Bears and Blackfeet

by Jay Hansford C. Vest

Bears have always inspired me, their power unmatched among land mammals and their mysterious habits of hibernating through the long winters of the north give cause for care and thought. These ursine mammals have cognitive complexity that matches the primates and cetaceans in their self-awareness and ability to appreciate their surroundings. The naturalist Enos Mills observed them at play sliding down snow banks, in awe watching sunsets, and in cunning reversing their course from being the tracked object to the tracker. Once while tracking a grizzly bear, Mills was deliberately thrown off the trail by a trick of his ursine quarry becoming the tracker behind the man now the object of the bear’s curiosity. Their dexterity of claw matches that of the human hand – a grizzly can pick and pit a peach faster than a man can with a paring knife. In the arctic environment of ice and snow, polar bears using a block of ice held before their black nose disguise their only telltale feature when stalking their unsuspecting prey. Lying in wait at seal blowholes, their patience is extraordinary. While sharing the same environment, Inuit and many other Natives give credit to the bears as teachers and healers. Much of Native herbal medicine was born in observing the bears. Digging into the earth, bears eat roots and berries, indicating their knowledge of the healing properties of herbs. Native bears songs and legends affirm their traditional sentiments of respect and awe for these urisine spirits.

Living in the northwestern plains adjacent to the Rockies, the Pikuni-Blackfeet are no strangers to bears and they have a long-standing respect for these nature persons. It is my intent to draw upon these traditions in my experience so as to share this account of bears and Blackfeet.


We were camped in the Cutbank Valley adjacent to Glacier National Park. It is prime grizzly bear habitat. From time immemorial, the Pikuni-Blackfeet have lived in peace with the great bears. They attribute their good relations with the bruins to a covenant made in the long ago time. As the story goes, a young Pikuni warrior had set out from the Backbone of the World intent on capturing horses from the Snake or Shoshoni people. Entering the camp, he was discovered and severely wounded as he battled for his life. With the Snakes close behind him, he escaped by entering a cave – home to a great bear. It was the home of the Medicine Grizzly. Awakened from his slumbers, the bear took pity on the man – tending his wounds and supplying him with dry meat of which he had a supply for his spring arousal. As the green grass season arrived, the bear announced to the man, “It is time for me to go out and forage upon the earth for my living.” Seeing the man was yet weak and incapable of making the journey north to his people, the bear once again took pity upon him. “Climb onto my back and I will carry you north to your people along the Backbone of the World.” The man did as he was instructed and riding on the back of the great bear, he soon found himself returned to the Real Old Man Country.

The bear announced, “You are now within you home country, go to your people who are camped along the river bottom just beyond the eastern horizon.” Turning westward the bear looked at the great rocky crest where the sign of his presence was announced in Kiayo Craig and he prepared to depart. Before he did so the man called after him saying, “What is it I can do for you?”

Rising on his hind legs the bear roared, “You must never disturb a bear while he is denned up for the winter. As long as you observe this rule, there will be peace between our people.” In salute, the bear waved his paw, turned away and dropped to all fours as he made his way into the mountains.

Within the Pikuni-Blackfeet community, this encounter marks a covenant with the bears that has to this day never been broken by either party. Although bear attacks have occurred within the Real Old Man Country, they have never involved the Pikuni-Blackfeet.

Once I observed during a thunder pipe sing over a perilous winter, a young elder had taken a rattle while offering that the only songs he had were those given him by the spirits while he fasted in the mountains. His power chants reminded me of the story of Berry Child but he dared not acknowledge Kiayo, the real bear, before the sacred pipe. To do so was strictly taboo. Long ago the Pikuni-Blackfeet determined that the real bear is so powerful that you must never speak its name in front of the sacred pipe. Once Buster told me by explanation, “Your pipe is your life” suggesting it is tempting fate to invoke the bear in the presence of the sacred pipe.

In another case while standing above Badger Creek near his place, old man Swims Under, the keeper of the Beaver Medicine bundle, pointed to the mountains at Badger Canyon saying, “That place up there is home to real bears. There are many of them living there. In our way, you must never speak of Kiayo, real bear, in the presence of the sacred pipe bundles. During that time many of the people had medicine bundles so they decided it best to substitute Misinsski, stripped face, or badger, when speaking of Kiayo in front of their sacred pipes. That is how that place got its name.” Later during a break in a thunder pipe ceremony, old Joe Crowshoe approached me saying, “You see that water, it comes from up there,” as he pointed to the Badger Canyon. “I am going to have to name you for that place – your habitat is up there in those mountains.” The next week in his lodge at Brocket while standing before the sacred pipe the old man shoved me so that I was forced to take a step forward while he spoke my new name – Misinisskotokoan, Badger Head – secretly I knew he had acknowledged my relationship with the real bear.

Observing bear medicine or power is a natural goal for some Pikuni-Blackfeet. They are guided by the story of Berry Child who was rewarded in his ordeal with the bear knife. It was a ordeal derived from fearlessness in surviving the thorn thickets without any sign of blood or harm. In reward, the hero, Berry Child, was given a magical flint knife or sword sheathed within the skull of a grizzly bear. Perhaps like other northern-based mythologies, the sword sheathed in the shell of the bear’s skull is emblematic of light and renewal from winter’s darkness. It comes with the first thunder and hastens the growth of the berries so coveted by the bruins.

In winter while the bear’s sleep the land lays dormant. Awakened by the thunder in the spring, the bears roam the land as it waxes with light and through the productive solar driven summer days until the bears and the land again go dormant in winter’s darkness. In this way perhaps bears are guardians or keepers of the light. This cyclical tradition associated with the bears and gathered in the cycles of the seasons is given expression in the Pikuni-Blackfeet narrative known as “the bear who stole the Chinook.”

