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Bears are a little bit touchy when they get hungry or when they have cubs. That's why we were leery of them, particularly in the spring and summer, when we were getting bark and picking berries. Sometimes the bears get mad when you peel that birch bark. When we peel the trees that sweet sap is exposed. The bears smell that sweetness in there, inside of that bark, and they want that. They like to lick that, and get mad when they're disturbed.
You can't blame them for going after that sap; we kids liked it too. When we were small we'd try anything. We'd take the "pople" tree and peel that bark off and eat that. Boy that was good; the juice would just run down during the certain time of the year. So we kids understood why the bears, the muk-wag, liked to be around when we picked bark.
When the older folks went to get bark the kids would go along, and sometimes they'd would squeal like a bear. The older folks didn't like that because the bear'd get upset if she heard the kids, and she'd tear anybody up if she caught up with them. So the mother of the kids would make it a point to keep the small ones home. The big children could walk around, but their mother would tell them, "Keep quiet! Don't squeal. Don't make any noise; the mother bear is liable to get stirred up. If she lost her cubs somewhere she'll come to you. It's natural." That's what they were scared of, particularly during birch bark time.(1) The kids knew all that, and kept pretty quiet.
When the older folks would take the women up to pick birch bark there were always scouts there with their bow and arrows and musket, watching to see if there was any disturbment. They were watching for the bears, and the Siouxs.(2)
We always respect bear here. We're scared of bears. Everybody is. It's natural. They're attached, related, to humans; they're just as smart as you are, maybe. "Well they are related," I told a friend of mine one time, "they're attached some way to humans."
"How do they know?"
"A bear's the next closest animal to one of the human beings. He's got a mind; he has muscles like a person; he eats the same food as we do -- natural berries of all kinds. A bear's built like a man. His feet, hands, and the face are like a person. And when you see one dressed out, skunned out, it looks like a person. When it's skunned, and when you lay the meat out with the hide off, he looks like a person. Many people, Indians, have said that. His muscles look like those of a man. He's got muscles in the arms, muscles in the body, muscles in the legs, muscles in the back and on each side, the same as a person. A bear has muscles on his legs just like a man. His hind legs are a little bit short, but he sure looks like a person with muscles. And sometimes the bear will hollar like a person."
A bear can't talk, but he can think and understand language. To prove this point some Indians caught a cub and put him in the wigwam with some older people. This is a true history about the bear, to prove that he's close to the human being:
That's a true story.
You can tell right there from that story that bears understand languages, for that cub they raised understood their lecture in the meeting. It left and didn't come back. That proves that they understand Indian, and I believe any language, even though they can't talk.
We respect the bears and don't bother them, and they generally don't bother us. Sometime's they're mean and get destructive, but there's a certain cause for that. That's when they're mating, and when that happens the live people better get out of their path! They're mating, and they're mad in that prime of life! If the bear is in a time of heat, she'd kill you. That's what we were scared of. So that's when you have to get out of the way. That's strawberry time, about strawberry time.
We had a bear mating by the Mississippi Rapids one time, at the foot of the Mississippi Rapids. That's out of Ball Club, west of Ball Club where in John Smith's time(5) the scout mistook the rapids for the Siouxs.(6) How they squirm! During mating season they fight amongst themselves. Everyone's in on it, males or no males. They make a lot of noise all night, but when daylight comes they move and you never hear the noise.
We paddled up and down the streams in my younger days.(7) One time the family chief(8) stopped and said, "Listen!" Then he told my mother and the Indians in two or three canoes, "We better live on the other side of the river tonight."
"Right on that point over there, in the hazelnuts and thick brush, that's where the old gents, the old bears, are. They're mating!
They're fighting! The she-ones and the he-ones are fighting. They're biting one another, tearing up brush and everything. They're mating. We better not go there. They'll kill us if we try to camp there! It's a good thing we didn't come ahead of time to camp there, because they already picked out a place there. The leader pick out a place, and where the leader goes that's where they are. They'd-a got in there and raised heck with us."
That's when I got scared. I was scared. "I don't want to go there," I told my mother.
"We'll move on the other side of the river. That's vacant."
