Outside her family’s winter hunting lodge, a lone Eastern Cree woman sits, legs crossed, on a birch bark mat. A small black bear skull rests in her lap. Her right thumb is covered with vermilion. She draws it twice across the top of the skull and makes two neat, broad lines.
“See how handsome you are now?” she says in a low voice, speaking to the skull. “Bring my husband a good dream.”
Turning the skull, she makes two red circles on the back with a twisting motion, then two more circles on the upper part of the mandible. She turns the skull to face her again and makes a broad short line across the end of the snout. After wiping the dye from her hands, the woman ties ribbons of caribou hide through the eyes sockets. The ribbons are elaborately decorated with quillwork.
“Short tail,” she tells the bear, “you have been treated well here. Tell your relatives what it is like to be killed by my husband.” She stands, holding the skull carefully with both hands and steps into the lodge where her husband sits. She hands it to him. “I am finished” she says.
Her husband places a plug of tobacco in the skull’s jaw. Using leather thongs, he ties it to the frame of the lodge just above the place where he rests his head when he sleeps. Two other painted bones are also tied there. The Cree all this place taawpwaataakan, “that which brings dreams.”
From a birch bark cup he scoops out a small amount of warmed bear grease, and, asking the bear to bring him a dream, he smears the soft white fat all around the dream place. He pauses for several moments, as if recalling a hunt or a dream. Then he rubs the grease left on his hand into his hair and, speaking to the skull again, he says, “Bring me a good dream, Grandfather. Bring me a dream of your relatives, that they may lie down as you have.”
Ritual used by the Eastern Cree, an Indian group of northeastern Canada.
Giving Voice to Bear, North American Indian Myths, Rituals, and Images of the Bear. David Rockwell.
Highly respected in many cultures, the bear was however often hunted. But this was much more than just a “hunt”. In most of the places where the bear has lived, that was a very important tradition and ritual. The hunting process and the following celebrations were done with extreme respect for the animal and its spirit. The bear was often considered as an ancestor, a spiritual guide or even a god and it was very important to communicate with him. In some cultures, the hunted bear was not even considered as being killed, but as a messenger he would come back to life and bring prosperity to the tribe (especially good hunt, what was necessary to feed the people) if the ritual was done correctly.