The Grizzly Bear
in Cheyenne Religion
THE GRIZZLY BEAR IN CHEYENNE RELIGION
Written for GOAL by Winfield Coleman
PART 1 of a special 4-part series to be published monthly
No animal is more important to Cheyenne traditional religion than the grizzly bear.
It is the agency in some of the foundational stories of the People, and it is alluded to in constellations and place names. Its spiritual presence is reiterated throughout Cheyenne traditional arts, from clothing to containers, from weaponry to shelter; its powerful spirit is an invited guest at the most important ceremonies of the Cheyenne.
Traditional Cheyenne material and ceremonial culture is based largely on the bodies and spirits of animals (cf. Schlesier 1987: 12). Animals talk to humans, teach and protect them, and heal them. In some instances, they even become human. Through their intercession, their wisdom, and their sacrifices, they make human life possible. No animal is more important in this regard than the bear, one of the most powerful nis’simoo, or spirit helpers: as an elder remarked, “Those old people taught us that bears are almost like people” (Coleman field notes 9.25.12). This can be seen even in their physiology, which resembles that of humans. Bears are indeed considered to be ancestors, closely linked to the Yellowstone area (Marriott and Rachlin 1977: 196). This fusion of bear and human is an ancient tradition shared by the Siberian peoples, such as the Selkups (Schlesier 1981: 32). While this may be considered a form of animism, it is also a form of shamanism, in which specially trained people intercede between the world of the spirits and the everyday world of people. The Cheyenne term for shamanism is Mah he yun’efwoh stahn ne-he vis-tots, approximately Those Who Deal with the Sacred (Coleman field notes 9.26.97, 7.5.98 & 9.26.98). A shaman, who was formerly distinguished by coiling his hair into a knot over the forehead (a thunder image), was a man of knowledge and a seer, known as a maheonevoostan or emah he yun’ef (Coleman field notes 9.26.97, 7.5.98 & 9.26.98; Dunn 1969; cf. Thomas & Ronnefeldt 1976: 132).
Bears more specifically are associated with shamans in most New World cultures. Indeed, the association between bears and shamans can be traced as far as Siberia, for example among the Evenk (Schlesier 1981: 25), and as far south as Borneo (Coleman field notes 11.12.09).
Because bears live in caves, heszevox, they are closely associated with the Below World, Atano’om, and with life in the underground, Ak’ toh no'o me'eh; to these caves the spirits (hematasoom) of animals go after death, and it is from there that they are reborn (Coleman field notes 9.26.97, 9.24.98; cf. Schlesier 1987: 4-7, 33). A bear and a mountain lion are said to guard the entrance to the sacred cave in Noahwus, The Place Where They Are Taught (Bear Butte), where the Sacred Arrows were given to the Tsistsistas culture hero, Sweet Medicine, as well as other sacred mountains (cf. Dorsey and Kroeber 1903: 94). The bear is thus guardian of the animal spirits that live in such caves, and whose rebirth into the material world are needed to revitalize life on earth.
The association between the Below World and the night sky is often confusing to outsiders. The explanation is rooted in the shamanic world-view of the earth as a disk, with the arc of the firmament above it, and the Underworld below the surface. At day’s end, it was believed, the disc turned over, so that people looking up at the night sky were in fact looking down into the Underworld. This is where the souls of the dead go, following Seh-yahn, the Hanging Road--Cheyenne name for the Milky Way. Individual stars represent the campfires of the dead. The Suhtai altar derives from a large, circular star formation that goes across the breadth of the sky (Coleman field notes 9.21.12). This is the reason images of spirits are sometimes shown upside down, representing that they are dwelling in the Underworld.
Spirits are normally not visible to humans living in the Middle World, Setovoom--the everyday world. Shamans, however, because they can see spirits, are in the condition of living dead persons (cf. Schlesier 1987: 39); they are therefore able to see spirits and commune with them.
THE BEAR IN CHEYENNE COSMOLOGY
Long ago, some people were playing a game of hoop and stick (ah koi yu’), intended to bring buffalo near the camp. A young man watching the game noticed another who was dressed identically to him, in yellow paint grained vertically with fingernails, and with a robe worn fur side out, indicating he was a shaman (Fig. 1). When questioned about it, the other said he had obtained his paint from a spring. Entering the spring together, the two young men encountered an old woman, who gave them a grained red paint, and two earthenware bowls filled with meat and corn. The bowls, refilling magically, saved the people from starvation. The old woman in the spring is Grandmother Earth, Se'he'veskimin, often shortened to Iskimin in the Suhtai dialect, Escheman in the Tsistsistas dialect. This is believed to have taken place in front of Minnehaha Falls, near present-day Minneapolis, on Minnehaha Creek, a tributary of the Mississippi River (Coleman field notes 7.19.95, 9.26.98; cf. Grinnell 1907: 179 ff.). The vertical graining of the paint, still used in the Sun Dance, refers to the grizzly bear’s habit of marking its territory by clawing the bark of trees (cf. Dorsey and Kroeber 1903: 228).
The grizzly bear is the special servant and protector of Iskimin (Schlesier 1987: 118). Grizzlies also served as protectors of a young girl in the old story about the woman who had an Underwater Serpent as a lover (Grinnell 1903). This story about the serpent lover is somehow related to the story about the origin of the Sacred Hat.
