Okwari Kowa – The Great Bear

This story happened a long time ago, back when the Great Turtle Island was new…

A Haudenosaunee man was hunting but game was scarce, his people were very hungry. The man had gone far from his village in hopes of finding food for his family. As he stalked quietly through forest, he came upon a swath of broken trees. As he walked down this path, the man stumbled into a depression in the ground. He looked around and saw more of these depressions in the forest floor but from where he stood, the man could not figure out what they were. He ran up a nearby hill to have a better view. But when he turned to look, his heart nearly stopped with fear! He looked and saw that the depression in the ground was a giant Bear print!! The man could hardly imagine how big a bear must be to make such a print; it would need to be taller than the trees! But the worst fear came when he realized the path led back toward his village.
As fast as he could, the man ran back to his village. He told all the people what he had seen. That night, just as the sun was setting, they heard the grunting of a bear coming toward their village. That grunting got louder and louder as the bear came closer, searching for food. A tremendous paw banged on the palisade wall and the bear let out a deafening roar!! The people were terrified, knowing that Okwari Kowa was trying to enter the village to devour them. All night the bear grunted and roared, the people barely slept at all.
The next morning, a council was held to decide what to do about Okwari Kowa. The men decided to form a war party and go out to kill the Great Bear. They took up their bows and arrows and spears and war clubs; all the men of the village joined the war party to protect their village. They set off into the woods, following the tracks of the monster bear. The war party soon found the lair of the beast – grass was stomped flat, trees knocked down, bones were scattered across the forest floor. As the men crept across the bear’s den, holding their weapons at the ready, they started to think they had scared the Great Bear away with such a large war party. The forest was silent and there was no trace of the beast. The men turned to return home.
Suddenly, there was a loud roar as the Great Bear came crashing through the trees!! The Bear had been lying in waiting and attacked the men with great fury. The men were terrified but tried to fight back against the raging claws and snapping teeth of the bear. They shot their arrows only to see the bounce off the fur of the monster. Their spears and war clubs had no effect on the terrible creature either. The Great Bear tore through the war party leaving bodies slashed, torn, and mangled. The fighting was fierce, but the Bear was too powerful. Finally, when only a small group of men remained, they called for a retreat. The few survivors staggered back to their village, bruised and battered by the Great Bear and sad to have lost so many friends. When the people of the village learned what had happened, they feared Okwari Kowa would attack their village.
That night, the grunting, snarling, roaring Bear returned to the village, scratching a terrible paw against the palisade. The people built their fires up very high but knew that, once hungry enough, the Bear would break into their village. Deep in the night, three brothers laid down to sleep, exhausted after fighting the Great Bear. During the night, the eldest brother had a surprising dream. When he awoke, he told his two brothers that he had dreamed the three of them had driven the Great Bear away. The brothers were shocked because they had dreamed the same thing!! “Powerful things come in threes,” said the oldest brother, “so this dream may be true. But let us sleep another night to see if we have the dream again.” That night the villagers built up the fires again and the brothers laid down to sleep. In the morning, the three brothers compared dreams and, once again, they all had dreamed the same thing. “You were carrying your bow and arrow,” said the middle brother to the oldest. “I had my war club, you had your spear,” said the youngest to his brother. They agreed the dream was very powerful, but they thought they should sleep one more night to see if the dream happened a third time. That night, even with the fires built as high as possible, Okwari Kowa came back to the village. He roared and grunted; he crashed against the palisade until it nearly tumbled over. All night the people were afraid that the Great Bear would get into the village and devour them all!
