The Great Myths #27: The Monster Bear & the Making of Thunder (Miwok)

From the Miwok tribe of California, who are now “practically extinct”:

Bear’s sister-in-law, Deer, had two beautiful fawn daughters. Bear was a horrible, wicked woman, and she wanted the fawns for herself. So this is what she did.

One day she invited Deer to accompany her when she went to pick clover. The two fawns remained at home. While resting during the day after having gathered much clover, Bear offered to pick lice from Deer’s dead. While doing so she watched her chance, took Deer unaware, and bit her neck so hard that she killed her. Then she devoured her, all except the liver. This she placed in the bottom of a basket filled with clover, and took it home. She gave the basket of clover to the fawns to eat.

When they asked where their mother was, she replied, “She will come soon. You know she’s always slow and takes her time in coming home.”

So the fawns ate the clover, but when they reached the bottom of the basket, they discovered the liver. Then they knew their aunt had killed their mother.

“We had better watch out, or she will kill us too,” they said to one another.

They decided to run away and go to their grandfather. So the next day when Bear was out, they got together all the baskets and awls which belonged to Deer and departed. They left one basket, however, in the house.

When Bear returned and found the Fawns missing, she hunted for their tracks and set out after them. After she had trailed them a short distance, the basket they had left at home whistled. Bear ran back to the house, thinking the Fawns had returned. But she could not find them and so set out again, following their tracks.

The Fawns meanwhile had proceeded on their journey, throwing awls and baskets in different directions. These awls and baskets whistled. Each time she heard them, Bear thought that the fawns were whistling, and she left the trail in search of them. And each time that Bear was fooled in this manner, she became angrier and angrier.

She shouted in her anger: “Those girls are making a fool of me. When I capture them, I’ll eat them.”

The awls only whistled in response, and Bear ran toward the sound. No one was there.

Finally, the Fawns, far ahead of Bear, came to the river. On the opposite side they saw Daddy Longlegs. They asked him to stretch his legs across the river so that they could cross safely, because Bear had killed their mother and they were fleeing from her. He did, and when Bear at last came to the river, Daddy Longlegs stretched his leg over again.

But just as the wicked aunt of the two fawns, walking on his leg, reached the middle of the river, Daddy Longlegs gave his leg a sudden twitch and threw her into the water.

However, Bear did not drown. She managed to swim to shore, where she again started in pursuit of the fawns. But the fawns were far ahead of their aunt and soon reached their grandfather’s house. Their grandfather was Lizard. They told him of the terrible fate which had overtaken their mother.

“Where is Bear?” he asked them.

“She is following us and will soon be here,” they replied.

Upon hearing this, Lizard threw two large stones into the fire and heated them. When Bear arrived outside Lizard’s house, she could not find an entrance. She asked Lizard how she should come in, and he told her that the only entrance was through the smoke hole. She must climb on the roof and enter that way, he said, and when she did, she must close her eyes tightly and open her mouth wide.

Bear followed these instructions, for Lizard had told her that the two Fawns were in his house. As Bear entered, eyes closed and mouth open, Lizard took the red-hot stones from the fire and thrust them down her throat. Bear rolled from the top of Lizard’s house and landed on the ground dead.

Lizard skinned her and dressed her hide, after which he cut it in two pieces, one large and one small. The larger piece he gave to the older Fawn, the smaller piece to the younger. Then Lizard instructed the girls to run about and see what kind of noise was made by Bear’s skin. The girls proceeded to run, and the pieces of skin crackled loudly. Lizard, watching them, laughed and said to himself, “The girls are all right. They are Thunders. I think I had better send them up to the sky.”

When the Fawns came to Lizard to tell him that they were going to return home, he said, “Don’t go home. I have a good place for you in the sky.”

So the girls went to the sky, and Lizard could hear them running about up there. Their aunt’s skin, which they had kept, makes the loud noises that we call thunder. Whenever the Fawn girls (Thunders, as Lizard called them) run around in the sky, rain and hail fall.

Richard Erdoes & Alfonso Ortiz, American Indian Myths & Legends, 216-218; reported by Edward W. Gifford in 1930

Read the other Great Myths here

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