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