When the Sun rose, the brothers came out of their longhouse – the oldest with his bow and a quiver of arrows, the middle with his spear, and the youngest carried his war club. They had all dreamed they could drive Okwari Kowa away and save their people. “Powerful things come in threes” said the oldest as they set off into the forest to face the Great Bear. When they reached the lair, they spotted Okwari Kowa gnawing on the bones of the men who had been killed. The brothers moved forward bravely to face the monster. Hearing their approach, Okwari Kowa rose to his full height, as tall as the trees!, and unleashed a mighty roar. “Only three foolish men come to attack me,” said the Bear. “I will crush you and chew your bones for a morning snack!” Another roar and the Bear rushed forward to attack!! The Three Brothers were very afraid but unleashed their weapons – an arrow, the spear, and the war club. All three struck Okwari Kowa!! And for the first time in his life, the Great Bear felt pain! The arrow and spear had pierced his skin while the war club had struck his shoulder; now Okwari Kowa started to become afraid. He plucked out the arrow and the spear and kicked away the war club, but the brothers ran forward and launched their weapons again. Once more, the Great Bear felt pain and fear! The Bear turned and ran away into the forest. The Three Brothers collected their weapons and were glad the Bear was gone. Oldest Brother said, “That Great Bear may be wounded but now he is angry. I think we need to chase after him to make sure he doesn’t come back to threaten our village.” The other two brothers agreed. They took up their weapons and started after the Great Bear. They soon found him waiting atop a small hill. The Brothers rushed at the bear as another great roar echoed through the forest! The Oldest shot his arrow, the Middle threw his spear, the Youngest hurled his war club and again Okwari Kowa felt pain and fear as the weapons pierced his skin. The Bear ran away toward the setting sun. As the brothers collected their things, the Middle Brother said, “I think that Bear is not killed. We must continue to chase him to make sure he never comes back!” The brothers agreed and set off again after the bear. After days of chasing, they came to a wide river; the Great Bear was pacing along the shore, looking for a way across. “Now we have him,” said the Oldest. The Bear saw the brothers so turned and ran toward the river. Just as he reached the water’s edge, Okawri Kowa leapt into the air and soared across the water. He landed on the open plains and continued to run west. The brothers were happy that the Great Bear was gone but the Youngest Brother said, “He is not dead and could always come back; we need to continue after him. If that Bear can jump the river, then so can we! Our magic is just as powerful as the Bear!” The brothers ran toward the river and, with a mighty jump, leapt to the other side. They resumed their chase of Okwari Kowa. Bear kept running – through forests, over rivers, knocking down mountains, over great canyons – afraid the brothers would catch him. But every time the Bear jumped or climbed or knocked something down, the brothers did the same thing and stayed right behind him. After many days, the Bear came to a wide beach and looked out at a great wide ocean. There was nowhere left to run. “We have him now!” shouted the Oldest as the brothers ran onto the beach. The Great Bear turned and ran toward the ocean. At the edge of the water, Okwari Kowa leapt into the air and ran up into the sky!! The brothers couldn’t believe their eyes as they watched Great Bear run higher and higher!
“Finally, Okwari Kowa is gone,” said Middle Brother. “But he could come back,” said the Youngest. “We need to chase after him. If he can run into the sky, then so can we!” Again, the brothers agreed; they ran and then leapt into the sky also! They chased the Great Bear until they became stars in the sky. We can still see them chasing after the Bear, running across the nighttime sky. Many people call this constellation of stars The Big Dipper; the Haudenosaunee call it Okwari Kowa, the Great Bear.
Time passed and winter was approaching so Okwari Kowa started to look for a place for his winter sleep. He circled closer and closer to the Turtle Island looking for a cave to lie down in. As his circles got smaller, the Three Brothers got closer to the Great Bear. Soon, they were close enough to attack again. The Oldest Brother shot an arrow, Middle Brother threw his spear, and Youngest hurled his war club. When these weapons struck the Bear, blood and fat dripped from the wound. The blood and fat rained down on the Turtle Island and fell on the leaves of the trees, turning them bright red, orange and yellow. Then Okwari Kowa found a cave and laid down to sleep; the Brothers made camp for the Winter also. But the next Spring, the Great Bear was healed and leapt back into the sky. The Brothers saw him and knew they had to resume their chase. To this day, we see them chasing the Bear across the sky; each Fall, they get close to the Bear and launch another attack. According to the Haudenosaunee, this is why the leaves change color each year. And we wait for Spring to come to see them continue their chase of the Monster Bear to ensure that he never returns to bother the People ever again. Da neh Ho!!

