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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Native American Stories of Human and Animal Kinship

Air Date: Week of

Dogs hold a special place in many people’s hearts and are lovingly referred to as “man’s best friend”. (Photo: Nathanael Coyne, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Many Native American communities belong to a clan which identifies with an animal, like the bear, deer, or loon, and they are featured in their stories. Storyteller and musician Joe Bruchac of the Nulhegan Abenaki tribe joins Bobby Bascomb to share flute music and stories of how the dog came to be a loyal human companion, as well as lessons from a mother bear.


DOERING: We’re back with Living on Earth, I’m Jenni Doering.

O’NEILL: I’m Aynsley O’Neill

BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb.

Many Native American communities belong to a clan which identifies with an animal. There are bear, deer, and loon clans to name a few. Those animals are featured in their traditional stories. So, to hear some of them I called up Joe Bruchac. He is a story teller and musician with the Nulhegan Abenaki tribe of Vermont and Upstate New York. And Joe carves and plays traditional flutes.


BRUCHAC: We say that the flute came to be when a woodpecker made holes in the hollow branch of a tree that was broken off at the end and the wind blew over it and created that first flute music. So when we play the flute, we try to keep in mind, it's a gift of the trees and the wind, and the birds. A flute could be played for pleasure or to keep yourself from feeling lonely. But also one of the very cool ways that the flute was used is that if a young man fell in love with a young woman, he would compose a song on the flute and play it for her. And if she accepted it, and they became married, she would then write words or compose words for it, and it would become the lullaby sung to their children. Not with a flute, but with a rattle.

BASCOMB: Hmm, it's beautiful. Well, I hope to hear some more of your flute music a little later in this segment. But first, can you get us started with a story? I understand you're gonna tell us a traditional story about dogs.

From left to right: A standard 6-hole cedar flute, made by Joe Bruchac. Next, a large double flute, gifted to Joe Bruchac, before finally, a small cedar double flute, made by Eric Marczak. (Photo: Courtesy of Joe Bruchac)

BRUCHAC: That’s right. They say that long ago, the one we call Gluskonba, the first one in the shape of a human being was walking around. This was the time before the people came to be on this land. Now one of the jobs Gluskonba had been given by the Creator was to make things better for those humans when they got here. And so he thought, I wonder what the animals will do when they see a human being for the first time. I better ask them. And so Gluskonba called together a great counsel of all the animal people. And then as he stood before them, he said, I want each of you to come up and when I say the word for human being, tell me what you will do. Now the first one to step forward was the bear. In those days bear was so large, he was taller than the tallest trees. His mouth was so huge, he could swallow an entire wigwam. And when Gluskonba said the word "alnoba", which means human being, the bear said "[bear grunt] I will swallow every human being that I see!" Gluskonba thought about that. He thought to himself, I do not think human beings will enjoy being swallowed by bears, I'd better do something. And so he decided to use one of the powers given to him by the Creator, the power to change things, a power that we human beings also have and often misuse. Gluskonba said to the bear, "you have some burrs caught in your fur, let me comb them out with my fingers". And so the bear sat down in front of him, and Gluskonba began to run his fingers along the bear's back and as he did so, combing out those burrs, he also made the bear gets smaller and smaller, until the bear was the size that bears are to this day. And when Gluskonba said to him, "and now what will you do when you see a human being?" that bear looked at itself and said, "[bear grunt] I will run away!". Which is what bears usually do to this day. Now the next one to come forward was one we call Kitschy moose: the big moose. Moose by the way, is one of our Abenaki words, it means the strange one, and that moose back then was really strange. It was so large that his antlers were bigger than the biggest pines, they were sharper than the sharpest spears, and when Gluskonba said the word "alnoba" that moose said "I will spear every human being I see, spear them on my horns and throw them over the tree tops, and stomp them with my hooves until they're as flat as your hand!" And again Gluskonba thought, "I do not believe human beings will, will feel much pleasure at being speared and flattened by moose, I'd better do something". So he said to that moose, "Nidoba, my friend, you appear to be very strong. Let us have a contest, I will hold up my hands and you will try to push me backward." The moose agreed, it leaned forward, putting its nose in one of Gluskonba's hands, its huge horns in the other, and began to push, and push. But Gluskonba did not move. And that moose's horns got smaller and rounder and the moose itself got very, very, very much smaller than it was before and also his nose got all smushed in. And the moose looked at itself when Gluskonba said, "and now what will you do when you see a human being?", the moose said, "Uhh, I will run away." Now one after another Gluskonba talked to many animals. There's almost for everyone a separate story, but some of them were no danger at all. For example, the rabbit said "when I see a human being I will run around in circles foolishly and be terrified!" which is what rabbit does to this day. Little mice they said "we will sneak into their houses and eat their food!" and Gluskonba said "well, that's not going to hurt them, you can do that". But finally, just one animal was remaining. It sat there in front of him wagging its tail. It was of course the dog, and Gluskonba said to dog, "Nidoba, my friend, are you going to do something to harm the human beings when they arrive here?" And the dog shook its head and said, "No, I've been waiting for human beings to come! I want to be their best best friend, I want to play with their children, I want to go hunting with them, I want to live in their houses with them and share their food and even climb in bed with them, I want to be their best best best best friend!" And Gluskonba looked at that dog, and he saw that dog's heart was good. He said "Nidoba, my friend, you will be the best friend that human beings will ever have, a better friend than some of them deserve; and so we will know you by this name: Aalamos, the one who walks beside us." And so it is that to this day, it is the dog who walks beside us, our best best friend.

