Myth Monday: Keeping Warmth in a Bag (Dene Myth)

By Kara Newcastle


(This is another Native American myth that doesn’t cast bears in a favorable light, but don’t worry, they’re not all like that!)

According to the Dene people of Alberta, Canada, in the beginning, the world was very different. The land and the sky touched, and there were no humans. Animals populated the planet, living and working together. Their collectiveness helped to save them when the warmth disappeared.

You see, the sun lived in the sky, but gradually its heat grew weaker, until the earth became cold. It became so frigid and dark that it started to snow, and it didn’t stop. Winter stretched on for three long years, and the animals began to suffer from starvation and cold. At last, it was decided that there would be a council, and all the animals would contribute their ideas for survival.

Red_fox_image by normalityrelief wikimedia commons

On the day the animals gathered, they took turns announcing themselves, and to everyone’s surprise, the Bears were not present. In fact, no one had seen the Bears since the long winter began. The animals discussed this amongst themselves, and soon they began to suspect that the Bears had something to do with all the warmth disappearing from the world. It was decided then that a group would travel to the Bears’ home in the sky and investigate the matter. The animals that volunteered to go were the Wolf, the Fox, the Wolverine, the Bobcat, the Mouse, the Pike and the Dogfish.

The seven animals set out immediately—the Wolf, Bobcat and Fox trotting, the Wolverine ambling, the Dogfish and Pike flopping and wriggling, the Mouse hitching a ride on someone’s back—and they all made their way up into the hole in the sky that lead into the Upper World, where the Bears lived. The Fox and Wolf sniffed out a trail, and eventually the party found themselves at the edge of a lake. On the other side they could see a canoe set on the beach, and beyond that, a hut, with a fire burning in front of it. Sitting just inside the door of the hut were two little bear cubs.

Baby_bears_playing_in_the_sun_(14717487854) by Magnus Johansson wikimedia commons

“There they are!” the Wolverine snarled, and all the animals hurried around the big lake, rushing up to the hut. The two bear cubs gaped at the crowd of strangers, flinching back as Wolverine bellowed, “Where’s your mother?!”

“Wolverine, stop!” the Fox hissed, “They’re just babies.”

The Wolverine snarled but relented, sidling away a pace as the Wolf stepped up to the cubs. “I’m sorry about that, children,” he said kindly. “But we came to visit your mother. Where is she?”

“Out hunting,” said one cub.

As the Wolf questioned the baby bears, the other animals wandered around the hut, studying everything inside. They were quick to notice all the leather bags hanging from the rafters. Strange smells came from within each one. One trembled. Another was damp.

The Bobcat sniffed at the bottom of the wet bag. “What’s in here?” she asked.

“Out mother keeps rain in that bag,” answered one of the bear cubs.

The Mouse pointed to the bag that trembled. “What about this one?” she squeaked.

“That has wind in it,” said the other cub.

Snuffling, the Wolverine raised his nose to a third bag. “What’s in this one?” he demanded, prodding it with a claw.

The little bears’ eyes widened. “Oh, we can’t tell you that,” they gasped. “It’s a secret. Mother would beat us if we told it!”

Arching an eyebrow, the Wolf lolled out his tongue and wagged his tail. “But we’re friends with your mother. You can tell friends, just not strangers.”

800px-Arctic_wolf_2_(J) by ParspnsPhotographyNL wikimedia commons

Seeing the cubs’ hesitation, the Bobcat purred and rubbed her furry cheek against theirs. “We promise not to tell anybody else. Your mother will never find out.”

The little cubs turned their big eyes up to the animals crowded around them. “You promise?”

Irritated with the delay, the Wolverine opened his mouth to yell at the little ones. The Pike, seeing what was about to happen, flipped his fishy body up and over into the air and landed with a hard flop over Wolverine’s head, stunning him into silence with the impact.

Too young to know better and seeing the friendly faces of all the animals around them (save for the cranky Wolverine,) the bear cubs looked at each and smiled shyly. They beckoned the animals to lean in closer.

“Mother keeps the heat in that bag,” one cub whispered.

The Fox blinked her golden eyes. “The heat?”

The other cub nodded. “Yeah! All the heat from the sun. It’s in there.”

Amazed, the search party all glanced at each other, knowing what this meant; the greedy Bear had stolen all of the sun’s heat and trapped it in that bag!

Her whiskers trembling with fury, the Mouse kept her composure and managed to smile at the bear cubs. “Thank you,” she squeaked. “That’s all we needed to know.”

Realizing that Mother Bear would be home at any moment, the animals said goodbye to the cubs and raced out of the hut, hiding in the nearby woodland. They huddled together and whispered.

“Stupid Bear!” the Wolverine snarled. “She stole all the heat and left us all to freeze to death!”

“We have to get that bag out of there,” Fox said.

“It won’t be easy,” Dogfish said. “It’s up high and tied tight to the rafter.”

