Shared Spirits Introduction Continued

Beavers and bears were by no means the only creatures that felt the pressure of westward expansion. Many other species of animals and plants that were important to local tribes as food, clothing, and medicine were also driven to near extinction. As their more extensive original habitats were altered or destroyed, some species managed to survive in and around the mountains. Today, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is a last bastion for some of those species. Although it may be economically inconvenient at times to make room for grizzly bears, gray wolves, and bald eagles (to name only those species with the highest profiles), it has become necessary to protect what remains of their habitat. Without habitat- a place big enough to provide all the space, food, and shelter that an animal needs- wildlife will not survive.

Beaver Business
Initially, it might seem strange to make such a fuss about an animal like the beaver. A first question might be, “What do beavers have to do with endangered species?” “They are thriving nearly everywhere.” Many people are surprised to learn that beavers were the first endangered species in North America. By the middle of the nineteenth century they were nearly extinct. Beavers are a good example that there is hope for other endangered species!

Next to humans, there is no other animal that has as much obvious impact upon the environment as do beavers. The work they do and the role they play in Nature’s plan impact their surrounding environment. Sometimes, people don’t appreciate the flooding and terrain alterations produced by the largest of all North American rodents. Prehistoric species stood nearly eight feet tall and weighed more than a bear. Full-grown beavers now weigh as much as 60 pounds and can chew through a three-inch diameter tree in little more than a minute.

The terrain within the International Peace Park has been formed by a succession of dramatic natural events. Mountain-building forces have proceeded for more than a billion years. The glaciers that carved the surface topography of the park did their work in about two million years. After valley glaciers receded, a seemingly minor force, beavers, contributed to the finishing touches of what we see today. Beavers have had a significant impact upon the topotraphy of most of the valleys in W-GIPP. After the glaciers retreated ten to twenty thousand years ago, mountain streams caused erosion along the mountainsides and valleys. Beavers worked their way up most streams in the area. They ate the cambium layer or inner bark of trees and cut them down to build dams and lodges. Before long, they had cleared most of the trees they liked to eat such as cottonwood, birch and aspen, along the stream beds and moved on to find more.

The beaver dams slowed the fast-running streams and backed them into the valleys. The waters, instead of running quickly onto the prairies with their loads of sediments, deposited silt and sand into each little pond made by the beaver(s). The V-shaped stream bed flattened out with a fertile bottom formed by the sediments. Sometimes, the abandoned dams held water back for years after the beaver had moved. Extensive terraces formed along the sloping valleys. Sometimes the water formed a meander around the dam and slowed the stream even more. As the dams filled and spread, trapping more and more sediment, other water-loving animals built their homes in and around the edges of the ponds. Trees, grasses, and brush established footholds in the sediments that had been trapped by the dams. Deciduous trees that could not grow on the thinner, drier soils of lateral moraines were able to flourish along the edges of ponds where they helped stabilize the soil.

Long after the beavers had moved, other animals that didn’t depend directly on trees for their food continued to live in the beaver-built habitat. Eventually silt filled in the ponds or the dams broke, and the water drained. The creeks still ran through the middle of the valleys, but they ran slower and the water table and the soil profile were altered. Soon, tall meadow grasses flourished in the fertile soil left behind. The pond lovers followed the beavers to a new location and made room for a new succession of animals that thrived in marshy meadows. In time, the tall grasses gave way to a new generation of trees and brush. Meadow-loving animals once again moved in behind the departing pond animals, and forest animals found new shelter where the ponds had once stood. Eventually, a new pair of beavers would come along, find the little forest stream, and star the cycle over again. This time the little valley would have a more mature profile than the one the original beavers had found.

It didn’t take many generations of beavers to turn the barren, glacier-scoured land into habitat for other animals and plants. The streams no longer ran straight through the U-shaped troughs left by departed glaciers. Now they meandered over and around terraces covered by a variety of grasses and deciduous and coniferous forests. Many plant seeds were carried in by the wind. Animals entered the newly vegetated areas and helped to spread seeds.

Beaver attracted the ultimate predator-humans. Always curious and never totally content with the bounty of the prairies, humans wandered into the mountains to explore, hunt, and trap.

Native Americans were interested in hunting some animals, as a source of food and clothing and also for survival knowledge and spiritual power. Indians were aware that animals were in harmony with the rest of nature. Life seemed to come easier to the other animals. They needed no clothing or fire to survive the winter. There were rarely more animals in an area than there was food to feed them. They seemed to have instincts for what to eat and do when they became sick. Humans could reflect, and what they knew was that there were many powers that other animals possessed which humans did not. Humans stalked the animals to observe them and gain what knowledge they could. Indians regarded the animals as superior beings. American Indians went to great lengths to ask those superior beings to share their power.