BASCOMB: Mhhh, that's a lovely story. You know, I just love dogs, and it always seems that they're better than we deserve in some sense. You know, all they want is some food, a little pat on the head. And they're always there to greet you and always happy with it, wagging tail and what's not to love about a dog?

BRUCHAC: Yeah, the dog is a very special being. And you know, we say that we learn from every animal that each one has something to teach us. For example, the ancestor of the dog is the wolf. We say that human beings learned from the wolf such things as the fact that all of us in our community, like all the wolves in their pack should care for all the children, or that we should be able to sing together and make music just as the wolves do.

BASCOMB: Well, Joe, would you play another song here on your flute? I understand you brought along a double flute with you?

BRUCHAC: Yes, I'd be happy to do so.


BASCOMB: And Joe, do you have any other stories of animals helping people, that seems to be a theme here?

BRUCHAC: Well, I think one of the good ones to tell is a story about the bears, and a hunter who was not doing the right thing. And this is a version that would be closest to the Seneca version as it was collected by Arthur Parker who was an ethnologist to the early 20th century, and was himself of Seneca origin. The story is that there was a hunter who had to care for his nephew, because the boy's parents had died. That hunter grew tired of caring for his nephew, and said, "Hmm, today, I think I will get rid of this useless boy." So he called his nephew: "my nephew, come with me. I'm going hunting and you could come along". Well that little boy was so happy, his uncle had never taken him hunting before! He was thrilled but as they walked out of the village, he noticed two strange things. The first was they were headed in the direction of the winter land, the North, and it was said that one should not hunt in that direction. The other strange thing was that the hunter did not bring along his dog that was always with him when he hunted. They walked deep, deep towards the north in that forest until they came to a clearing. On the other side of that clearing was a hill and there was a cave opening, a mouth of a cave in the base of that hill. The hunter said, "crawl in there, there are animals, chase them out to me". So he crawled into that cave, deeper and deeper till he came to the end of it and there were no animals there. He turned around, sorry that he was disappointing his uncle. And he saw that circle of light that was the mouth of the cave suddenly disappear. It all was dark. He crawled forward and discovered a big stone had been wedged into the mouth of the cave, trapping him there, and he realized in his uncle had wanted to get rid of him. He felt great sorrow then, not so much for himself, as for his uncle, whose mind was obviously not right, for who in their right mind would do this to an innocent child? Then he began to remember something how his parents had told him if you feel alone and lonely, sing this song, and a friend may come and help you.

So he began to sing "Way-yah-nah way-yah-nah way-yah-nah hey Way-yah-nah way-yah-nah way-yah-nah hey”. And as he as he sang that song, he thought he could hear voices joining in from the other side of that stone. And then suddenly, the stone was rolled away. He crawled out blinking in the light and saw people all around that clearing looking at him, people of all sizes and shapes. He blinked again and realized they were animals all looking at him and an old grandmother woodchuck came up and poked him in the knee and said "grandson, we've heard your song, do you need help?" The boy said, "I do. Indeed, my uncle put me in that cave and I have no parents so I have no family". That old grandmother woodchuck said, "grandson, choose any of us, we'll be your family, you can decide for yourself." Well the boy looked around and seeing all those animals did not know how to choose. So he said, "could you each tell me what your life is like? So I would know if I could do a good job".

