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Pomo Bear Doctors, by S.A. Barrett, [1917], at

p. 452


Even as late as the closing years of the nineteenth century many of the Pomo were convinced that bear doctors were still active; this in spite of the fact that the whites had at that time long possessed complete control of the entire region, and had succeeded, purposely or otherwise, in suppressing most of the aboriginal practices of the Indians. Evidently the belief was a deeply rooted one in the native mind. On the other hand, since the nefariousness of the alleged practices would cause them to be carefully concealed, there are now some Pomo skeptics who maintain that bear doctors never existed.

Both men and women of middle or old age could become bear doctors, the same name 14 being applied to both. In fact, it is said that women sometimes made, very successful bear doctors; even a woman so old and feeble that she could hardly walk would acquire great powers of endurance and swiftness through this magic.

It is said that a bear doctor always learned from an old person who was or had been one. The training for both men and women was precisely the same and they were on a par in every way. A female bear doctor could not operate during her menstrual period, but a male bear doctor was similarly restricted by the menstrual periods of both his wife and his female assistant or the other female members of his household. He was even prohibited from going near his bear hiding-place during his wife's menstruation. The periods of other members of his household also restricted him. 15

No specific fee was paid for instruction in bear-doctoring, but the instructor was given a large share, usually one-half, of the spoils obtained by the new doctor in his murders. Also he could command the assistance and protection of his pupil, who must stand ready, if necessary, to lay down his life for his instructor. Each bear doctor selected some friend to whom he willed his entire outfit and whom he instructed fully in its use. Upon his death this protegé took possession of the paraphernalia and the hiding place of his friend and used them as he saw fit.

p. 453

A bear doctor might "catch" a man who was out in some lonely spot, particularly a solitary hunter, take him to his hiding place, and teach him his secrets. 16 Particularly was this the case if the bear doctor happened to be a man possessed of few friends, since it was thought necessary for him to will his paraphernalia to some one. Stories are told of specific instances in which persons have been thus made captive and instructed. Thus:

An old she-bear caught a young hunter from a village in the Santa Rosa Valley. She first jumped out upon him from her hiding place and frightened him badly. She rolled him about on the ground and made as if to kill him. Though greatly frightened, the boy made no outcry, but watched her closely. Finally she sat astride him for quite a long time and the boy ceased to be alarmed. She then led him away over the long journey to her hiding place on a high, rocky peak east of Santa Rosa. On the way they heard, late in the afternoon, the people down in the valley calling his name as they searched everywhere for him.

Finally they arrived at the bear's cave in the rocks, where she had a bed of moss and leaves just as a bear usually does in its den. In the early part of the evening the boy became homesick and fearful of his fate and began to cry. It was then that the bear doctor revealed herself. She removed her suit, showing her human form, and said to him: "I did not catch you to kill you. I desire only to show you how we become bear doctors and instruct you in our magic. Only human beings live in this section of the mountains. In the morning I shall place my bearskin suit upon you and you shall practice bear-doctoring." This did not, however, reassure and comfort the boy, and he continued to sob and weep during the greater part of the night, despite the repeated assurances of the bear doctor that she would not harm him, but was, on the other hand, just like an elder sister to him and wished to teach him powerful magic. She finally prepared a good meal for him and he forgot his fright and, temporarily, his own people.

During the night she taught him her songs, and at daybreak began to instruct him in the ritual of donning the suit. This, of course, required that he should completely strip himself. At first he was much ashamed, but the bear doctor told him that he must not be, any more than if he were only exposing his nose.

About midday, this part of the instruction being finished, she put her own suit on him and gave him his first practice. She told him to first jump four times along the ground and then jump up and try to catch a high limb of a near-by tree, trying repeatedly until he could catch the limb. Then he would be able to do anything that she could.

She then stepped back, looked him over, and smiled at him. This made him conscious and he hung his head and did not move until she commanded him to jump. At first he jumped only short distances, but he continued his practice for four days, each day donning the suit with the elaborately regulated ritual, and finding, each day, that he could jump a little farther and a little higher than on the previous one. At last he succeeded in reaching the limb and in jumping down at one jump and back to the starting point in four more.

His tutor rejoiced at his success, and said: "Now you will succeed in every

p. 454

way and enjoy good luck, secure plenty of beads and other goods, be able to travel far and possess great endurance."

She then gave him a complete outfit and told him that he would thereafter procure an easy living and wealth if he would use it and observe the secret rites she had taught him. She, herself, had acquired great quantities of property—beads, food, and other commodities—which she stored in her hiding place.

A bear doctor was not permitted to kill more than four people in one year, upon penalty of the loss of his magic power and consequent capture upon his attempt to kill the fifth.


452:14 The bear doctor was known to the Pomo as gauk būrakal, "human bear." Būrakal specifically denotes the grizzly bear. The brown or cinnamon bear is lima, but black individuals, which we reckon as of the same species, were called ciyō būrakal, "black grizzly bears," by the Pomo.

452:15 It would appear that restriction depended rather upon co-residence than blood kinship. The extent to which the taboo might accordingly affect a bear doctor's activities will be realized when we reflect that it was customary for several related families to reside in one house, each family having its own door and each two families a separate fire. In the center of the house was the common baking pit.

453:16 Usually, however, a person caught in this way was used as a "head rest" and servant, it is said, and received no instruction whatever.

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