Story 5 – The Boy Who Became a Bear
An Iroquois Story
A long time ago in a village far to the east there lived a little boy. One time his parents died making him an orphan. No one would take care of this poor boy. He would wander from home to home begging for food and shelter. No one would take him in. They called him “Orphan Boy”.
The people said his uncle should take care of him so they sent him far away to his uncle’s village. When he got there he found his uncle was a hunter and a very cruel and mean man.
If the boy moved too slowly or did something wrong the uncle would beat him with a stick. The uncle said because he was the hunter who brought the food home, he would eat first and the boy could eat what was left. So the boy would wait and eat scraps and sometimes there were no scraps at all. Worst of all, the uncle would belittle the boy calling him stupid and worthless and good for nothing.
The boy wondered why his uncle treated him so badly, but no matter how hard he thought he could not imagine why his uncle was so mean to him.
One day the boy decided he did not want to live with his uncle anymore. He decided he would go into the woods and live by himself. Even this young boy knew that people cannot live alone in the forest. He would probably die, but he did not care. He would rather die than continue living like this.
So the boy went into the woods and followed the trails until they ended. And then he went further. He lived alone in the woods. Each day he got more cold; each day he got hungrier; every day he got weaker. Each day he got closer to death.
The animals had been watching the boy and one day they gathered around him. They asked him why he was alone in the forest and why he did not live with his people. The boy explained how his uncle would beat and starve and belittle him.
The animals were shocked. They had never heard of anyone treating a young one so cruelly. They told him it was wrong, but not to worry. They would take care of him. Pick one of us to live with they said. And all the animals offered but he saw none of them were like people and they could not help him.
The bears said the boy eats the same food as us. They said he could live with them. So he followed them to their village.
The bears took very good care of the boy. They gave him good food and warm blankets. They taught him everything they knew like how to hunt and fish and dig roots and find medicine. They taught him how to live with others in a good way. The boy loved living with the bear people.
One day he was digging roots with the bear people and he looked at his hands. His fingernails were gone and he was growing claws like a bear. He looked at his arms and legs and saw fur growing over them like a bear. He saw his ears were moving to the top of his head, like a bear. And he saw his human face was disappearing and he was growing a snout like a bear. The boy was becoming a bear and he was happy.
Since he was becoming a bear the boy could see things he’d never seen before, hear things he’d never heard before, and smell things he’ never smelt before.
One day he was out with the bears as they prepared for their big sleep called hibernation when they would sleep all winter long. To prepare they were eating lots of food and the boy was with them. He sniffed the air. He could smell his uncle the hunter and warned the bears to get back to their village and hide. They did and the hunter passed them by.
The bears and the boy slept all winter long and when they woke in the springtime the boy looked at himself. He had the claws and paws of a bear. He had fur covering his body. His ears were on the top of his head and he now had the face of a bear. You could just barely see a glimmer of the human face that had been before. The boy was a bear and he was very happy.
The bears were very hungry so they went out to eat. As before the boy smelled his uncle the hunter and warned the bears to return to their village and hide. They did, but this time the hunter followed them. He walked right into the bear village. He feared nothing and aimed his arrow at a bear cub. The cub’s mother leapt in front of her baby to protect him, but the hunter didn’t care. He aimed at her heart. The father bear stood in front of his family to protect them, but again the hunter did not care and aimed at the father bear’s heart.
Then a fourth bear appeared and spoke to the hunter in a human language. “Please do not hurt these bears” he pleaded. “They are good beings. Please don’t hurt them. Let them live.”
The uncle looked at the face of the bear that was talking to him. He barely saw a face he remembered. “Are you my nephew?’ he asked.
“Yes I am” answered the bear.
The uncle lowered his bow. “Oh my nephew” he said. “I have been looking for you every day. When you left me I didn’t know why. I could not understand why you would leave me. I went to the elders and they told me I had been too mean to you. I should never have hurt you. I should never have starved you. And I should never have said mean things to you. I’ve been looking for you every day to tell you I am sorry. I will never hurt you again. I will be a good uncle and take good care of you.”
The boy did not trust his uncle and began to back away from him. The bears said, “Boy, we bears know what is in the heart of people. Your uncle is telling you the truth. He is sorry and he will never hurt you again. He will be a good uncle. It is good you should go back with your uncle. It is good you should go back to your people.”
So the boy went home with his uncle. As they walked down the trails to the village the boy saw his claws and paws disappear and his hands return. The fur left his body and his ears returned to the side of his head and his snout disappeared and his human face returned.
When the boy returned to his village he taught his people everything the bears had taught him; how to hunt and fish and find medicine and dig roots. He taught them how to live together in a good way.
And the people no longer called him Orphan Boy. They now called him “Little Brother of the Bears.”