Yesterday I Became a Man
It was my birthday last week, I turned 16, and yesterday I was told I would become a man when I kill my first brown bear. Since I am Cree Indian it is not just a matter of hunting a bear - there are rituals and prayers that need to be done first. The bear is a highly respected and feared animal that requires special prayers. We even have a special way of eating the bear.
I started last week tagging along with my Father and Grandfather, watching and learning the songs and prayers. They first showed me how to find a bear’s den and then how to see if there was even a bear in there. Grandfather showed me that the snow around a small hole was a yellowish brown, how it was mostly frozen like ice instead of the snow that surrounded the den, and how to feel warm air coming out of the hole. So we found him and now we must wait for a couple of months in early spring. We found the den on 8th of December 2002 and we won’t go back till late February, or early April. Grandfather says bears are best eaten in spring. That is when it is hardest to find moose and other large game.
Dad came to me on February 3d and said it was finally time to prepare for the bear hunt. The preparation can sometimes take a few months. Dad tied two bear leg bones on my wall and then laid an ax, spear, club, and a knife sheath at the foot of my bed. He first spoke to the bones above my bed. “Bring my son good dreams of the hunt. Show him which tools to use and how his tools must look.” That meant what designs I am to paint and/or carve on to my tools and weapons.
That night father sang his hunting songs to me until I feel asleep. I dreamed of a Grandmother. She was holding a badger in one hand and in the other she was holding a spear. She then pointed to a dancing warrior. When I woke up I raced into my father’s bedroom and told him of the old woman and what she had showed me in the dream.
Later that day Dad showed me how to carve these images onto my weapons and tools. He explained what my dream meant. “Son, seeing the Grandmother is a good sign you will kill something and though the badger is small it means you will kill something big. You will kill the bear with your spear. The dancing warrior is the design for your tools and weapons, we will do this together.”
We both worked very hard on my tools and weapons, while Mom sewed the design of the Dancing Warrior on the chest cloth and my clothes. I finished carving my tools and sewing beadwork on my knife sheath. This took me two months to complete.
Since this was my first hunting experience for a bear, my Mom had to make me special clothes with beautiful beadwork that she and Grandmother had done for me. After ensuring it all fitted, they rolled my clothes up in a big red cloth that looked like a big red blanket. Dad said that the clothes would have to be cleansed first.
My hunting clothes are several pieces of clothing making layers for warmth. There is my cool looking special caribou skin coat that Mom and Grandmother beaded to match my leggings, garter, moccasins, chest cloth, mittens and cap. I could feel the time now was very close to the hunt.
Mother took an old bear skull and painted circles on the back of the head and on the top, while singing and talking to the skull. She tied a brown ribbon of caribou hide around the bottom of the jaw and up into the eye sockets, tying it tightly closed at the top of the skull.
Listening to her, I could hear her say to the bear skull, “Grandmother, you have been treated well here. Tell your relatives what it is like to be killed by my husband. And tell them that my son will honor them as he kills them. This will make him a man.”
She stood up and walked into the house, went over to Dad and handed the skull to him, saying, “I am done.” Dad took the skull and put a wad of tobacco in its jaw and then, with a length of caribou hide string, he tied it to the wall above his bed, in between two leg bones from another bear with painted decorations on them.
Dad said this place where we sleep is called ‘taawpwaataakan’. This means that which brings dreams. Dad had been teaching me that, if we were to catch a bear, we have to see it in our dreams first. He might dream of an old woman who represents killing an animal, or if he dreams of a baby, that meant he would kill a bear.
Dreams are important to us. We see many aspects of our life in dreams; such as what designs we will use on our weapons or tools. We even travel outside our bodies to visit the spirit world, where we might learn a song that will help to kill a caribou.
The night before the hunt, we went out in the forest and sat beating our drums and singing my father’s hunting song for several hours. We then returned home, had some dinner and went off to bed. I dreamt that an old woman was holding two babies in her arms. For once, Dad said he didn’t dream. So what did that mean? We would not kill a bear today? Dad would not let me tell him my dream until we saw the tribe’s Shaman.
To cleanse my new hunting outfit we first had to walk the path in the forest that runs by our trailer. We lay the clothes on a large boulder. It was very early in the morning and the sun was about to rise. Father said that the forest is naturally clean, unlike our trailer that needed to be cleansed because we are not always clean. He shouldn’t look in my room then, huh!
We left my clothes on the boulder and went to go see the Shaman of our tribe. Dad let me go first and I told the Shaman about the old woman and the two babies. He looked at my father and spoke to him:
“Today he will become a man.” These were his only words.
He then looked at Dad and Dad told him, “I did not dream last night.”
The Shaman told Dad he would not kill anything today. Only I would. Boy, was I getting nervous too! All this pressure of rituals and cleansing was making me even more nervous. Because, if I offend the spirit of the bear, we may not kill another bear for years. Everything has to be done exactly or it could mean disaster. I have to kill the bear in one stabbing or get mauled to death by the bear we are trying to kill.
Next, we headed to the sweat lodge to cleanse ourselves before going to the bear’s den. While we were in the sweat lodge, my clothes were still in the forest, where they were being cleansed as well. We left the lodge and went to the boulder in the forest where my clothes had been left. Dad had me lay the red cloth on the ground and I had to lay the clothes very neatly on it. I carefully rolled them up in the cloth and we went home.