The Cheyenne name for Devil’s Tower, in Wyoming (Fig. 2), is Nahkohe Vee’e, meaning “Bear’s Lodge” or “Bear’s Tipi.” A very old story tells about seven children (six boys and a girl, in most versions) who were playing a game with a ball, or possibly nakonistoz, “bear game,” in which one of the children pretends to be a bear. The girl’s name, Mahoeskota, is sometimes translated as Possible Sack; but a shift in emphasis changes it to Pregnant Earth (Grinnell 1926: 220; Moore 1974: 146). (It seems likely that the pun is intentional--the girl represents the creative potential of the earth; the possible sack likewise contains many good things.) While the children were playing, an enormous grizzly appeared and gave chase. As the children were running past a pine tree, the tree spoke to them and said, “Climb up on me.” They did so, and immediately the tree began to grow rapidly into the sky. The grizzly came up to the tree and, reaching up, clawed deep furrows into the bark of the tree all around. But the children escaped into the sky and became stars--the Pleiades, or Manohotoxceo (The Group of Stars) in Cheyenne; Possible Sack is the small, dim star to one side. The enraged bear tore down the tree, leaving a stump that turned into stone. This is why the formation is known as Nako’eve (Coleman field notes 10.24.96). Versions of the bear game are described in Petter (1915: 834); Schlesier (1987: 50-51) links the story to the game. This striking rock formation is said to be a ho’eh wooh dsi’yum, meaning literally an earth lodge, that is to say, the spirits’ earth lodge, their abode. (For an Arapaho version of this tale, see Dorsey and Kroeber 1903: 238-9).
Mountains are considered abodes of the spirits--the Ancient Ones, Mahaax'se. Bear Butte, in South Dakota, is another example. Náhkohe-vose is literally Bear Mountain, or Bear Butte, from which the Lakota derived the appellation Mato Paha (Fig. 3). This name was suggested by the resemblance of the mountain to a sleeping grizzly bear. The Cheyenne name, No’ah’wus, means The Sacred Mountain Where They Are Taught [or Empowered], referring to the foundational story of Sweet Medicine, Motseyuef, the Great Prophet and culture hero of the Tsistsistas. Sweet Medicine dwelt four years with his woman in a sacred cave within Bear Butte, receiving instructions from the spirits. The entry to the cave is guarded by a grizzly bear and a mountain lion (Grinnell 1908; Coleman field notes 9.26.97). Sweet Medicine, a shaman of unsurpassed powers, had grizzly bear associations. Wesley Whiteman, a well-known Contrary (a person with Thunder power), averred that Sweet Medicine was born not far from Nahkohe Vee’e (Schwartz 1988: 52). A grained yellow paint, similar to the one used by the Two Young Men at the spring, is also recorded for Sweet Medicine (Grinnell 1908: 271), a further indication of his link to bears.
As seen from the above examples, these ancient stories are often site-specific, thus sacralizing the locations. The following story links an area in Yellowstone both to bears and to the Obsidian Cliff (Fig. 4). Nahkohe, the word for bear, is a near-homonym of náhko’e, mother--a term used only in addressing one’s mother (Coleman field notes 10.4.96). There is thus a link between bears and the maternal aspect of women, one that is brought out in the story, in which the two meanings of the term are played upon.
One fall, some women were singing while picking chokecherries and bear berries beside a stream. An unmarried young woman, engrossed in the singing and her work, was suddenly confronted by a large grizzly bear; her companions had fled. The grizzly approached and picked her up, carrying her to its den in the mountains. There, a cub came forward and addressed her as mother. The young woman indeed became like a mother to the cub, but she continued to miss her people. When the cub was bigger, it addressed her one-day. “Mother,” it said, “It is nearly time. Soon we shall leave both this place and my father.” It told her to make many pairs of moccasins, as their trail was long. In the spring, when the thunder had returned, and the cub’s father was gone hunting, the cub pushed aside the stones and logs with which the bear had concealed the entrance, and the two of them took flight. After suffering various difficulties, they reached the Cheyenne camp, and walked into it hand in hand, so that the people would know the young bear was friendly. The young bear soon became part of society, and struck up a friendship with two boys, named Hatchet Keeper and Fastest Runner (i.e. Thunder and Lightning). One day the three of them decided to go to an ancient place, one they had not seen before. After traveling west for several days, they came upon an immense rock cliff that barred their way. There was no way around it. “There is only one thing to do,” said the bear. In response, Hatchet Keeper took his axe and struck the wall of rock. Great chunks of rock flew off the rock wall until its top was jagged, like teeth. Then he struck the cliff so violently that when he jerked the hatchet back, most of the head remained embedded in the rock wall. That is how the Obsidian Cliff in Yellowstone was formed--it is the head of Hatchet Keeper’s axe (story told by Bill Tall Bull, as related to author by R. Náhkȯxho’óxeóó’ėstse 3.27.14).
The story, which relates both Thunder and the grizzly bear to the creation of the Obsidian Cliff, also suggests the awe with which the early Indians must have confronted this monument, seeing themselves reflected darkly in the shiny black stone, as though they were seeing themselves in the Spirit World. As the color black is associated with winter, it is small wonder that the Obsidian Cliff was the site of the Winter Solstice Rite in ancient times.
It should be remembered that the Sacred Arrows are tipped with obsidian points. Likewise, stone arrowheads found in the ground are called hoe' tahn’otse, Lightning’s arrows, as they are thought to have been hurled to the earth by Thunder (Coleman field notes 9.22.98).
Part 2 to be published August 1, 2014
Winfield Coleman, BA in Anthropology from Cornell, did graduate work at Harvard and earned an MA in painting from NYU. Since receiving NEH research grants in the 70’s, his primary contacts have been among the Cheyenne. He has published numerous articles on American Indian culture, and illustrated museum catalogs and ethnographic books. From 2002 to 2005 he was the Curatorial Assistant for the AOA Department at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University. He works in San Francisco as an independent researcher and artist.