Local tribes admired the beaver including it in their traditional legends. To the Blackfeet, the beaver is one of the most important medicine animals; it serves as a spiritual medium for the powers of all the other medicine animals. The Beaver Medicine Bundle, and the Beaver Medicine Ceremonial, celebrate all the animal spirit powers.

A special interest in beavers seems natural considering how complicated their behavior appears. Typical beaver habitat includes dams, lodges, dredged canals complete with terraced locks and slides, elaborate underwater storage pantries, and an incredible amount of logging work. Beaver families spend a lot of time nurturing their young. Early Indians watched beavers with a sense of awe and respect for their family values. An extremely quiet observer who gets close to an active lodge might be fascinated to hear the beavers having subdued but elaborate conversations inside. Beaver language has many different sounds and inflections. What you hear isn’t simply muttering and whimpers- something more complicated is going on in there. No wonder native peoples referred to beavers as “Little Indians” or “Little People”.

The tribes on both sides of the present day W-GIPP were aware of the impact beavers had on the land. The Ktunaxa (Kutenai) story summarized in the “Mountains and Mountain Building Track” called The Origin of Flathead Rivers is really a macrocosmic account of what beavers do on a smaller scale. The net result of all the beaver projects is easily equal to that of the monstrous beaver that supposedly dammed the Flathead Valley. At the same time, the Ktunaxa were aware that the beaver story was really a metaphoric “How Story” to account for the work done by glaciers.

The Blackfeet have a number of important stories that support the Beaver Medicine Ceremonial. Very old tradition gives and account of how Blackfeet once lived in domed, stick lodges, modeled after the beaver lodge until Napi taught them to build skin tipis. The Salish learned to build skin tipis from Bluejay, and the Ktunaxa learned from Coyote. According to the Blackfeet Legend of Oo-ch-scub-pah-pah, or Dragging Entrails Full of Dirt, twin boys, called Ashes-Near-the-Fireplace-Man, and Behind-The-Tipi-Wall-Liner-Man, were raised by beavers. The twins taught their father how to build a sweat lodge and the proper ceremonials involved in purification rites. The sweat lodge was thus designed after the beaver lodge. Dragging Entrails Full of Dirt is a long story in comparison to others referred to in this program.

The most important beaver legend for the Blackfeet was one about two grothers. Nearly all American Indian cultures have origin legens about twin brothers who are instrumental in the heritage of their people. One of the brothers is always bad or mischievous, and one is always good and responsible. The following is an abridged version based on several variations of The Origin of the Beaver Medicine.

The Origin of the Beaver Medicine
(A Blackfeet Story)

In the long ago there were two orphaned brothers named Akaiyan and Nopatsis They lived with the evil-hearted wife of Nopatsis who didn’t like having Akaiyan around the lodge. She plotted to make Nopatsis believe that she had been assaulted by Akaiyan so that Nopatsis would do away with him.

Nopatsis convinced his brother to build a raft and float out to an island where many birds nested so that they could gather feathers for arrows. Akaiyan was a trusting soul and was always pleased to do things with his brother. When he returned to the shore with a load of feathers, he was shocked to see his brother far out in the lake on the raft. He yelled to Nopatsis to come back for him. Nopatsis replied that Akaiyan deserved to be abandoned because he had insulted his brother and abused his sister-in-law. He promised to come back for Akaiyan’s bones in the spring.

Akaiyan wept in despair, but he prayed to the animals and the underwater spirits for help. He also prayed to the Sun, Moon, Stars; and after a time he felt a little better. He went to work preparing himself for winter. He made a lodge of sticks, clothing from feathers, and killed many of the island birds for food. He was fairly well prepared, but still he was hurt and lonely.

One day he came across a beaver lodge and sat watching it and feeling sorry for himself. Before long, a little beaver came out and asked Akaiyan to come into the lodge with him. Inside Akaiyan found a huge white beaver whom he knew to be chief of all beavers. The Chief Beaver listened to Akaiyan’s tale of woe and invited him to winter with his family. He told Akaiyan that the beavers would give him great power and knowledge with which he would become a leader of his people.

