(A Tale of the Dene People)
Once upon a time a man went out into the woods, and before long, he was lost. Although he searched and searched, he could find nothing familiar — no trail, no sign of his village, nothing that could lead him home.
The light was fading, and the day grew colder. When he came upon a cave, he decided to stay there for the night. He knew he would never find his way home in the dark.
It happened that this cave belonged to a bear that was out in the forest when the man arrived. As the sun set, the bear returned, and when he walked through the entrance of his den, he saw the man.
The man was alarmed, but in those days bears and humans could talk to each other, and the bear was not angry. When he saw the man was shivering with cold, he took pity on him.
“I’m sorry,” the man said, “I did not know this was your home.”
“Don’t worry,” the bear answered. He stopped where he was so he would not frighten the man, and he said, “Stay here, and I will look after you. You will be safe.”
The man grew calm, for he saw kindness in the bear’s eyes, and he stayed there that night.
In the morning, he awoke feeling thirsty, and the bear said, “Let me teach you our ways. Follow me.”
The bear led him out into the woods toward the river. When they reached the riverbank, he taught the man how to lean forward and drink from the river. As they walked through the forest, the bear taught the man many things.
“The river is not only for water,” the bear explained. “There are many minerals in the water that will make you strong. Take care of yourself, and you will survive.”
The man nodded, and on they walked. Before long the bear said, “Do you see those clouds drifting up from the forest floor?”
“I do,” said the man.
“That is our breath. That is how you find us,” said the bear.
That evening the bear and the man returned to the cave. The man decided to stay and learn all the lessons of the bear. Besides, winter was coming.
“It is cold now,” the bear said. “The days are short. We will stay here and go into hibernation. We sleep, and by winter’s end, we will be strong and rested.”
The man agreed to stay the winter.
When winter reached the halfway mark, the bear turned over on his side. He called to the man, “Turn over.” The man did as was told.
After many months of sleep, one day the bear woke. “It is time to get up,” the bear said. The man woke, too.
“Now,” said the bear, “put your hand outside the cave and tell me what you discover.”
The man put his hand outside the cave. The air felt warm. “Touch the earth,” said the bear. The man did, and he knew the snow had melted.
“Spring has come,” the bear said, “and your friends and relatives must miss you. It is time for you to return home. I will show you the way.”
Together they left the cave and walked in the cool spring morning toward the edge of the forest.
“There is your village,” the bear said, nodding at the clearing ahead. “I will leave you here, but remember the gifts I have given you. I ask only that you honor my teaching. You will hunt for bears when you need meat, but you must never reveal our secrets.”
The man agreed, and they said farewell. The bear returned to the forest. The man walked to his village, where everyone greeted him with joy.
“We thought you had died!” they cried. “We were certain you were lost forever!”
They wept with gratitude at his return. “Where have you been? How did you survive?”
The man just smiled and nodded. “I am safe. That is all I can tell you.”
When fall came again, the man went out with his fellow hunters to hunt for bear, but they were unsuccessful. The man seemed to have forgotten all the bear had taught him.
The second time he went hunting, he decided he would go alone. As he walked through the forest, he began to remember. He looked for warm breath rising from the forest floor. When he saw the mist, he took aim with his arrow. That day he came home with a bear, and every day thereafter he always found bears.
As time passed, the other hunters became envious. “Teach us your tricks,” they said. “Why are you always so lucky? You must share your secrets.”
The hunter shook his head. “The Creator wishes me to keep my luck to myself,” he said.
The others prodded and poked, trying to learn his ways. They teased him. They grew angry. But the man was faithful to his bear friend, and he always kept his secret as a way of giving thanks.