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"Learning from the Bear," #37 Swapping Stories
Bel Abbey, Elton, Louisiana


Two young men decided to go hunt in the woods, along the river. They went in that woods, and they went off with a bow and arrow and tomahawk, all that stuff. They find a trail along the river bank. They find a bear. A big black bear in there. It was starting rooting, something in the bushes. Said, "Look at that bear. Let's kill that bear."

Other said, "How we going to kill it? That big bear?" "It's a big one," they said. Said, "Who's going to shoot it first?"

"You going to shoot it first!" he said. "Let's kill it," they said.

"All right, you shoot him first, and if you don't kill it for the first time, I'll get ready for the second one."

Said, "All right." So they creep on it. So he shot the bear. He shot the bear, and the bear still there. The second shot, he shot him again. After a while, the bear still alive and still walking, looking for what shot, what shoot. After a while, get ready for second, get arrows, both get ready for him. After that, the bear stand up. Full of blood on it. Stand up, look around for where the arrow come from.

After a while he find a man standing by. He run after the man. But the man was running under the pine trees--they got a lot of big log trees--big black bear run after the man. They was running away from him, go around the trees. The bear was running after him all that time, and the man got tired. Can't hardly go no more. [Breathes heavily.] Can't hardly run no more. One man stay hide back behind the pine trees. He motion, "Pass right close by me right here," he said. But they get ready for it. You got to be careful is what I'm talking. After a while, he motion for him to pass by right close. So they pass by right close back of that tree, hide back of that tree.

When he pass by, they shot him again. They hit [the bear] but it don't fall down. It got the blood come out, but the bear is too strong and too big. He don't come down. He turned around and run after the one that shot him. So the one got tired, got to rest back of that tree again. They do that again when the other man got tired. They motion again. "Come right here, pass by right close to me," he said.

When he pass by right close, they shot him again. He got full of blood. The bear got so much blood on him. Can't hardly go no more. He stop running after the man. Went back of the pine tree, start digging up under the pine tree on the roots. He start digging up by the roots.

"What we going to do? We going to shoot him?" He said, "No, we got to wait." "What we going to do?" he said. He bite that root, they scratch on it. The resin comes out in there. "Let's watch what he going to do with that." So they watch him, and the bear starts scraping up and the resin comes out. Where the blood comes out, they put it on there, where they got the holes there. Stop up the blood with that resin.

"Let's watch what he's going to do with that." They was waiting for him. He stopped the blood up. He start doctoring himself. That's what the bear did. After a while, the man said, "Let's don't kill him, let's watch him again." He keep on doing that, all the time, all the time. "Okay, let's let him go. We learn something from the bear."

If it be something happen on the foot, the shoulder, if we got a cut, we use that resin. We going to learn from the bear. We learn how to use medicine from the bear. After that, we learn how to be medicine men; we learn from the bear. So they went back home.


Notes to the Teacher: Bel Abbey's tales represent the lore of the Koasati (sometimes called Coushatta) people, who began migrating from what is now Alabama to Louisiana territory in 1763, as the French colonists withdrew from Alabama and the English came to occupy it. The Koasati preferred French neighbors to English neighbors; as a consequence, on their current reservation near Elton, bordering Cajun settlements, many Koasati speak French and bear French surnames. Howard N. Martin (1966; 1977) presents myths and historical narratives collected from the related Coushatta peoples of East Texas. Notes are provided by Geoffrey Kimball (GK) and Carl Lindahl (CL).

On his father's side, Bel Abbey belonged to the family from which Koasati chiefs were elected; his mother's side was notable for its traditional doctors and ritual specialists. He and his wife of nearly forty-five years, Nora Williams (1920-1984), had three daughters (the sex of child more highly valued by the Koasati) and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He worried about his descendants' commitment to their Koasati heritage and language, and he occasionally gathered them together to speak to them about the importance of their culture.

Bel Abbey was in the first generation to be Christian from childhood, but he absorbed much of traditional Koasati culture from his mother, his maternal uncles, and grandparents, who were only superficially Christianized. He received little Western education, primarily a few years at the Congregational Church school; he only learned to write English while in the army during World War II. Nonetheless, he learned a great deal from his relatives, especially in regard to traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering activities; and he bent his natural curiosity and keen sense of observation to learning about the natural world. Three features that deeply colored his personality were a solid pragmatism, a respect for truth, and a skepticism concerning things that cannot be tested by the senses. Thus, though he enjoyed traditional tales, he was highly suspicious about their veracity. When telling any kind of traditional narrative, he always gave a warning introduction to the effect that the tale to follow was something that he heard, the truth of which he could not attest (GK).

Learning from the Bear is one of the medicine origin tales and the only one that Bel was willing to tell, because to him it seemed the most likely to have occurred. Other medicine origin tales incorporate fantastic elements, which Bel, pragmatic as he was, didn't like to credit as being factual (GK). B512. Medicine shown by animal. This motif is common in Native American traditions throughout the continent. Thompson (1929, no. 74) lists many versions from Northern and Northwest Coast tribes but none from the South. Bel's nephew, Bertney Langley, tells his version of the same tale elsewhere in the book (#198) (CL).

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