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The Woman Who Had a Bear as a Foster-Son

There was once an old woman who lived near the shore, away from the rest of the village. When those who lived in houses up above had been out hunting, they gave her both meat and blubber.

Once they were out hunting as usual, and they came home with a whole bear. The old woman received a piece from the ribs as her share, and took it home to her house. Later, the wife of the man who had killed the bear came to the window and said:

"Dear little old woman, would you like to have a bear's cub?"

And the old woman went and fetched it, brought it into her house, and placed the frozen cub up on to the drying frame to thaw. When she noticed it moving, she took it down to warm it. Then she roasted some blubber, for she had heard that bears lived on blubber, and in this way she fed it from that time onwards, giving it meat to eat and melted blubber to drink.

The cub grew very fast, and the woman began to talk to it in human speech. Soon it gained the mind of a human being, and when it wished to ask its foster-mother for food, it would sniff.

The old woman now no longer suffered want, and those living near brought her food for the cub. The children came sometimes to play with it, but then the old woman would say:

"Little bear, remember to cover your claws when you play with them."

In the morning, the children would come to the window and call in:

"Little bear, come out and play with us."

And when they went out to play together, it would break the children's toy spears to pieces, but whenever it wanted to give any one of the children a push, it would always cover its claws. But at last it grew so strong that it nearly always made the children cry. Then the grown-up people began to play with it. But after a time not even grown men dared play with it, so great was its strength. Then they said to one another:

"Let us take it with us when we go out hunting. It may help us to find seal."

And so one day in the dawn, they came to the old woman's window and cried:

"Little bear, come and earn a share of our catch. Come out hunting with us." From that day, the bear helped the hunters find seal to bring back and feed the village.

One day when they had been out hunting and were returning home, they called in to the old woman:

"It was very nearly killed by the hunters from the north. We hardly managed to save it alive. Give us some mark by which it may be known—a broad braided collar about its neck."

And so the old foster-mother made the mark for it to wear.

After that, the bear never failed to catch seal, and was stronger even than the strongest of hunters. All the people in the other villages knew it now, and although they sometimes came near to catching it, they would always let it go as soon as they saw its collar.

But now the people from the north heard that there was a bear that could not be caught, and then one of them said:

"If ever I see it, I will kill it."

But the others said:

"You must not do that. The bear's foster-mother could not manage without its help. If you see it, do not harm it, but leave it alone."

One day when the bear came home as usual from hunting, the old foster-mother said:

"Whenever you meet with men, treat them as if you are part of the same family; never seek to harm them unless they first attack."

And it heard the foster-mother's words and did as she had said.

And thus the old foster-mother kept the bear with her. In the summer it went out hunting in the sea, and in winter on the ice. The other hunters now learned to know its ways, and received shares of its catch.

Once during a storm the bear was away hunting as usual, and did not come home until evening. When it finally returned, the old foster-mother went out of the house and found the body of a dead man, which the bear had hauled home. The old woman hurried to the nearest house, and cried at the window:

"The little bear has come home with a dead man, one whom I do not know!"

When it grew light, they went out and saw that it was the man from the north, and they could see he had been running fast, for he had drawn off his coat and was in his underclothes. Afterwards they heard that it was the bear’s friends who had urged the bear to resist, because the man would not leave it alone.

The old foster-mother said to the bear:

"You had better not stay with me here always. You will be killed if you do, and that would be a pity. You had better leave me."

She wept as she said this. And the bear wept, so greatly did it grieve him to go away from her.

After this, the foster-mother went out every morning as soon as dawn appeared, to look at the weather, and if there were but a cloud as big as one's hand in the sky, she said nothing.

But one morning when she went out, there was not even a cloud as big as a hand, and so she came in and said:

"Little bear, now you had better go. You have your own family far away out there."

And when the bear was ready to set out, the old foster-mother, weeping very much, dipped her hands in oil and smeared them with black soot, and petted the bear's side as it took leave of her. The bear sniffed at her and went away. But the old foster-mother wept all through that day, and her fellows in the place mourned also for the loss of their bear.

But men say that far to the north, when many bears are abroad, there will sometimes come a bear as big as an iceberg, with a black spot on its side.


Source: The Woman Who Had a Bear as a Foster-Son
Adapted from Eskimo Folk Tales, Collected and translated from Eskimo into Danish by Knud Rasmussen, translated into English by W.W. Worster, CC BY-SA 3.0

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