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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Art of Storytelling
Why Brown Bears Are Meaner on the Other Side of the Inlet
By June Lindgren Gagnon as told to Michelle Brown

I don't remember the name of this story. There was a name for it. Back in 1979, I was fortunate enough to be working for the Cook Inlet Native Association. One of the things they wanted me to do was tell some of the legends of our people here. Peter Kalifornsky, who was one of the most wonderful men I've known, was my historian on the project.

So when the time came for me to do this book that they wanted, I got together with Peter. We chose five legends of the Dena'ina people, my people here in Kenai, and it was a lot of fun. Peter told me these stories – they are stories I had heard before – but he told them to me time after time, like maybe six times, and then had me tell them back to him. And I wouldn't be quite right and so he'd tell it to me again and I'd tell it back to him.

June Lindgren Gagnon
I think I must have told those stories back to him probably 20 times before I got each and every one of them just exactly right. He didn't want his words used but he didn't want me to use words that he didn't agree with. And then I went ahead and wrote them out and we went through the whole thing again. I would read to him what I had written and he would correct it.

By the time I had the five legends of the Dena'ina people ready to go to the printer, I was exhausted. But I was very fortunate to work with Peter, who has been my mentor for many years.

This story is one of the really, really old ones that Peter Kalifornsky heard when he was a young boy about 6 or 7 years old. He was living across the inlet with his uncle, who was a chief, Chickalusian. All the elders, especially the old men, would get together and tell stories in the evening. They would have Peter go and bring them their tea and boil water and pack wood and everything for them, and if he were real good and quiet he'd get to listen to their stories. Sometimes his uncle would make a point of having him listen to them, but quite often he was sneaking to listen to them.

His uncle Chickalusian told this story so this had to have been back about 1910, I guess, when Peter heard it. It was already an old story, an old legend, that was welcomed by the other men and women in the tribe. It was like children hearing Snow White over again; it was something really accepted.

The story starts with two women, young women, who were beautiful. They were really, really beautiful young women and actually just girls yet, and their father was one of the elders in the village. He was one of the ones who had wealth. He had boats, bidalqi, the skin boat, and he had many of the things of that time that made a rich man. He had hides and he had people to work for him, and he had slaves and things like this.

And so word went all over, wherever the Dena'ina were, about how beautiful these girls were and all the young men were waiting for the time to come when they would be able to be married.

One of them especially was really really beautiful, and she was very graceful when she walked. She was almost stately. She would walk with the walk of a princess. The other one was probably two or three years younger, so she was still having fun and she was full of mischief. But she was beautiful too.

There was so much difference between the two of them. As they got old enough, where the first one was old enough so she should be married, the men started coming from villages all around to see this beautiful girl. They all wanted to be the one who would win her because they heard how beautiful she was.

But that didn't last very long because she was so mean. She was beautiful and she walked like a princess, but she was hateful. She was so hateful that people didn't want to be around her because she was a back biter, and she was mean and she would tell lies. All these horrible things that were possible for a young woman to do, she did. Her own family didn't want to be around her.

So the men, the young men who came to marry her, saw that her younger sister, who wasn't old enough to be of marital age yet, was beautiful too. She didn't walk like a princess. She kind of scampered around because she was so busy and so happy and so filled with joy at everything and she was always running to help people.

There was such a contrast between the two sisters -- the older one that people couldn't stand to have her around and the younger one who ran to make people smile all day. She would go all the way across the village just to put a smile on their faces when they saw her. Everybody loved her.

When the time came for her to be married, again all the young men came. But there's kind of a rule, I don't know if it's a law in our culture or what, but they all felt that the older one should be married first or at least they should be married together. But no one wanted the older sister. Finally two brothers came from one of the other villages, and they hadn't been around the sisters very much. They were both very handsome men.

I've often wondered if they might have been men from the Copper River basin because of the way they were described as being so tall and their skin glowed not just with good health but with a dark coppery rusty color. And people in the Copper River basin have darker skin, more shiny, than those of us from around here.

Of these two brothers, the older one fell in love with the older sister, the mean sister. And the younger one fell in love with the happy sister. But he really felt bad that they couldn't get married until the older sister got married. She was being so hateful and she wouldn't marry this brother who went ahead and asked her to anyway because he figured that he'd better ask her just so that his brother could marry the pretty sister, the young one.