So Akaiyan spent the winter with the beavers. They cuddled him to keep him warm and treated him like one of the family. They taught him to live according to their simple and harmonious relationship with nature. They taught him the uses of roots and herbs for medicine. They taught him where to find sacred paints and how to use them in healing ceremonials and as protection for their bodies and dwellings. They gave him the first tobacco seeds to take to his people and taught him the ceremonials of smoking. They taught him to measure time, what to call the various Moons, and how to keep a calendar. Most important, they taught him the proper dances, songs, and procedures to do ceremonials so that he could heal his people when they became ill. Finally, the Chief Beaver instructed Akaiyan to make the sacred Beaver Medicine Bundle to be used in the ceremonials when he returned to his people.

When seven moons had passed and the ice began to break-up, the Beaver Chief offered his adopted son a choice of anything in the lodge to take with him. Akaiyan, who had grown very fond of the youngest beaver, who had invited him into the lodge, asked if he could take the youngster with him. The Beaver Chief was reluctant to part with his youngest child, but Akaiyan repeated his request four times. The Beaver Chief taught him that four times is the sacred number of repetitions for any ceremonial. The Beaver Chief could not refuse the request. Soon after this, the Beaver Chief spotted Nopatsis searching the shores for Akaiyan’s bones and hurried to the lodge to tell Akaiyan. Akaiyan put the young beaver under his arm and dashed to the raft. When Nopatsis finally saw him he was far out on the lake.

Akaiyan and the beaver returned to his people and told their story. Together they assembled the Sacred Beaver Bundle as they had been instructed to do by the Beaver Chief. They spent the following winter teaching The People the sacred songs, dances, and ceremonials. They cured many people using their new powers. In the spring they went out into the forests and prairies and asked all the animals to contribute their mysteries and power to the Beaver Bundle. The animals were honored to take part and offered their skins to be included in the bundle. They also taught Akaiyan and Little Beaver their own power songs and dances to be shared with the people.

After a year, Akaiyan returned to the island to give Little Beaver back to his family and to visit his friends. On the shores of the island he found the bones of his brother Nopatsis. The beavers had not helped him. So pleased was the Beaver Chief to see his adopted son and th have his child back, that he gave Akaiyan a sacred pipe in which to smoke the sacred tobacco he had given him. He taught him more smoke prayers and instructed him to add the pipe to the Beaver Medicine Bundle. Every year, Akaiyan returned to the island to visit his father the Beaver Chief. Every year, his father taught him more of “The Way,” to live and to heal. Every year something new was added to the sacred bundle. Akaiyan became the leader and the teacher of his people. He lived in the Sacred Beaver Lodge and he taught his sone the great mysteries and powers of The Beaver Medicine Ceremonial. Akaiyan’s son passed the knowledge on to his son and so on, until this very day.

There are many Blackfeet legends involving beavers including an account of how beavers taught the Blackfeet to kill and take scalps rather than counting coup in war.

Ironically, it was the beaver, the special medicine animal of the Blackfeet, that was instrumental in bringing about the decline of the Indians. The first white visitors to the area came in search of beaver pelts to satisfy a European craving for the warm and beautiful for used to make waterproof felt for fashionable top hats and other finery. So valuable were the pelts that trappers and traders risked their lives in the relentless quest for beaver. They trapped many creeks in the west and offered the natives trade goods in exchange for beaver pelts. Eventually the beaver were near extinction.

By the time the craving for beaver fur subsided, the beaver had nearly disappeared. It was not profitable to pursue the few isolated pockets of beaver that remained. The lack of demand for beaver pelts was critical for beaver population recovery. Also, farmers and ranchers began to notice a decreas in vegetation along stream valleys and the surrounding water tables began to drop. Cattle began to erode the soil along the streams. The streams were stripping away the topsoil faster than it could build up. Some folks made the connection that it was because of the lack of beavers. Efforts to protect existing beaver populations and to import beaver pairs into some areas were started.

The good news is that people were able to recognize the value of the beaver before it became extinct. Today, there are beavers over most of North America. The beaver story should serve as an example that all species should be respected and preserved. It is difficult to know what will happen when a species becomes extinct. It is impossible to bring a species back after the last one dies. The beaver story is a positive story. Beavers came full sycle. Once so numerous that we never dreamed we could wipe them out, they nearly disappeared. Now they are plentiful again. Could we do the same with animals as imperiled as the gray wolf? What do w know about the fate of an ecosystem without bears, wolves, and eagles? What do all the threatened and endangered species with lower profiles mean to our environment? Will they have to go extinct for us to find out?