Artwork by Jordan Thompson

Ganö’sha’ – The Hairy Legs Creature

This story happened a long time ago, back when the Great Turtle Island was new…

Night was falling on the Haudenosaunee villages and the forest was darkening with each passing minute. Mothers and Aunties began gathering the young children to take them inside the longhouses, readying them for a night’s sleep safe in their beds. But one group of children did not heed the calls of their mothers, intent on continuing to make mischief around the entire village. They ran to the edge of the woods and were about to disappear into the darkness when some movement caught their eyes. Standing behind some trees was an old woman with a basket on her back. Her eyes glowed with evil, the faint light glinted off her sharp teeth, and her gnarled hand clutched a walking stick that looked as much like a war club as it did a cane. Her vicious grin made her look like she was waiting for someone to step into her lair.
The children slowed their steps and began to turn back toward the longhouses when suddenly powerful arms seized them from behind!! “Ahgey, didn’t you hear your mothers calling for you!!” chastised one of their uncles as the children shrieked in surprise and alarm. “You shouldn’t be out in the forest at night; you never know what might get you in the darkness,” he warned when the children had calmed a bit. “There was an old woman behind that tree!” said one girl as she pointed. But when everyone looked, there was no one to be seen. “It may have been the Basket Lady,” said the Uncle. “She looks for children who aren’t listening and carries them away in her basket.” The children looked on in disbelief but asked, “What does she do with them?” The Uncle shrugged and said, “No one knows because they are never seen again.” The young group looked around for the evil woman, but the Uncle said, “It is nighttime now so she should be back in her own lodge.” The children relaxed a little until Uncle said, “At night, the one you really need to fear is Ganö´sha´, the Hairy Legs creature! If he catches you, he will devour you and spit out your bones!” The children shuddered a bit but one of the boys seemed to not believe what he was hearing. “That sounds like a make-believe creature…there is no such thing as Hairy Legs!” he declared. “Oh, Ganö´sha´ is very real and he prowls the woods at night looking for children who should be home in their beds,” explained Uncle. “When I was a boy, there was a group of older boys who loved to cause trouble throughout our village – hiding in the forest at night, playing tricks on elders, teasing the young ones. One dark, moon-less night, they were in the forest planning mischief when they heard something rustling in the bushes. Thinking they were brave, they charged through the leaves and came face-to-face with a night prowler the likes of which they had never seen. It was short and compact; it looked like two legs without a body above them. It was covered in long, dark, gnarled hair but through the hair they could see beady, piercing eyes that were full of menace. The boys couldn’t see a mouth but could hear teeth grinding and gnashing together as the creature prepared to enjoy an evening meal. It howled an unearthly scream that nearly froze the boys with fear and then it charged at them with a blinding speed. Terror filled their hearts as the boys scattered and ran through the forest to escape Ganö´sha´. Painful screams filled the air and followed the group back to the village; when they were safe inside their longhouse, they realized that two of their friends had not returned. They were never seen again but pieces of bone were found that didn’t come from an animal of the forest.” Wide eyes looked up at Uncle as he finished his tale and the children all headed home to their beds.
As the group departed, one boy stayed behind with a very worried look on his face. Uncle asked him why he wasn’t going home like the others. “My lodge is in the next village and I must go through the forest to get home,” he answered. “Now, I am worried that Ganö´sha´ will get me if I walk home but my mother told me if I am out one more night, I will get the red willow switch when I do come back!” Uncle shook his head knowingly and said, “Red willow switch is the worst. You should hurry home before it is too dark.” So the boy took off through the woods, following a path toward his own village. But the farther he went, the more the darkness pressed in around him. Strange noises echoed off the trees. A bobcat screeched and an owl flew across his path casting a ghostly shadow on his feet. The boy felt lost in the thickening gloom. Suddenly, a rustling of bushes announced that some danger approached. He heard the gnashing of teeth just before a deathly wailed pieced the night. The boy ran as fast as his tired legs would carry him but out of the bushes sprang the dreaded Ganö´sha´! Uncle’s story was true about its terrible appearance – stout legs covered with a grisly hair, eyes full of hunger, and a mouth that could be heard but not seen. Hairy Legs came straight toward the boy and he realized that the monster could see very well in the dark, like a bat. Screaming and crying in terror, the boy found an extra burst of energy and his legs propelled him along the path faster than ever before! But he could hear Ganö´sha´ right behind, gaining with each stride of its ghostly legs. Suddenly, the boy felt a terrible crawling and itching across his skin, like worms or ants had infested his clothes. Looking down he saw the ghastly hair of Ganö´sha´ brushing against his arms and legs; the monster was almost upon him!!
With a final burst of strength, the boy jumped over a log that lay across the path and then ran toward his village which he could see through the trees. Behind him, the boy heard a stumbling and a thud as something fell against the forest carpet. A growl of rage and frustration made his blood run cold but, daring to glance back, he saw that Ganö´sha´ had tripped over the log; the creature had been so close behind, it did not see the obstruction across the path. Ganö´sha´ sprang up upon its stubby legs but the boy had been given a reprieve and was able to make it safely into his village. Stopping to catch his breath, the boy looked back at the forest. He struggled to make out anything in the darkness until he spied two glowing, menacing eyes staring at him; they appeared to promise great harm if the boy ventured into the forest at night again.
Suddenly, a sharp pain scorched across the boy’s shoulders as – WHACK! – his mother brought down the promised red willow switch. “I promise to never go into the woods at night again!” cried the boy as his mother prepared to rain down more punishment. “I will stay in the longhouse so Ganö´sha´ doesn’t get me!!” His mother stayed her switch and said, “Ganö´sha´? Ahgey, that is an old story Uncles tell to frighten children.” The boy objected, “No, Ganö´sha´ is real. It was just chasing me through the woods.” He pointed toward the spot where the eyes had been but now there was nothing be darkness. “Keep telling tall tales and you’ll really get it,” said his mother as she brandished the switch once again. The boy hurried to his longhouse, his mother close on his heels. Neither one saw the glowing eyes reappear, still looking for misbehaving children out at night rather than home safe in their beds. Da-neh-Ho!

Painting by Ernie Smith (Tonawanda Seneca, Snipe Clan)