Pomo Bear Doctors, by S.A. Barrett, , at sacred-texts.com
The following tradition was obtained in January, 1906, from an old Eastern Pomo man and his wife. The husband stated that he had himself been a bear doctor at one time in his life. In his later years he became a noted practitioner of ordinary Indian "medicine," and was much in demand as a "sucking doctor." His old wife proved a very valuable informant on Pomo mythology, and it was while relating myths that the subject of bear doctors was mentioned and the fact developed that her husband had practiced this craft when a younger man. The incident led to a full discussion of the entire matter with the couple, and resulted in the recording of the following material. This was given by the Indians more as a personal favor than for any other reason, and was communicated only after a pledge that their story would not be spread about as long as the two were still alive. Both are now deceased, as is also the interpreter who aided in recording the material, so that there is no reason for longer withholding this information. Out of deference to the relatives of the three, it seems best not to name them in these pages.
Besides the myth, these two old people furnished the greater part of the descriptive information given in the remainder of this paper, but additional data from other informants have been included. Unless otherwise stated, the Pomo terms are in the Eastern dialect.
In the days before Indians were upon the earth, and when the birds and mammals were human, there was a large village at danō xa. 2 These people were
great hunters, pursuing their game with bows and arrows and spears. But chiefly they set snares in every direction about the village.
They had caught many kinds of game, but finally found a large grizzly bear in one of the snares. They saw that his carcass would furnish a great feast, but they were confronted with the difficult problem of getting their prize to the village. Each of the birds tried unsuccessfully to carry the bear, first on his right shoulder and then on his left, in the following order: tsai (valley bluejay), auaū (crow), īlil (a species of hawk), tīyal (yellowhammer), karats (red-headed woodpecker), sawalwal (mountain bluejay), bakaka (pileated woodpecker), kabanasiksik (a large species of woodpecker), cagak ba bīya (a species of hawk), kiya (a species of hawk), sīwa (mountain robin), tsitōtō (robin redbreast), tcūma tsīya (grass bird), and tīnītal.
Finally a very small bird, tsina bitūt kaiya patsōrk, 3 succeeded in carrying the bear. He first tied its front and hind feet with a heavy milkweed-fiber rope in such a manner as to enable him to sling the carcass over his shoulder with the body resting upon his hip. No one else had thought of any such method. The ingenuity of this bird, the smallest of them all, won success and enabled him to walk away easily with the heavy load. The others laughed uproariously and shouted their approval of the feat, immediately naming him būrakal-ba-kīdjon, 4 literally grizzly-bear-you-carrier. Thus he carried the grizzly home to the village, and Bluejay, the captain, cut it up and divided the meat among all the people. As a reward for his service būrakal-ba-kīdjon was given the bearskin. This was a very valuable present, worth many thousands of beads. 5
With this skin in his possession, būrakal-ba-kīdjon thought a great deal about the grizzly bear and became very envious of his powers of endurance, his ferocity, and his cunning. He forthwith began to study how he might make some use of the skin to acquire these powers. He needed an assistant, and finally took his brother into his confidence. The two paid a visit to cō danō, a high mountain east of the village. They then went down a very rugged canon on the mountain-side and finally came to a precipice the bottom of which was inaccessible except by way of a large standing tree, the upper branches of which just touched its brink.
In a most secluded and sheltered spot at the foot of this precipice they dug a cavern called yēlīmo, or būrakal yēlīmo, which they screened with boughs so that it would be invisible even if a chance hunter came that way. They dug an entrance about two feet in diameter into the side of the bank for a distance of about six feet. This led slightly upward and into a good-sized chamber. The mouth of this entrance was so arranged as to appear as natural as possible. Some rocks were left to project and twigs were arranged to obscure it. As a further precaution against detection the brothers always walked upon rocks in order never to leave a footprint, in ease any one became curious about their
movements. They even went so far as to have the rocks at the foot of the precipice, where they stepped from the branches of the tree, covered with leaves, which they were careful to adjust so as to obliterate the slightest vestige of their trail should any one succeed in tracking them to this point. In this cave they began the manufacture of a ceremonial outfit.
They went out from the village daily, 6 ostensibly to hunt, and they did, as a matter of fact, kill deer and other game, which they brought back to the village; but they never ate meat, nor did they have intercourse in any way with women. When asked why he was thus restricting himself, būrakal-ba-kīdjon evaded the truth by saying that he expected to gamble, and that he had a very powerful medicine which would yield him luck only with the most rigid observance of certain restrictions.
When they began this work of preparing the outfits, they also provided a large sack of beads with which to bribe to secrecy any one who might discover them.
The two worked thus in the cavern four months.