Grizzly Matters
Bear habitat is not immediately recognizable. Bears are solitary animals and require a lot of territory to make a living. All of Waterton Glacier International Peace Park is bear habitat. Everywhere you go in the park you are sharing bear habitat. Share it thoughtfully. Look carefully. Like the early Indians, bears make little impact upon the land. \For a number of reasons, humans have long been fascinated by bears. Bears, in general, and grizzly bears, in particular, have been exceptionally strong medicine for American Indians in the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains. The grizzly bear is venerated by the Blackfeet as an animal that gives power and courage in battle and healing power to medicine people. The Salish, Kalispel, and Ktunaxa honor the bear as a guardian and tutelary spirit, as a prophetic power, and as a food source. The Ktunaxa practiced elaborate Bear Ceremonials to pray for the bear spirit’s mercy and protection during the hunting and gathering seasons, for its guidance and blessing in finding food, and for its ability to predict the fortunes of the tribe. They also asked that the bear offer itself as food and they observed appropriate rituals and care in thanksgiving.

According to tradition, the bear was always an animal that valued privacy and space and was reluctant to share its medicine with the Indians. Most other animals were pleased to offer their spirits to deserving humans. Tribes persisted in asking the bear for his blessings until he could no longer refuse. The bear’s mysteries were to be taken very seriously; to do otherwise meant a punishment of death.

The bear was singled out for its exceptionally humanlike qualities. Bears were venerated because of their intelligence and because they were omnivorous and could walk upright leaving tracks like a human. The bear’s excrement was similar to that of a human; they exhibited a range of reactions that reminded the Indians of human behavior, and the skinned-out carcass of a bear resembled a human. Indians were also amazed by the bear’s ability to hibernate through the winter without having to eat, drink, or defecate.

The ability to hibernate gave rise to many legends about the bear’s annual cycle of apparent death in the autumn and rebirth in the spring. The central importance of Ursa Major (The Big Dipper) in American Indian cosmology and symbolism is due in part to these legends and the bear’s gift of the sky clock. An observer watching the changing position of Ursa Major could tell the time of night and the precise season of the year. The sheer size and strength of bears inspired awe; humans tend to show great respect for that which they fear.

The grizzly bear has always been the focus of much attention among all people. Interest in grizzly bears has increased as their habitat and numbers have declined. In the U. S., The grizzly is listed on the Endangered Species List, legal recognition that we want to preserve the bear. Since bears might do physical damage to humans, some people feel they should be eliminated. Many people, however, feel that the grizzly has a right to some of its ancestral territory. American Indians generally respect the grizzly’s right to its territory. The National Park Service and Parks Canada are struggling to protect the ecosystem within which grizzlies can thrive. This is a constant juggling act of dealing with special interests, protecting the existing population, and keeping bears out of trouble.

Some people believe there is no room in modern civilization for animals like the grizzly bear. It may be difficult to convince people that preservation of bears and wolves is essential to the well-being of our environment. The grizzly benefits from the feeling that we are somehow kindred souls with the bears; an intuition that if grizzlies disappear from the land, something wild and special will have been lost.

Among the Blackfeet legends dealing with bears is the story of The Friendly Medicine Grizzly who feeds, heals, and cares for a wounded warrior given up for dead. There is also the legend of Sokumapi and the Bear Spear in which a young boy is taken into the den by a great Medicine Grizzly. The bear feeds and cares for the boy, teaches him bear survival lore, gives him healing powers and the sacred Bear Medicine Pipe along with its appropriate ceremonials. Most important, it gives him the sacred Bear Spear and its power in order to make the Blackfeet indomitable warriors. Sokumapi became a great leader and shared his power with his people. His Sacred Bear Lodge, Bear Spear, Medicine Pipe, and the appropriate ceremonials were handed down through his descendants. All of these stories can be found in Walter McClintock’s, The Old North Trail.

The legend that best embodies the tradition behind the Ktunaxa Bear Ceremonial rituals involves a small boy who is cared for by a grizzly family in much the same way that Akaiyan was cared for by the Chief Beaver and his family. In the Ktunaxa story it is the grizzly who teaches the boy The Way, how to heal, and how to properly and sincerely perform Bear Ceremonials. When the boy has been educated, he is sent back to show his people The Way and share the power. Just as the Chief Beaver did with Akaiyan, the grizzly gives the young boy the gift of tobacco, a sacred pipe, and ceremonials to go with it.

