Another version of the Grizzly Bear story

So a couple of months ago I wrote about Hltuuwis (Heceta Head) and the Siuslaw and Alsea stories about it.  I found yet another Alsea version of the story in Harrington’s notes – this one told by Alsea man John Albert who said he learned this version from William Smith.  Smith was also Alsea and was also fluent in the Siuslaw/Lower Umpqua language – he and his wife Louisa Smith (mother of Spencer Scott, who was one of JP Harrington’s Siuslaw/Lower Umpqua informants) worked with Leo Frachtenberg to record Lower Umpqua texts.

Albert did not know the Siuslaw language, so all place names here are in Alsea; my own notes for clarification are in square brackets:

William Smith used to tell a story that the people all came together at hltawáisky (where the [Heceta] lighthouse is now), the chief gathered the first people together there (not the kind of people who are living there now), they come together & they had a good time, danced, and elk horn was lying there, and the grizzly bear put these elkhorns on his head together with feathers & wanted to kill people with it, & they told him: no, it’s not good on you, take it off! So he did.

He took it off & he put it on elk, & elk started to fight them little trees, and the elk then suddenly beat it to the woods, & is there yet.

And the frogs & mice all made the bank slick, and the grizzly bear tried to climb out & kept slipping back (this place was on the north bank), and so the grizzly bear swam down the creek & people threw spear at him & the spear stuck as a rock in the ocean at the mouth of that little creek [meaning Cape Creek, the ‘spear rock’ are the offshore rocks at Heceta].

And the chief of the tribe tsxátxatsayam stslo (where Cady lives now [apparently somewhere in vicinity of Waldport]) told the man who lived there: Watch out, for grizzly bear is swimming he is coming. Wren made ice in front of that man’s house and sure enough the old bear tried to come in & every time he tried to go ashore, he could not make it for the ice, would slip back. Only in front of that man’s house did Wren leave an iceless gap. So Grizzly came as here there, and entered the house, & said: Build a fire quick, I’m cold. And sure he made a fire & the Grizzly bear lay by the fire asleep, with his mouth wide open. The man had time to think over carefully: What am I going to do with him.

The man ran to Yákayak (at the south end of the spit by Yáhatch) & got some pitch, & on reaching the house again, boiled it on the fire. The Grizzly awoke a moment. Grizzly woke up and said: What are you doing with that pitch.

I am cooking some kind of eats, so we can eat when you want to.

Grizzly went to sleep again. Then the man poured the hot pitch in Grizzly’s mouth. Grizzly flopped around and in doing so busted in one side of the old man’s house. (This is still to be seen as a soft rock formation right straight in front of Cady’s house.) (That is why the place there tsqáqayutslo, because the place looks like a big hat). And the man (illegible) and butchered the old Grizzly Bear now, & threw the piece every wheres; hair, bones, heart, where the give give the hear, were lots of people, where he gave his bones were stout people, where he gave the heart, kind of crooked people. And he saved the lights [guts] for himself – that’s why the Alseas are no good, because he kept the lights to become they.


In some respects this story is like other Alsea versions – one Grizzly Bear (versus the five in the Siuslaw version), it begins with a dance and only the ‘tasty’ prey animals (elk and deer) look good with horns, and Wren is a man (versus a woman in the Siuslaw version).

The last few lines remind me of another story – where the body parts of the dismembered Grizzly become, eventually, different tribes.  I can’t recall seeing this in other recorded Alsea stories (though it may be there & I’ve missed it), but it is very reminiscent of a story Jim Buchanan told to Frachtenberg about a man being killed and his body parts became different tribes – the Coos came from the hair because we were numerous, the ‘Siletz’ (meaning, Athabaskans to the south) came from the blood because they were warlike.  There are quite a number of repeated images, themes and scenes that appear in the stories of many western tribes, sometimes retold in interesting and surprising ways.  Sometimes I am surprised at how far these stories travelled.  Recently I stumbled upon a story from the Ahwanee of Yosemite Valley that was very similar in many ways to the Coos story ‘Black Bear and Grizzly Bear’ (and which I’ve also seen versions of among the Clackamas, Takelma and Klamath).  Since some of these stories are spread over such a wide geographic area, it makes me think they may be quite old stories to have travelled so far.  Also, all these tribes are proposed to be part of the Penutian language phylum – perhaps it’s roots go back a very long way into the history of Penutian languages.  I don’t know if this image of “animal/person killed and body parts become tribes” is as old or widespread as the variations of “Grizzly and Black Bear” but it does seem to have been current among the Coos and Alsea people.


About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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2 Responses to Another version of the Grizzly Bear story

  1. SOFIA says:

    JHahhaha aweseome. good times. read this to the kids for their first winter story tonight. The bebe didn’t get it, but the bigger one got a huge kick out of it. thank you!

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