When the outfit for būrakal-ba-kīdjon was done, the latter emerged from the cavern and ran around its entrance eight times each way, first in a contra-clockwise and then in a clockwise direction. The two then prepared a level, elliptical area, about twenty by fifteen feet, smoothed like a dancing floor, where būrakal-ba-kīdjon might practice and become a proficient bear doctor.
Upon putting on the suit for the first time, the procedure was as follows: While seated in the dancing area, būrakal-ba-kīdjon took the bearskin in both hands and swung it over his right shoulder and then turned his head to the left. This was repeated four times in all. He next adjusted the skin carefully over a basketry head-frame and placed the latter securely upon his head. He next inserted his arms and legs within the suit and laced it up tightly in front, beginning at the lower part of the belly and lacing upward to the neck.
He then tried to rise and act like a bear. This he did four times, saying "ha" (strongly aspirated), and turning his head to the left after each trial. He finally arose on all fours and shook himself after the fashion of a bear, some of the hair falling out of the skin as he did so. He then jumped about and started off in each of the four cardinal directions in the following order: south, east, north, and west. Each time he ran only a short distance, returning to the practice area for a new start. Finally, the fifth time he started off, he went for about half a day's journey up the rugged mountains to the east. He found that he could travel with great speed and perfect ease through thick brush and up steep mountain-sides. In fact, he could move anywhere with as much ease as though he were on a level, open valley. 7 On this journey he hunted for soft, sweet manzanita berries, finally returning to the practice ground after covering a great distance, perhaps a hundred miles, in this half day.
He repeated this ceremonial dressing and the race into the mountains for four days, returning each evening to the village and bringing the game he had
killed. Finally, on the fifth day, he again put on his ceremonial dress and went over to a creek, called taaiaka, situated a considerable distance northeast of his hiding place. Here he found a bear standing erect and eating manzanita berries. The bear attempted to escape, but būrakal-ba-kīdjon gave chase and by virtue of his supernatural power was able to tire and outdistance the bear, overtaking him at length and killing him with an elk-horn dagger, which was part of his outfit.
He returned and brought his brother, who tied the bear's legs together, as had būrakal-ba-kīdjon when he won his name, and carried the carcass to the village, būrakal-ba-kīdjon meantime returning to the secret cavern.
The brother skinned the bear and told the captain to call all the people into the dance-house to receive their portions of the meat. On the following day a great feast was celebrated, every one joining and providing a share of acorn mush, pinole, bread, and other foods.
The two brothers then announced that they were again going out to hunt. Instead, they really went to this secluded spot and made a second bear doctor's suit. This one was for the brother, who underwent the same training as his brother.
Finally the two brothers started out one day toward the north, going up to a creek called gūhūl bidame. Here they found a deer hunter coming down a chamise ridge. They hid until the hunter came within about fifteen paces of them. They then sprang out and attacked him, the elder of the two bear doctors taking the lead. This hunter was followed at a distance of perhaps a quarter of a mile by four others, and when he saw the bears he made a great outcry to his comrades. After a short chase the bear doctors caught and killed him. They tore his body to pieces, just as bears would do, took his bow and arrows, and started off.
Meantime the other hunters, who were Wolves (tsīhmeū), hid and escaped the fate of their companion. After the bear doctors had departed, they gathered up the bones and whatever else they could find of the remains of the dead hunter and took them back to the village. The usual funeral and burning rites were held, and the whole village was in special mourning on account of the fact that the hunter had been killed by bears.
The bear doctors went back to their hiding place, disrobed, and returned to the village as quickly as possible, arriving shortly after the four Wolves had brought in the remains of their comrade. They ate their supper and retired almost immediately, though they heard the people wailing in another part of the village. Their own relatives, the Birds, were not wailing, for they were not directly concerned, since the different groups of people lived in different parts of the village and were quite distinct one from another. During the evening the captain, Bluejay, came in and told the brothers the news of the hunter's death, asking if they had heard anything of the manner of it. They replied: "No; we know nothing of it. We went hunting, but saw nothing at all today. We retired early and have heard nothing about it." Bluejay then said: "We must make up a collection of beads and give it to the dead man's relatives, so that they will not consider us unmindful of their sorrow and perhaps kill some one among us." The bear doctors agreed to this and commended the captain for his good counsel.
Accordingly, the next morning Bluejay addressed his people, saying: "Make a fire in the dance-house. Do not feel badly. Wake up early. That is what we must expect. We must all die like the deer. After the fire is made in the dance-house I will tell you what next to do." Every one gave the usual answer of approval, "O".
After the usual sweating and cold plunge by the men, the captain again spoke, calling their attention to the fate of their friend the day before and asking that every one contribute beads to be given as a death offering to the relatives of the deceased. 8
Bluejay himself contributed about ten thousand beads, and others contributed various amounts, but the two bear doctors contributed about forty thousand beads. This very act made the other people somewhat suspicious that these two were concerned in some way with the death.