So there was hassling and arguing, and people were telling the older brother, "Oh, don't marry her."

"But if I don't marry her my brother can't get married to the younger sister," he said.

Finally the older sister said, "I'm leaving here." I don't know if she did it out of kindness or what -- I doubt there was kindness. She took one of her father's skin boats, got the paddle and got some food and all the bedding and everything that she would need and put it all in this skin boat.

And she said, "I'm going away and I'm not gonna come back so this will settle the problem."

I can imagine her feelings were probably badly hurt because she was threatening to leave and nobody was saying, "No, don't go."

Anyway the time came for her to leave and there were people there to wave goodbye. But they didn't wave good bye. They were just so happy that they danced and they sang because she was leaving.

When she disappeared, the younger sister went ahead and got married to the younger brother, and they were so happy. They were a perfect pair. Both of them were so good-natured and happy and doing everything they could for everybody.

It was in the summer when they got married, and through that fall and winter they both worked so hard helping all the elders and everybody doing all their work and putting up their fish and going hunting and getting their meat. And the sister would go out and get all the herbs and all the greens and roots and berries for the people.

But through the winter she got feeling real bad about her sister being away.

"I think we should find out what has happened to my sister," she said. And she finally convinced her husband that they should go. The older brother said, "No, I don't want you folks to go. It's my place to go because I'm the one who is in love with her."

He went to her father and talked to him. He said, "I'll take a skin boat and I'll go out and I'll find her. By now, being alone for this long, I'm sure she will have changed and she'll be different and she will love me and accept me. And I'll bring her back as a changed person."

So he went ahead. People didn't want him to try it at first, but the father finally said, OK, and he provided the skin boat.

The brother went across the inlet. He searched up and down on the other side and finally in one of the rivers, the mouth of the river, he saw something he had missed the first time. Here was the frame of a skin boat hauled up into the grass.

So he went ashore and sure enough it was her skin boat. And there was a place where there had been a fire. There were bones and things there so he could tell that she had been there. He called and he called and he figured OK, "tomorrow I'm going to go out and search for her."

Then he made a fire and laid his furs out and lay down. He figured he would sleep well tonight and tomorrow he would look for her. He called and called and no answer came, so he went ahead and fell asleep. Just before he fell asleep, he was looking into the fire and thinking how beautiful it was going to be when he found her and how changed she would be.

And he dozed off. All of a sudden he awoke and he realized that there was the sister. She was coming toward him in the firelight and she was just as beautiful as ever. She was so beautiful, and he was about half awake and half asleep. He put out his arms and she just came right to him and got into his arms and snuggled down into his furs and became his wife.

Then he just held her and slept. In the morning he awoke and looked at this sleeping face of his wife thinking how beautiful she must be. But instead of the face of his wife, he saw the face of a bear. He was looking into the face of a brown bear.

So he had to make up his mind. Was he going to leave her there and go back to Kenai Village or would he stay there with her? He tried to talk to her and he figured, no, I can't leave her here by herself, so he stayed.

When he didn't come back and didn't come back, the other brother and the sister went ahead and got in the skin boat and went looking for him. They searched and searched and finally they saw two skin boats, the frames of two skin boats, up in the reeds and the grass. When they looked, they could see the fire pit. They could see the rocks around where the fire had been and the ashes and there was the sleeping furs. They could tell that they weren't being used because the wind had blown sand into them.

And the brother said, "Well, we'll just go ahead and build a fire here and then tomorrow we'll look for them." So the sister called and called and there was no answer while her husband was getting the fire built.

And just as they got nice and comfortable, they saw two big brown bears, circling around the camp. They were very angry, and they were snarling and were showing that they did not want people around there.

They were exceptionally big and exceptionally mean, so the brother grabbed his wife and ran to the skin boat and put her in the skin boat and they paddled out from shore.

And these two mean bears even swam out from shore a ways snarling and fighting. So the brother and sister never came back. Now that's why the brown bears on the other side of the inlet are meaner than the brown bear on this side.

-- edited by Erin Dovichin

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