In the story a voraciously self-serving bear steals the warm wind or Chinook trapping it inside an elk skin bag so as to keep his lodge warm through the winter. While the bear slumbers in comfort an warmth, the people camped on the prairie below suffer through the rigors of an arctic winter with little chance of survival. In a display of courage and fortitude born from the wintery ordeal, a young orphan boy hears of the bear’s theft of the warm wind and determines to go and set it free so the people might live. Several animal friends – owl, weasel, coyote, and prairie chicken – go with him to the bear’s mountain den. Spiritually empowered with their organic virtues, these animals help the boy to set the warm wind free so that the Chinook again blows on its way across the prairie giving relief from the cold arctic trials of winter. In turn upon the wind swept prairies, the buffalo sustained by the open grasses remained all winter long to sustain the people.

While attributing greed and self-indulgence to the bear, the tale champions the moral value associated with care of orphans as a social or community good. It further illustrates the spiritual power or organic virtue found intrinsic to the animal spirits or nature persons who generously help the orphan boy.

Having acknowledged another such winter passing in the land were the mountains meet the prairies, we were fresh from affirming the green grass season with the annual Okan or Sun Dance. Camped above Cutbank Creek just east of the Park, we were living in Real Bear Country. Gathered in Buster’s sweat lodge, we had just completed the first round and were preparing for the second. As the door flap was closed and the cloistered lodge became impenetrably dark, Tiny Man splashed the rocks. Bathed in sage, sweet grass and searing steam, he began to sing a gruff and rugged song featuring the disposition of a powerful earth dwelling spirit. Just as the first few vocals echoed through the steamy lodge, Buster interrupted him saying, “Don’t sing that song. Don’t sing that song, not while we are this close to the bears.” It was something of an unprecedented interruption of a spiritual leader even by the old medicine man. Buster, however, felt he had to do it. Created on the breath, words have power and in this case a call to the bear spirit threatened to endanger our entire camp.

Adding to the urisine lure with the spirit song was not necessary. Earlier in the day, the old women had butchered a buffalo and the meat racks were full drying above the smoking fires. It was an open invitation to our bruin friends and now compounded with the spirit song calling them to us. Sure enough in the night we had bears in our camp. Knowing the danger, Buster invoked the covenant of the Medicine Grizzly to make a peace offering so that they might leave us alone while walking among our lodges.

The bears had been calling, visiting him in his sleep so there was need to answer the call. Gordon knew the protocol he must go up into the Park to the place his ancestors used to engage the real bears. Having his son drop him off below the fasting site, he began the laborious climb when the Park Rangers arrived. In something like an arrest, they demanded he return with them. Subject to an 1895 treaty agreement, this very land had been taken from the Pikuni-Blackfeet and then designated a national park. By the treaty, the Pikuni-Blackfeet were to retain reserved rights. Usufructary in nature, these reserved rights included the right to go upon the land, the right to gather subsistence, fish and hunt from and on the land, the right to personal domestic timber use such as gathering teepee poles, and the right to graze their livestock so long as these lands remained within public ownership. Somehow with the advent of the national park, a place of public lands, it was decided these rights were now worthy of only feeless access. Under this ruling, the rangers were turning Gordon back from his ancestral vision grounds telling him he could no longer gather his medicine from the bears despite the reserved treaty rights. It was a travesty of interpretation and taking without due process.

The rangers informed him, “This area is closed to visitors. There are bears up there. You must come down with us.”

“I know there are bears up there that is why I am going up there.”

“Sir, we will be forced to arrest you,” answered the rangers and Gordon was turned away from his guardian spirit while the reserved treaty rights of the Pikuni-Blackfeet were trodden into the ground.

In the face of the timeless Pikuni-Blackfeet covenant with the real bears of the Park region, known to the people as the Backbone of the World, it seems there is often little concern from the government for traditional Native spirituality. In a subsequent case in the mountains around Heart Butte, two bears came down to the newly constructed high school. Before they could share their gifts with the people, the Fish and Wildlife agents were called in to capture the curious bruins and transport them elsewhere.

It was some days afterwards I was invited to a sweat lodge along Whitetail Creek in the Heart Butte region. It was Johnny Day Rider’s sweat. He welcomed Ron, a regular in Buster’s lodge, and I into his camp. In turn, we took to preparing the fuel and rocks for the fire. After the ignition of the pyre and its blazing glory diminished, Johnny called for the rocks. Ordinarily we used a shovel and steel pitchfork to fish out the laser hot stones but at this lodge there were deer tine rakes on long poles that when used in concert would cup and carry the super hot rocks into the lodge. It was the old way, technology from the ancestors and spirits that I had rarely seen even from the most traditional people. We adapted to these traditional rakes hauling the required number of stones and banking the fire against our term in the lodge. With his opening remarks, Johnny and another old elder spoke about the recent treatment of the two bears visiting the Heart Butte high school. They feared the Medicine Grizzly might interpret the actions of the wildlife agents to be a violation of the sacred covenant. Acknowledging the bear spirit, this sweat was devoted to the attention of the ancient covenant and in our songs and prayers we assured the Medicine Grizzly of our honor and intent to keep the covenant as given and maintained peace between the bears and Blackfeet from time immemorial.


Jay Hansford C. Vest, Ph.D.
Enrolled member Monacan Indian Nation
Direct descendent Opechanchanough (Pamunkey)
Honorary Pikuni (Blackfeet) in Ceremonial Adoption (June 1989)
Professor of American Indian Studies
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
One University Drive (P. O. Box 1510)
Pembroke, NC 28372-1510 USA