As was usual, under such circumstances, word was sent to the Wolf people that the Birds would come over two days hence with their gift. The Wolf captain accordingly told his people to go out and hunt, and to prepare a feast for the Bird people for the occasion. On the appointed day the beads were brought by the Bird people to the house in which the deceased hunter had formerly lived, the usual ceremonial presentation of them to the mourners was performed, and the return feast by the Wolves was spread near by.
The next morning the two brothers again left the village, saying that they were going hunting. They went to their place of seclusion, donned their bear suits and again started out as bears. By this time they had established regular secret trails leading to their hiding place, and regular places on these trails where they rested and ate. These trails led off in the four cardinal directions, and when they put on their suits it was only necessary to say in what direction they wished to go and what they wished to do, and the suits would bear them thither by magic.
Upon this occasion they went eastward, and finally, in the late afternoon, met Wildcat (dalōm) carrying upon his back a very heavy load. They immediately attacked and killed him, but did not cut him to pieces as they had Wolf. It is a custom, even now, among bear doctors never to tear to pieces or cut up the body of a victim who is known to have in his possession valuable property. Hence they stabbed Wildcat only twice. When they looked into the burden basket which he had been carrying they found a good supply of food and a large number of beads of various kinds. They took only the bag of beads, which one of them secreted inside his suit. Upon reaching their place of seclusion they removed their suits and were soon back in the village. After supper they again retired early.
Now Wildcat had started off early one morning to visit friends in another village, saying that he would be absent only two nights. When at the end of four days he had not returned his relatives became anxious about him, and his brother and another man set out for the other village to ascertain whether he had been there or if something had befallen him on the way. They found that he had set out from the other village to return home on the day he had promised. Then they tracked him and found his dead body. They made a stretcher 9 and carried the body home.
They arrived at the village about mid-afternoon, and when about a half mile off they commenced the death wail, thus notifying the village of their
coming. The people came running out to meet them, and the first to arrive were the bear doctors, who immediately assisted in carrying the stretcher into the village. Every one wailed for the departed, but the two bear doctors were loudest in their lamentations. Also they contributed liberally, in fact, more than all the other people together, when the death offering was made up.
For sometime thereafter the bear doctors did not go out, but finally they did so, returning with four deer, which they gave to their captain to be divided among the people for a feast. This the captain did, after the usual sweat-bath, on the following morning.
The next day the two brothers left the village before daybreak, donned their bear suits and journeyed southward to the Mount Kanaktai region. They made the journey by way of the east shore of Clear Lake, Lower Lake, and on down to near the present site of Middletown. Here they found a hunting party setting deer snares. 10 One of these men was driving the deer up out of the canon toward the place where the snares had been set. He saw the bear doctors and called out to his comradès: "Look out for yourselves; there are two bears coming." The hunters were up on the open, brushy mountain-side. Two of them ran down the hill to a tree, but the bear doctors reached it as soon as they, and, as they started to ascend, attacked and killed the two, taking their bows and arrows.
The other hunters then attacked the bear doctors, who fled northward, pursued by the hunters, whom they outdistanced. The bear doctors became tired and very thirsty, for they had drunk no water all day, so they ran up Mount Kanaktai to a small pond just southwest of its summit. 11
The bear doctors first ran four times each way around the pond and then disrobed completely, even taking off their bead armor. Leaving their entire suits lying on the shore, they first swam and rested, and then hung their suits on some small trees near by.
Shortly two men appeared, who approached close to them. The bear doctors said: "Oh, you have come; well, let us eat." The strangers came and seated themselves beside the bear doctors. They then had a good meal of seed-meal and meat.
The belts and strings of beads worn as armor inside the suit were piled up on the shore near by, and when the meal was finished the bear doctors gave all these beads to the two men, saying at the same time: "You must never tell any one, not even your brothers, mothers, or sisters, what you have seen and what we are doing." They even told the two men who they were, where they lived, and all about their activities. The men looked closely at the bear suits hanging near by and then went their way. The bear doctors again put on their suits and returned to their hiding place, disrobed, and traveled home in the evening, retiring early as usual.
When the people heard of the killing of two more hunters by two bears, they suspected the brothers, and formulated a plan to spy on them. All were to go hunting and certain ones were to keep a close watch on these two, and see just where they went and what they did. They also discovered that the
skins of the two bears killed by the brothers were nowhere to be found in the village.
