This is an interesting Mi’kmaq legend that I came across while researching information for a future blog post. I love myths and legends, and this one I thought was really cool because it explained four different “whys/hows” in one story: how the Robin got his red breast, why the Gray Jay is a scavanger instead of a hunter, why the leaves turn red in the fall, and why Ursa Major (The Big Dipper) moves and changes its position between Fall and Spring. Ursa Major is known to some as the Bear. This is because the four stars that create the ‘pot’ of the Big Dipper look like a large animal, one star being the head, another being the tail, one for the right front leg, and another for the right back leg. The Mi’kmaq First Nations used to call Ursa Major the Bear, and thought that the Corona Borealis looked like the Bear’s cave. Following the Bear are seven stars: the three stars that create the handle of the Big Dipper, and four stars from Bootes. These seven stars were thought to be birds hunting the Bear: Robin, Chickadee, Moosebird (a.k.a Gray Jay), Pigeon, Blue Jay, Owl (some sources say Great Horned Owl), and Saw-whet Owl. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I do! It is told as follows:
Every spring, when the sun awakens the sleeping earth, Bear emerges from her den. Immediately Chickadee sees Bear and calls out,
“Hunters, Bear has come out of her den. It is time for the hunt. Are you coming?”
Robin says, “Yes, I am ready.”
Moosebird says, “I guess I’m ready.”
And the others agree.
“Alright then,” says Chickadee, “Robin, you lead the way. I’ll follow you, carrying the cooking pot. Moosebird, you follow me. That way, I’ll be in between two of the large hunters and won’t get lost. Then, the rest of you follow: Pigeon, Blue Jay, Owl, and Saw-whet Owl.”
So off the seven hunters set off, pursuing Bear all spring and all summer. But in the beginning of fall, the hunters in the rear start losing the trail. First, Saw-whet, to small to keep up, loses the trail, and then Owl, too heavy, loses the trail. Then Blue Jay and Pigeon lose it too and give up the hunt. Moosebird almost loses the trail in mid-autumn. But just then, Bear stands up on her two legs.
Robin cries out, “I can shoot her now!” His arrow shoots into Bear’s chest and she falls over on her back, dead.
“I’m so hungry after the long hunt, I can’t wait to cook the bear meat.” Robin thinks. So he tears into Bear’s body to get to the fat, and eats and eats and eats until he is finally sated.
Then he looks down. “I’m covered in blood. I’ll shake it off.”
So he flies to the maple tree in the sky and shakes and shakes and shakes. Blood spatters all over the maple tree and some falls onto the trees on earth. And that is why the leaves are tinged red each autumn. The maples on Earth turn the reddest because the maple tree in the sky got the most blood. What happens in the sky governs what happens on Earth.
Robin shakes off all the blood except the blood on his chest.
Just then, Chickadee arrives with the cooking pot. “Robin, you’ll wear that blood on your breast as long as your name is Robin.” And we all know that Chickadee was right about that.
“Now where are the other hunters?” Chickadee complains. “It’s time to cut up the bear meat, make the fire and cook the meat. Where is Moosebird and the others? Oh, I guess we’ll have to start without them.”
So Robin and Chickadee start doing all the work.
Meanwhile, Moosebird has found the trail again and he starts thinking, “If I hurry, I might be in time for the kill, or at least I’ll be there for the work after the kill.”
Then Moosebird thought some more. “Or, if I take my time, I’ll arrive just in time for the meal. I think I’ll do that.” And that’s what he did. In fact, Moosebird has never again hunted for himself. He always arrives after the kill. The Mi’kmaq call him: He-Who-Comes-In-At-The-Last-Moment.
So when Moosebird comes in at the last moment and finds Robin and Chickadee, Chickadee cries, “Where have you been, Moosebird? You’ve missed all the work. The meal is almost ready.”
“Oh, I almost lost the trail,” replies Moosebird. “Can I still have some food?”
“Certainly” said Robin, “That is our tradition, to share our food.”
“Oh, alright,” sighs Chickadee. “At least you are in time to join Robin in the dance of thanksgiving while I continue to stir the pot.”
So Robin and Moosebird dance around the fire circling to the left, thanking each other and the Great Spirit for their present happiness. And then they all eat.
But this is not the end of Bear’s story.
All winter, her skeleton lies on its back, but her spirit has entered another bear who also lies upon her back in the den, invisible, and sleeping the winter sleep. When the spring comes around again, this bear will again leave the den, will again be hunted and then killed. And her spirit will enter the net bear sleeping in the den.
So this cycle repeats each spring, when the sun awakens the sleeping earth.