Native Americans Myths of Ursa Major

In some traditions, the Great Bear's blood turns the trees red in autumn.
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Ursa Major, or the Great Bear, is the largest constellation in the sky, and its most recognizable feature is the seven stars that form the asterism known in North America as the Big Dipper. Not all cultures have traditions of bears or saucepans in the sky. For example, Hindus see seven wise men, or rishis. Even so, more than one story in Native American folklore relates that asterism to a bear.

1 Big Bear and the Hunters

The Micmac and Iroquois people, who were on the shores of the St. Lawrence to greet Jacques Cartier when he landed in 1534, have a tradition of Big Bear being pursued by seven hunters. As autumn approaches, three of the seven hunters -- who form the handle of the dipper -- fall below the horizon and abandon the hunt. The hunters kill the bear -- represented by the stars that form the bucket of the dipper -- in the fall, and his blood turns the trees red. The bear's skeleton lies on its back throughout the winter, and in the spring a new bear emerges from the den, and the hunt begins anew.

2 Coyote and the Five Wolves

In the folklore of the Wasco Indians of north and central Oregon, Coyote created the formation known as the Big Dipper. He shot arrows into the sky so that his five wolf brothers could get closer to some animals they saw in the sky. When the wolves climbed on the ladder with Coyote, though, they saw that the animals were grizzly bears, and wouldn't approach them. Coyote decided to go back and, because he thought that "they all looked pretty good sitting there like that," he removed the ladder so they couldn't get back down. Coyote liked this creation so much that he created all the constellations with his arrows.

3 Seven Brothers and a Sister

In the Blackfoot tradition, the seven stars of the Big Dipper -- more correctly eight, because one of the stars in the handle, Mizar, is actually two stars -- are seven brothers and a sister escaping their older sister. The older sister had fallen in love with a bear; and when her father killed it, she changed into a bear and vowed to kill everyone in her family in vengeance. After the brothers and their little sister tried to escape her in many ways, the youngest brother used his magic to shoot them into the sky. The brothers are the stars that form the Big Dipper, and the little sister is the faint star that accompanies Mizar.

4 The Two Nahookos

In the mythology of the Navajo people of the American Southwest, Polaris represents a fire in the hogan, which is the traditional Navajo dwelling. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, two constellations that revolve around that star during the year, represent a married couple called the two Nahookos, which means The Male and Female Ones Who Revolve. This couple always occupies the same part of the sky, and no other stars ever intervene. As a result, Navajo law has evolved to stipulate that only one couple can occupy a hogan and enjoy its fire.

Chris Deziel has a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. Besides having an abiding interest in popular science, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.