The following account is excerpted from 'The Celestial Bear' by Stansbury Hagar in the 'Journal of American Folk-Lore', 1900. Vol XII, April-June. He says he was told the story by ‘the
Mi’kmaqs of Nova Scotia, as we sat beside the camp-fire in the glorious summer
evenings of that land, and pointed out overhead the stars of which they spoke.’ NB: the correct pronunciation of Mi'kmaq is 'Meeg-em-ach'. All additions in square brackets are by me.
"The stars of Ursa Major seem to have been called the Bear over nearly the whole of the North American continent... as far north as Point Barrow, as far east as Nova Scotia, as far west as the Pacific coast, and as far south as the Pueblos.
The Bear [in Mi’kmaq Muin, pronounced Moo-een] is represented by the four stars in the bowl of what we call the Dipper. Behind are seven hunters who are pursuing her, all of whom are named for birds. Close behind the second hunter is a little star. This is the pot he is carrying so that when the bear is killed, he can cook the meat in it. Just above these hunters a group of smaller stars form a pocket-like figure: this is the cave or den from which the bear has emerged.
spring, the bear wakes from her long winter sleep, leaves her rocky den [Corona
Borealis, marked Corona on the star map] and descends in search of food.
Instantly the sharp-eyed Chickadee [Mi’kmaq: Chŭgegéss] perceives
her, and being too small to pursue her alone, brings his pot and calls the
other hunters to his aid. [The Chickadee is the brighter element of a naked-eye
double star, Mizar, with its dimmer companion Alcor. Alcor is the pot!]
Together the seven hunters start after the bear, hungry for meat after the short rations of winter, and they follow her eagerly, but all summer the bear flees across the northern horizon and the chase continues. In the autumn, one by one the hunters in the rear begin to lose the trail. First the two owls, the Screech Owl [Ku’ku’gwes] and the little Saw-whet Owl [Kōpkéj] heavier and clumsier of wing than the other birds, disappear from the chase. But you must not laugh when you hear how Kōpkéj, the smaller owl, failed to secure a share of the bear meat, and you must not imitate his rasping cry, for if you do you can be sure that wherever you are, as soon as you are asleep he will descend from the sky with a birch-bark torch and set fire to your clothing. Next, the Blue Jay [Wōlōwej] and the Pigeon [Pŭlés] also lose the trail and drop out of the chase. This leaves only the Robin [Gapjagwej], the Moose-bird [Mi’kjagogwej], and the Chickadee to continue the hunt, and at last in mid-autumn they overtake their prey.
At bay, the Bear rises up on her hind legs and prepares to fight, but the Robin shoots her with an arrow and she falls over upon her back. Eager with hunger, the Robin leaps on his victim and becomes covered with blood which, flying to a nearby maple tree he shakes off on to the leaves, all except one spot on his breast. And this is why each autumn we see the forests of the earth becoming red, especially the maples, because trees on the earth follow the appearance of trees in the sky, and the sky maple received most of the blood. The sky is just the same as the earth, only up above, and older.
Some time after all this happened to the Robin, the Chickadee arrived on the scene. The two birds cut up the Bear, built a fire and placed some of the meat upon it. Just as they were about to eat, the Moose-bird caught up with them. He had almost lost the trail, but when he found it again he had not hurried, knowing that it would take his companions some time to prepare the meat and cook it, and he did not mind missing the work so long as he arrived in time to eat his share. And this worked so well for him, that ever since he he has not bothered to hunt for himself, preferring to follow other hunters and share their spoils, and so whenever a bear or moose or other animal is killed in the woods, he turns up to demand his share. This is why the other birds call him Mi’kjagogwej – He who comes in at the last moment – and the Mi’kmaq say there are some men who ought to be called that, too.
However, the Robin and the Chickadee, being generous, willingly shared their food with the Moose-bird: the Robin and the Moose-bird danced around the fire while the Chickadee stirred the pot.
But the story of the Bear does not end here. All winter long her skeleton lies upon its back in the sky, but her life-spirit has entered another bear who also lies asleep upon her back, invisible in the Den and sleeping the winter sleep. When spring comes round, this bear too will emerge, again the Seven Hunters will follow her, and the endless cycle will continue."
Stansbury Hagar goes on to point out that the actions of the birds and animals in this story represent the yearly movement across the night sky of the constellations of Ursa Major, Bootes and Corona Borealis as seen from the latitude of Nova Scotia.
Painting of Mi'kmaq settlement, Artist unknown, Nova Scotia Archives: Wikimedia Commons
Star Map - out of Patrick Moore's Naked Eye Astronomy, marked up by me.
Image of the Celestial Bear and her Hunters - Mc Master University Faculty of Social Sciences