So we camped on the other side of the river, and we could hear that noise all night. The next day we were paddling through in canoes. We were travelling in two or three canoes. We got off there at that spot where we heard them, to investigate what they had done. I saw where they squirmed and fought and pulled the hazelnut brush together. The hazelnut brush was bent all to heck and pulled up. Fighting amongst themselves they flattened the brush. The brush was just down like that, and there wasn't a bear in sight of the rapids.
We respect the bears.(9) The bear has everything to help you admire nature and to serve you, and that's why many Indians carry bear claws, muk-ko-gns, as part of their belief -- what you might call our religious belief.
My bear claws belief reads that the bear is the next closest thing to a person that lives amongst the Indian, the people, in this part of the country. A bear is very smart, and he always minds his own business. The bear wants to live in this world, the same as a person. The bear that had these claws we carry had muscle, had power. His claws were his protection, to defend himself and defend the younger ones. He was always right there defending the younger ones. And when he picked berries and other fruit he didn't bother the fruit that he was picking. He just took what he needed. The bear has power(10) with his claws, so the bear claws have power.(11) So we take them and use them to remember that the bear had power. We wear and carry bear claws out of respect. When the bear claws are carried close to a human being that person has power, what you might call spiritual power.(12) So claws works.(13) Claws works!
I remember the bear by carrying his claws. He had served the world, the same as everybody else, for the good. And his meat was good too. It was one of the best. It had strength! The strength of the bear meat is greater. The strength of his power is greater. I think that's why some Indians, especially the men, love to eat bear meat. Lot's of them love to eat that. When you eat that bear meat you feel good with strength. Bear meat was necessary, it was a necessity. It was your wild resource, your wild life.
The bear's from berries and fruit, and acorns. Those berries and fruit that he eats are transferred from his body to meat, and then transferred from his meat to the people. Bear is good to eat at a certain time of the year. That's in summer when they're not too fat, before they get into the acorn oil. I don't like bear meat when it's too fat, and I don't like it if it's too lean either. If it's just right, if you get a bear just at the right time of the year, you have a meat. It's good meat. There's nothing wrong with bear meat, it's very good meat, some of the very best. When it's too fat you can trim the fat off. We use the fat -- that's oil, bear oil -- for tonic, shoe oil and other things, like candles. We use it for bear tonic, with a good strength. We use it for food and everything. The meat, we dried in the past. We made jerk steak out of it. We dried that meat and made jerkey steak.
We didn't have any special word for jerk steak in Indian, we just called it "dried meat", baa-tay-wi-ahss. I think they called it "jerk steak" in English because it was so dry you had to jerk it to take a bite off and eat it. My mother made jerk steak from deer and bear, but bear dried meat was the best meat we ever tasted. Ooohh, you couldn't beat that bear for jerk steak! That makes wonderful, wonderful, jerk steak. Geez, oh boy, it's good. There's lots of flavor to it. Ya, I ate a lot of bear jerk steak. Boy, you catch that in time and you can't beat it. You should get it just at the time it commences to get a little strength and fat in it. But too much fat isn't good either, because besides not tasting so good, the dried meat get's stale with too much fat in it.
In making jerk steak the women would cut up the animal, bring it in to camp, leave it cool off good overnight, and the next day we'd cut it up. We didn't have any refrigerators then, so they just sliced the meat up in strings. If the animal was too big for one person to handle, the women all pitched in together to help cut it up. They washed that good, cleaned it good, as they string-cut it to hang it up in little bundles on racks. It would take a whole day just to tie that meat in little bundles after that meat was cut. In my time, when they prepared meat like this to put away for the winter, they'd duck(14) it once or twice in salt water made with that salt they got from the salt-pork barrels. They'd first brine the meat, then put it on the racks.
They sun-cured the meat on a rack with a fire underneath. That dried it out. There was some smoke flavor to it by preparing it that way. It's partly smoke, partly heat, and partly weather that makes jerk steak. They built the racks on top of the ground out of green wood, green willow. For the meat of a large animal a lot of these racks were stuck in the ground. They put them in the ground face to the fire, to the hot coals. They built a nice coal fire. They wanted a fire with a lot of coals, so they most generally burned hardwood.
Different hardwoods give different heats. They used dry wood, most generally. Dry wood gives quick heat and better coals, but that all depends on what hardwood they burn. One hardwood is ironwood. And that lays into coals, hot coals, real ironwood-hot-coals. Maple makes hot coals too. Then sometimes there's a little bit of ash or a little bit of birch mixed with the other wood for the flavor. You mix that wood and you get any flavor you want.