The Grizzly Chooses a Stepson
Once in the old days, when a band of Ktunaxa were moving camp, a young boy was inadvertently left behind. He tried to catch up with his family but soon gave up and laid down on the trail in his despair and loneliness. Soon a large grizzly and two cubs happened across the miserable boy who immediately gave himself up for dead. “Move off the trail!”, commanded the great sow, but the young boy held his head down and refused to move. “Oh well”, said the great grizzly and moved on around the boy. The smaller cub, however, begged his mother to keep the human for a playmate. The kind mother complied. She cuffed the boy lightly on the stomach with her left paw and said, “Come along now, I’ll teach you to live like us”.

In the Moon When Leaves Fall and the Geese Fly South, the mother bear instructed her children to empty their stomachs and prepare to den for the time of snows. With each new moon she awakened the three little ones and told them to roll onto their other side. One night the young boy awoke to the sound of a chinook wind outside the den. The mother grizzly sat on her haunches and sang softly along with the wind. “Arise, my little ones”, she whispered, “The People are asking for our help. “She explained that the People in their encampment were gathering with their medicine bundles and pipes to pray to the bears that they might be granted food, safety, and good fortune in the upcoming hunting and gathering season. During their ceremony the People sang their power songs to the accompaniment of a deer-hoof rattle staff. “We must go now and listen to their prayers”, said the great grizzly. She and the cubs left the boy alone in the den.

Early in the morning the bears returned laden down with the stems from the sacred medicine pipes of the People. One by one they examined the stems. From their smells, the bears could tell whether an individual was sincere and truly in need or merely going through the motions and making a mockery of the bears. The stems of those with good hearts were placed in a large pile to the left; the stems of those who were insincere were isolated on the right. The insincere would have bear trouble during the coming year. Then the four of them laid down to sleep until awakened by the first thunder of the new season.

Mother grizzly instructed the young ones to mend their moccasins and to fill up on the fresh green shoots of grass along the snowbanks. All that season, the young boy continued to make the rounds with the grizzly to learn their ways and absorb their power. When the snows came again, he returned with them to the den. When the bears awoke and went to attend the ceremonial, the boy found that he now had the power to hear the singing and dancing of the People. When the bears returned with the stems, he was able to help in reading them. It was with great pleasure that the boy recognized his own father’s stem and saw that the great grizzly placed it on her left with those of the sincere.

This time, when the bears were awakened by the First Thunder When the Grass Begins to Grow, the great grizzly told him that it was time to return to his people. “Now you know the truth of these ceremonies. Tell the People to pray hard in order to please us. Some of them are not sincere.” The boy was told that he would become a great leader of his people, that he would live in the Sacred Bear Tipi, and that he should raise his son to carry on the ceremonial tradition for the People. Before he returned to his people, the bear gave him a special root to chew in order to control his wild nature. As the boy chewed, he walked down from the mountains and toward the valley where he knew the People to be encamped.

For many years, as he grew up, the young boy kept his experience to himself. When he finally married, he painted the Sacred Bear Lodge as the grizzly had instructed him. The People then recognized his supernatural power and came to him for instruction. He told them “I have this power from the grizzly. I will show how to properly take part in the ceremonial. Take care that you are sincere in your need and in your prayers. If you are sincere the bear will help you, but woe to him who has no faith.”

Just as it was the beaver that drew the white culture to the west and accelerated change, it was the prophetic power of the grizzly that led to acceptance of the new ways. In a version of a story from the Ktunaxan and Salishan cultures, the spirit of the grizzly foretells the coming of white men and proclaims the power of their medicine. In Ella Clark’s rendition of Things Are Changing, Sowatts, the leader of a Ktunaxa band, hunts fresh meat for his people. Because of an offense to the bears by one of his people, he is attacked by a grizzly and torn to pieces.

After three days his people find him and carry the pieces back to camp. To their surprise Sowatts is able to relate a vision that was given to him by the grizzly. He tells his people that the times are changing and that the animal spirits can no longer help them as powerfully as they had in the past. He also says many people were coming from the east and a powerful man in a black robe would be among them. Finally, Sowatts tells his people it is as time to make peace with the Blackfeet. As proof of the authenticity of the vision, Sowatts sent his dog into the brush to flush out the grizzly. The grizzly rushed into the encampment and sacrificed itself to the arrows of the Ktunaxa. That year they made peace with the Blackfeet and several years later Father De Smet arrived to build a mission.

This and related stories may help to account for the openness with which the people of the Salish and Kootenai Confederation were able to adapt their own culture to an acceptance of white religions. This was more difficult for some than for others. Many held on to the old ways until a time when others were able to open their minds to traditional ways. Others found the white religion to be a confirmation of their own way of life. No matter how they adjusted, everyone knew that things were changing and would never be the same. Few have resigned themselves to the idea that the old ways can be allowed to be lost.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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