The captain called all the men to go on a deer hunt, and all set off westward about midday to build a deer fence and set snares around Tule Lake, for they knew that many deer were feeding in the tule marsh there. Nothing unusual happened that day, but after all had left the village early the next morning some children who were playing about the village saw the two brothers būrakal-ba-kīdjon, who had remained away from the hunt, giving illness as their excuse, start off toward the east. Some of the children stealthily followed them, while two others ran over to Tule Lake to warn the hunters. About midday the hunters saw two bears coming toward them. Several of the best hunters hid at an advantageous point in the very thick brush and tule, while the others continued their shouting and beating the bush to drive the deer into the snares in order that the bear doctors would not suspect the trap that had been set for them. The hunters had agreed to act as though they did not know that the bear doctors were near, but to shout if they were seen, "Two brother deer are coming!" thus giving the hidden hunters notice of the approach of the bears. If deer only were seen, they were to shout, "The deer are coming! "
Finally, one of the hunters on the east side of the lake saw the bears and shouted, "Look out there; two brother deer are coming down the hill! " There were two trees standing some distance apart with a thick, brushy place on each side. One hunter hid behind each tree. A third hunter stood very close to a near-by opening in the deer fence and in plain sight of the bear doctors, who immediately made after him. At each jump of the bear doctors the water in their baskets rattled and made a great noise. The hunter was but a few feet from these trees when the bears came close to him, so he dodged between the trees and the bears followed.
Immediately the two hunters behind the trees attacked the bears from the rear with their clubs and jerked the masks from their heads. The other hunters came up armed with clubs, bows and arrows, and stones, and found the bear doctors standing very shame-facedly before their captors. 12
Every one shouted: "These are the two we suspected; we have them now." Some wanted to kill them immediately with clubs, others wanted to burn them alive, but the captain restrained them and insisted upon first questioning the bear doctors. They finally confessed to the murders, and took the hunters to their hiding place. Here they exposed their entire secret and told all the details of their work: how they dug the cavern, how they made the ceremonial outfits, and how they killed people. The hunters then stripped the bear doctors and took them, together with all their paraphernalia, and the property they had stolen, back to the village, placed them in their own house, tied them securely, and set fire to the house. Thus ended the bear doctors. That is how the knowledge of this magic was acquired. It has been handed down to us by the teaching of these secrets to novices by the older bear doctors ever since. 13
445:2 This is the site of an old Eastern Pomo village and is situated in the foothills about two miles northeast of the town of Upper Lake. It is located on the western slope of a hill and overlooks the lake.
446:3 Identity unknown, and common Indian name not recorded.
446:4 This name in the Northern dialect is būta baōm, and in the Central dialect is bitaka yalō djak, literally grizzly bear between the legs flew. The Northern people say that the name of the bird previous to the accomplishment of this feat was mābasōmsō. In speaking of this bird one Northern informant stated that when the first people were transformed into birds this man was wearing a very large head-dress. This accounts for the fact that the bird now carries a large topknot.
446:5 In very early times it is said that a string of four hundred beads was worth an amount about equal to two and one-half dollars. Later, after the introduction of the pump-drill, this value dropped to one dollar. On the basis of modern valuations of such skins, and under the higher rating of beads, this hide would have been worth 12,000 beads.
447:6 In giving the account the informant stated that while making their ceremonial attire the two worked entirely at night, as was always done by Indian bear doctors later, and then only upon perfectly dark nights, when the moon was not shining or when it was obscured by clouds. In case the moon suddenly emerged from behind a cloud they immediately ceased their work. This was made necessary by the fact that many hunters were abroad at night.
447:7 Another informant told of a marvelous journey said to have been made by his grandmother while the family resided many years ago in Eight-mile Valley. She went during one night to Healdsburg, Sebastopol, Bodega Bay, and Big River, thence returning to her home, covering in those few hours about two hundred miles.
449:8 The bringing of beads as a death offering from one village to another, or from one political group of people to another, is called kal kubek, while such an offering taken to the home of the family of the deceased by relatives in the same village is called kal banek.
449:9 This stretcher is called kaitsak, and consists of two side poles with short cross-pieces bound to them in such a manner as to resemble a ladder. It was used in early times for carrying the wounded or the dead back to the village. A corpse was bound to it by a binding of grapevine and the two ends of the stretcher rested upon the shoulders of the bearers.
450:10 They were making a bīcē gō; i.e., setting snares in the brush without making a brush fence. The fence with snares is called bīcē warī.
450:11 This pond, which is said to furnish the only water on this great mountain, was called ka kapa, and is said to be one of a very few ponds apparently without a spring, and called ka dabō, which are supposed to have been made in prehistoric times by bears as resting places for themselves. This pond is nowadays almost never visited by any one except hunters who have lost their way.
451:12 This loss of magic power and their consequent capture was explained as a supernatural penalty for their attempt to kill more than four victims in any one year.
451:13 One informant ascribed the source of Pomo bear doctor knowledge to the Lake Miwok, to the south. This opinion, of course, conflicts with the preceding origin tale.