forward and saw a woman and two men sitting near a campfire. She did not know who they were, and she was afraid of them. She waited and watched. The woman and the men were sitting down, talking and laughing. Then the woman got up to get some water. As she was getting water, the woman said to her companions, “I feel as if someone nearby were looking at us.” Hearing that the woman spoke her language, the girl, feeling that it was safe to do so spoke, “Yes, I'm near here, watching you. I wanted to find out first if I could understand your language.” She then stood up and the woman and two men asked her where she was from. The girl answered that she was from Saugeen. They invited her to sit near the fire, for she looked cold. They offered her food, which she gladly accepted as she had not eaten anything since she had gone to the Sioux country. After having some hot tea, she lay down near the fire and slept.


The next morning the woman and the two men asked the girl to come with them. They packed their canoes and started off. Later that night they camped again. The woman told the girl that the young men were her brothers, and that the youngest was single and needed a wife. The girl said that she was not good enough for any man, and she told the woman her story: that she had gone to the Sioux country and that the bear had led her away from danger and brought her to this place where she had found these people. The woman said, “So, this woman here was saved by a bear!”

After four days they came to the woman’s camp and the girl saw many people. She settled in and decided to marry the young man. They eventually had a little girl.


When her daughter was three years old, the girl took her out picking berries one day. Suddenly, she saw a big bear coming. It rushed at her and her daughter, and it grabbed the child and tore her to pieces, and then It went away. The girl went home crying.


When she got there she told the story of how her daughter was killed. Her sister-in-law thought of the story she had told about the bear, and she was angry at the girl. The girl’s husband said that the girl could not help the death of the child, but her sister-in-law said that it was punishment because the girl did not make a ritual offering to the bear spirit who saved her life from the Sioux when she had escaped the battle.


After the funeral for her little daughter, the girl could not stand any more. She had gone through too much. All her life passed in her mind—how her parents had been eaten by wolves, and her little sister had starved to death, and her little brother had died of a broken heart; how she had been raped by the half-breed and had borne an illegitimate child, and then had given her away; and now when she was happily married and forgetting the past, her daughter had been torn up by a bear in front of her. She wished the bear had torn her up too … she could not go on living … so that night after her baby was buried she went out and hanged herself. She was found dead the next morning, and she was also buried.


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Source: Landes, Ruth (1932) The Ojibwa woman. New York: Columbia University Press. 1938. viii, 247 p.


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