constellations of autumn
Myth Rituals and Traditions

Bear Dancing into Autumn: Hunting the Big Dipper


In a blending of an Iroquois and Cree legend of the great bear, with autumn approaching, four brothers had the same dream for four nights. They saw a vision of themselves tracking and killing the monster bear. Believing the dream to hold the truth, the brothers followed it into the sky.

indigenous legend, Cree People, Bear Dance, Big Dipper, mythology
The Midwinter Ceremony is a celebration of new beginnings for both the Iroquois and Cree cultures. It is a nine-day celebration of the beginning of the spiritual year for that consists of many spiritual rituals and customs, including the Bear Dance.

The Autumnal Hunt of the Great Bear into the Sky, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois – People of the Longhouse) and Cree (Ininiewuk) Legend

The Iroquois League of Peace and Power are composed of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora  Nations of Upstate New York, Quebec and Ontario. The Cree are the largest group of First Nations in Canada. In this version of a popular Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) legend is blended with Cree, Mohawk, and Oneida variants. The Legend of the Great Bear Hunt to the Big Dipper appears in many North American First Nations lore, as well as throughout the world (see below).

There were four hunters who were brothers. None were as good as them at following a trail. They never gave up once tracking their quarry. One day, in the moon when the cold nights returned, an urgent message came to the village of the four hunters.

People had discovered the tracks of a great bear, one so large and powerful it must be some kind of monster. Soon more tracks were found, often surrounding the entire village. The children no longer played in the woods. Men with weapons guarded the entrances of the village long houses each night.

Rabbits, deer, and birds, which villagers relied upon for their food, had been scared off by the great bear. Only the ravens remained, who fed off the bear’s mayhem. The people of the village were hungry with their main source of food depleted.

Bear Dance Ceremony 2010

From the Cree Nation (Iyiyiw) of Eastmain, Quebec, Canada. The ceremony, performed in winter, is included here to illustrate the respect and reverence given over to the Bear Nation.

One night the four brothers had the same dream. The dream recurred for four nights. The brothers saw a vision of themselves tracking and killing the great bear. Believing the dream to hold the truth, the brothers set off to find and kill it.

Picking up spears and calling their small dog, the four hunters set forth into the forest near the village, noticing the silence. On a great pine tree they found the scars where the great bear had reared up on hind legs and made deep scratches to mark its territory. The tallest of the brothers tried to touch the highest of the scratch marks with the tip of his spear. “It is as the people feared,” the first brother said. “This one we are to hunt is Nyah-gwaheh, a monster bear.”

“But what about the magic that the Nyah-gwaheh has?” said the second brother.

The first brother shook his head. “That magic will do it no good if we find its track.”

“That’s so,” said the third brother. “I have always heard that from the old people. Those creatures can only chase a hunter who has not yet found its trail. When you find the track of the Nyah-gwaheh and begin to chase it, then it must run from you.”

They continued to follow the bear’s tracks for many days until they came to the end of the earth. Meanwhile, like a pale giant shadow, the Nyah-gwaheh was moving through the trees close to the hunters. Its mouth was open as it watched them and its huge teeth shone, its eyes flashed red. Soon it would be behind them and on their trail.

Just then, though, their little dog named Four-Eyes for its exceptional sight, lifted its head and yelped. “Eh-heh!” the first brother called.

“Four-Eyes has found the trail,” shouted the second brother.

“We have the track of the Nyah-gwaheh,” said the third brother.

Fear filled the heart of the monster bear for the first time and it began to run. As it broke from the cover of the pines, the four hunters saw it, a gigantic white shape, so pale as to appear almost naked. With loud hunting cries, they pursued it. With long strides, the great one ran more swiftly than a deer. The quick-moving hunters and their dog nevertheless followed close behind.

The monster bear leapt from the earth into the heavens and the brothers followed it into the sky. The four hunters are still visible chasing it in the winter nights’ sky.

In the fall, as the bear readies for its winter’s sleep, the four hunters can get close enough to the bear to shoot arrows into his body. His blood drips from the skies onto the autumn leaves painting them red and yellow.

The arrows do not kill the great bear however; he always escapes. His wounds cause him to become invisible for a time, but he eventually reappears once again in the skies as the Big Dipper, with the three brothers still chasing after him.

Adapted from a traditional tale and edited by Jack Eidt.

constellations of autumn

Ursa Major, the Great Bear, the constellation which includes the asterism known as the Big Dipper.  Arctos and Arcturus to the Greeks, Arth Uthyr (Arthur) of the Celts, Grande Ourse, Orsa Maggiore, Grosse Bär in Europe; Dabu in ancient Babylon, D?b, Dub, al Dubb al Akbar in Arabia and north Africa; in Finland it was Otawa and Otawainen; to the tribes of North America in pre-Columbian times it was Okuari and Paukunawa and Nyah-gwaheh, all with the meaning of “bear”. Bear worship may have been practiced as far back as the paleolithic (stone age) period amongst Neanderthal societies.


Updated 8 October 2021

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  1. Pingback: The Bear and its Four Hunters: Opening the SeasonNews & Media Magazine Located in Ohsweken

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