The sun had only been up for an hour and it was still very early in the day. Once we were home, Dad helped me get dressed while Grandfather sang hunting songs. Dad explained to me that, once we walk out of our house, not one word was to be spoken until it was time to talk to the bear. And then after that I still had to remain quiet or we risked offending Memekwesiw, the Spirit Boss of the bears. And not once were we to use the word ‘bear’ but ‘Grandmother’, ‘Cousin’, ‘black food’, or ‘four-legged human’. Bears like to be called special names and treated in a special way since they are so important in our Cree world.
We walked for two hours until we reached the den we had found earlier in the year. When we got there, I knelt down to see if I could feel the bear’s breath, which I did. He was still in there all right. My stomach was in knots and I felt as I was going to get very sick. I went to the opening of the den. Dad and Grandfather stood on top of the den at the opening, their weapons ready.
I stood there for ten minutes, just working up the nerve to speak, but at last I yelled into the den, “Grandmother, it is spring and time to wake up. Come out so I might become a man.”
We stood ready for the bear to come charging out, but nothing happened. Dad looked at me and nodded for me to do it again. I yelled, even louder this time, “Grandmother, come out so I can kill you and be a man today.”
To my surprise the bear appeared, but it was not running as he came out of his den. It walked very slowly. I readied my spear and, when the top half of the bear’s body was out of the den, I plunged the spear into its side. I could feel crunching of ribs and the bear raised up on its hind legs, growling, swinging his front paws at me. Ducking, I pulled the spear out of his side. I plunged it in again, this time as he was staring in my face, eye-to-eye. I stabbed him in the chest. This brought down the mighty beast! I had done it. I killed a bear with a spear, no less, and I’m still alive! I looked to both my Father and Grandfather, who both had tear-filled eyes, because today I had become a Man.
But I did not shout out in joy, but instead laid my spear, knife sheath, and tobacco on the bear’s chest. I took off my chest cloth and tied it around the bear’s neck so it would hang neatly on the bear’s chest. I thanked the bear’s spirit and the Spirit Boss for the life of this bear, so we may eat and so I could become a man. Dad took out a ceremonial pipe, filled it with tobacco, and handed me the pipe and a lighter. I took the pipe over to the bear and put the pipe in the bear’s mouth saying, “Grandmother let me light your pipe.”
I then took a puff of the pipe and started coughing and choking on the smoke. Then I handed the pipe to my Father who took a puff and handed it to my Grandfather who did the same.
Then, making two short slits in the stomach of the bear, we removed the stomach and small intestine, along with some fat. I then cut off one of the bear’s claw from his right paw and placed it carefully in my caribou skin bag.
We made every effort not to spill any blood on the snow, because it is a taboo that would offend the bear and the Boss Spirit and although it’s April 7th we still have snow on the ground and last night it snowed a little more. I sewed the bear’s belly back up. At the same time, I cut off another front right claw and handed it to my Dad, which meant I wanted him to take the bear back home. He and Grandfather found long thick branches to tie around the bear’s legs so it could be carried home. We did not say a word to each other on our walk home.
Once we approached our trailer, the young girls of our tribe were out making sure the dogs stayed away from the bear. Father and Grandfather took the bear in the trailer and laid it on mats of newly cut spruce boughs with its head pointing towards the back of the house, the hind legs towards the front.
No one spoke a word, though still you could feel our excitement. I wanted to yell out, “I AM A MAN!” so loud that those on our reservation could hear me, but also all of Manitoba and Canada too.
But instead my Dad handed me the pipe full of tobacco, and he then put some tobacco in the bear’s mouth. I lit the pipe and took a puff of smoke. Of course I coughed and others giggled as I handed the pipe to my Dad.
The eldest man in our tribe was there, along with most of our relatives, which by the way makes up the majority of our small band of our tribe. He came in and sat down and then I was allowed to speak.
“Old man, I give this, my first bear, to you.”
This man is called the feast-giver. He quickly got to work on choosing three old married women to skin the bear. When that was finished, the men cut it up for the feast. The head and front legs were for the men. The hind legs and whatever was left was for the women.
I cut off a small piece of the heart and tossed it into the fire, saying, “Come, Memekwesiw (the Spirit Boss of the Bear)… be pleased. Send us another one of your pups.”
At this point, the feast-giver had chosen a few men to prepare the lodge and their end of the bear. And he had the three old women take their parts to the lodge so they could cook theirs too. When everybody from the tribe got to the lodge, dressed in their best clothes, and only after the feast-giver was sure everyone was there. The feast-giver opened the doors and let everybody in. By this time, the bear meat was fully cooked.
The feast-giver sang and gave prayers while all the doors and windows were being sealed shut. We would stay in here until the next morning, eating and drinking, dancing and singing prayers. And we had to eat all of the bear in one sitting. The only part not eaten were the bones, which were taken away and put on one side where they would be cleaned and tied together so that afterwards, we could hang them from the tree in front of the lodge.
Once all the food had been eaten, after some more dancing, the sun came up and finally it was over. At the beginning of November, I had been told that, in a single day, I would suddenly become a man. Today Aril 8, 2003 it actually happened after five long months.
I could not wait to tell everybody at school that I was a man and that I had killed a bear with just my spear. But I have to be careful, even there, for if I say it in the wrong way, it may sound like boasting, which would offend Memekwesiw.
I for one wanted to hunt bear again. It was like facing death and coming out the winner.