Mother woodchuck holding her baby woodchuck at Greenfield Park in Wisconsin. (Photo: Ken Mattison, Flickr, CC BY-ND-NC 2.0)

So the first one that came up was a little mole. The little mole said, "You would like to be a mole! We burrow in the ground and we eat the most delicious worms." And the little boy thought about that, he really didn't want to eat worms. But he also wanted to be polite. So he said to that little tiny mole, "Oh, my friend I would not be a good mole. Look at my fingers, they're so weak, I can't really dig holes the way you do, I would be terrible at your family's job". Now the next to come forward was the Beaver. The beaver said, "[Munching beaver noise] you would love to be a beaver, we swim underwater and we eat the mhhh best tree bark of all,[Munching beaver noise], wonderful tree bark". Again, the boy thought about eating tree bark, not something very appetizing, but he remembered to be polite. He said, "Beaver, look at my teeth, they're too weak to to cut down trees and I can't swim underwater the way you can, I would be a terrible beaver." And one by one many animals came forward. None of them seemed right until the old mother bear walked toward and said, "my boy, you would love to be a bear, we take our time going through the woods, we eat delicious honey and berries and we sleep in a warm cave together and my two cubs here will wrestle and play with you anytime you want". And the boy said "I'll be a bear!" And indeed, he became a member of their family. He traveled with them everywhere in life, indeed was good at being a bear. And he wrestled and played with his new brothers all the time. But every time they scratched him hair grew on his body, till by the end of the summer, he looked like a bear himself. Now as he went along and the autumn came, each day they heard different hunters, all of them not good enough to catch a bear until the old mother bear said, "Ohh it's two legs and four legs, this one is a good one, we must run!" And they began to run pursued by two legs and four legs behind them they could hear the sound of [Dog Barking] getting closer and closer, until they came to a clearing where an old tree had fallen over a hollow tree.

A mother bear giving her cub a fishing lesson at Vancouver Island. (Photo: Sheila Sund, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The mother bear said "crawl in here, we may be safe". They crawled into that hollow log and waited. They heard the sound of [Dog Barking] and then silence outside. And suddenly, smoke began to come in to that log. And the boy remembered that that was how hunters would hunt for some animals. If an animal took shelter inside a hollow tree, a fire would be built and smoke would be blown in to make that animal come out. He also remembered he used to be a human being and could speak in human words. And so he called out, "stop, stop!" The smoke stopped coming into the log. He crawled out and there in front of him he saw his uncle, his uncle's dog. His uncle took one step toward him and touched him and all the hair fell off his body and he looked like a human being again. And the uncle said "my nephew, is it you? I thought, I thought you were dead! When I came back to free you from that cave when I realized my mind had been twisted and I done a wrong thing, and I came back and the stone was rolled away and they were animal footprints everywhere. I thought they'd eaten you." And the boy said, "No uncle, they did not eat me, they adopted me; and if you wish me to live again as a human being then you have to accept the bears as your family too." And the uncle agreed. And so it was that, from that time on those who were connected to the bear, the people of the bear clan as well as all of our people remembered the lesson that day: that all of us must keep in our hearts the same love and caring for our children, as you'll find in the heart of a mother bear. And that is how that story goes.

BASCOMB: Hmm it's lovely. Yeah, I mean, you know, you don't mess with a mama bear, right? I love that sentiment.

BRUCHAC: It’s a good story about motherhood because mother bears, whether they're human or not, you don't mess with them.

Joseph Bruchac is an author of more than 120 books for children and a member of the Nulhegan Abenaki Nation. (Photo: Courtesy of Joseph Bruchac)

BASCOMB: Joe Bruchac is a musician, storyteller and member of the Nulhegan Abenaki Nation. Joe thank you so much for telling us all these wonderful stories.

BRUCHAC: Oleohneh, Wlioni which means thank you or good returning to you. And also Wlipamkaani, which means may your journey be good.


DOERING: Mmm. Well, I feel really inspired by all these stories and I just wanna look for more ways to connect with other species.

O'NEILL: I know, Jenni! What's nice it’s a good little positive feedback loop, the more you become aware of nature the more you become attuned to it. Like when I had this class where I had to take note of every single animal encounter I had. Suddenly I was noticing bird calls everywhere I went.

BASCOMB: Right, you just have to put in a little bit of effort to connect with nature, but once you do, what a rewarding experience it can be.

O'NEILL: I know. This really makes me want to spend more time outside.

DOERING: Mhh yeah, I want to go to the Galapagos now.

BASCOMB: Ooh, take me with you!

DOERING: I know, let’s do a Living on Earth reporting trip to the Galapagos!


O'NEILL: Good idea. But until then we can look for connections with animals closer to home. like woodchucks, rabbits, and the dogs who walk beside us.

BASCOMB: Right, as we’ve learned in the last hour those connections can bring us just as much joy to our lives.



Learn about writer and storyteller Joseph Bruchac

Learn more about the Nulhegan Abenaki Nation.


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