Some of that jerk steak tastes like bacon. It's kind of a red color, and it looks like corn beef. Gee, that was a nice looking meat. It reminds me of corn beef when it's cooked too, but it has more flavor in it. Everybody wanted to get a taste of that. Everybody wanted some. There was a lot of meat when we made jerk steak, and everybody shared it.
We cooked it, the same as the corn beef. They fixed it good. That makes a good soup, a good naa-búúb, but to make soup out of it you have to cut it up. After it dries you cut it up to reboil it and make soup of it. And when they wanted to make meat-dumplings they hammered those pieces of jerk steak down. Just like you make macaroni out of flour, they rolled dumplings out of that dried meat. They hammered it with a rock, a clear rock, a clean rock, then they rinsed it again, rolled it, and threw it in the soup with the bones. We saved the bones, and when we wanted to make soup we used them for soup bones. We'd take the bones, kind-a scorch them a little, burn them, and save them to make soup. They were scorched, then they were sun-cured and dried. We used to save even the rabbit bones to make the soup. "Let's get the flavor out of that bone," they'd say. Boy, you never tasted meat and soup so good.
Dried and cured, that jerk steak lasted a long time with us. My people were preparing meat like that from a-way back. I remember them preparing jerk steak when I was six years old, that was in 1906. At that time I asked my mother how long people had been doing this. She said, "We learnt this from the old original Indian. We learned the facts of how to eat, and how to take care of food so it won't spoil. That's how we learned to cure it."
After guns came in, those old muzzle-loaders we called básk-i-zi-gán or "something you use that explodes," we'd shoot a bear if we wanted one. Before these muzzle-loaders came in the Indians used a muk-waa-níi-i-gan, a little log snare-enclosure bear trap. These were six or eight foot enclosures with three sides blocked and heavy logs stacked on top so they'd trip. There's a trip cord hanging down from the top logs, made of cable or wire, or of basswood string or other natural stripping. Inside the enclosure you put meat or something sweet, like maply syrup. Molasses is good too, with water. Cookies would work too.
A bear likes sweet stuff and pretty soon he'll come in to that snare-enclosure because he smells that sweet scent. He'll step over a log that is placed on the front side, and he'll go in there to investigate. He walks in there and starts smelling around, or he sticks his head in there and gets a smell of that rabbit or any of the meat or sweet things you put in there. Pretty soon he's grabbing on to that bait, which is attached to a wooden trip. The top logs are piled weak and are supported by that trip, and finally he'll pull them down. The whole works trips, and those logs go down and fall right on top of him. He's dead then. That's the way that works, and I suppose that's why in English they call that a "bear dead-fall."
It wasn't hard to find a bear if you wanted one. When they weren't around the sap or the berries we generally knew where to look, and by the signs of the timber we knew where they were denning. The old Indians used to say that where there's a porcupine, nearby there's a bear, because a bear eats what a porcupine knocks down.
Of course the easiest time to find a bear was halfway through the summer, toward the end of July. That's just natural, because that's the time of the year we were both out scouting and picking blueberries. We were always a bit leery about bears during blueberry time, even though we generally didn't have much of a problem with them. We respected them, that's why we didn't have problems.
3. * One version of this story involves two cubs. Details from both versions are incorporated into the version presented here. For original stories see original Paul Buffalo tape 10, pp. 37 ff. on the unedited transcripts, and tape 29, pp. 25ff. on the unedited transcripts.
4. See Ch. 33, "Medicine Men / Medicine Women," and Ch. 32, "Spiritual Doctoring" (Tipi-Shaking), and Bone-Sucking Specialists."
9. Cf, Joseph B. Casagrande, "Ojibwa Bear Ceremonialism," in S. Tax (ed.) Proceedings of the International Congress of Americanists, 3 Vols., Vol. 2, Acculturation in the Americas, (1952), pp. 113-117; Sister Bernard Coleman, O.S.B., "The Religion of the Ojibwa of Northern Minnesota," Primitive Man, 10 (1937), pp. 33-57.
10. Physical power.
11. Spiritual or religious power.
13. If you carry bear claws, one of the most important and powerful symbols of Chippewa belief, and if you believe in them, "they work" -- that is they bring spiritual, psychological and social power to you and help you retain it.
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