“We’ll have to stand on each other to get it down,” suggested the Mouse.

“It’s big, too,” the Pike said worriedly. “It’ll take time to carry it away.”

The Bobcat nodded. “We’ll need to distract Mother Bear in the meantime.”

“I agree,” said the Wolf. “I think I have a plan. Bobcat, can you lure the Bears away from the hut?”

The Bobcat huffed. “Those greedy things? Easy.”

“Good. Wolverine, Fox and I will go inside and get the bag down. Pike and Dogfish, you’ll help Bobcat get away from the Bears after we get the bag out.”

The Mouse raised her tiny paw. “What about me, Wolf? How can I help?”

The Wolf smiled at her. “I want you to chew up the oar in the canoe. Mother Bear will try to cut across the lake to catch up with us, and that’ll slow her down.”

“Consider it done!”


With their plan in place, the animals waited in the forest until they saw the big, shaggy form of Mother Bear plodding her way back to her hut. Knowing how hungry bears could be, Bobcat transformed her shape into that of a chubby caribou calf and darted out of the wood line. She pranced a safe distance away from Mother Bear, and when the old bear glanced up, Bobcat raced into the trees, far on the other side of the Bears’ hut.

“Children!” Mother Bear roared. “Quick! Get out here and help me catch this calf!”

The two little bears cubs instantly galloped out of the hut, and, with their mother leading the way, they ran after Bobcat, disappearing into the forest.

The second the Bears vanished, the other animals sprang from their hiding places. Pike and Dogfish jumped in the lake while Mouse leapt into the canoe and started gnawing on the oar. Wolf, Wolverine and Fox darted into the hut, stood on each other’s shoulders, and pulled down the bag of heat from the rafters. The bag secured, they tore out of the hut, gathered up the Mouse, and began running for the far end of the lake.

Meanwhile, the disguised Bobcat heard the Bears gaining on her, so she took a hard turn back towards the lake and leapt in. Dogfish and Pike quickly towed Bobcat away from the shore as the Mother Bear pushed her canoe out into the water and began furiously paddling after what she thought was a caribou calf. Halfway across the lake, the oar snapped in her paws.

“What is this?!” Mother Bear howled. In a rage, she flung the broken pieces of the oar out into the water, but overreached and wound up flipping the canoe over, flinging her into the water.

As the Mother Bear spluttered to the surface, Bobcat, Pike and Dogfish reached the opposite shore, where the other animals were waiting. Panting, the Bobcat changed back into her true form and said, “We have to go—Mother Bear’s not far behind!”

800px-Florida_bobcat_going_(16104332097) by Russ wikimedia commons

As Bobcat said this, Mother Bear broke the surface of the water, and instantly saw the seven animals gathered there with the bag of heat. Realizing she had been tricked and robbed, Mother Bear roared in rage and began thrashing her way towards them. Horrified, the animals turned and fled.

The animals headed straight back to the hole that would lead them from the Upper World in the Sky to the Lower World on Earth, but the hole was far away, and the bag was heavy. Wolf carried the bag as far as he could, and when he became too tired, he flung the bag to Wolverine. “Catch!”

“Got it!” Jamming the bag in his teeth, Wolverine ran as far as he could, but he began to tire as well. Realizing he was starting to lag, he threw the bag to Fox. “Fox, get it!”

Bouncing up into the air, Fox caught the bag of heat and put on the speed, racing as fast as she could, but she felt herself losing strength. Gasping for air, she whipped the bag towards Bobcat. “Bobcat, head’s up!”

Already exhausted from evading the Bears, Bobcat snatched the bag out of the air, but the heavy weight of the bag slowed her down. As she struggled to carry the bag, all the animals heard the thunderous pounding of Mother Bear’s feet behind them, catching up.

“GIVE ME THAT BAG!” Mother Bear shrieked.

“Look!” Mouse cried, pointing ahead of them. “There’s the hole—we’re almost there!”

“I can’t carry this thing anymore!” Bobcat wheezed.

Panicked, Pike and Dogfish flopped up alongside her. “Give it to us!” they shouted.

With a burst of effort, Bobcat tossed the bag to Pike and Dogfish. Together, the two fish snagged the bag in their teeth just as they came up to the edge of the hole—and just as Mother Bear caught up to them!

“That’s mine!” Mother Bear roared.

“Jump!” Wolf yelled.

All the animals yowled in terror as they flung themselves and the bag of heat through the hole, yelping as Mother Bear’s fearsome teeth snapped closed behind them. The animals tumbled down to the cold, snowy Lower World, and the second they came to a stop, they clustered around the bag. Each animal took a part of the bag in their teeth and claws and yanked in all directions. Instantly, the bag tore open and the heat burst out. The heat spread far and wide, rapidly warming the world again.

The snow and ice melted with great speed, so great that now the world was threatened to be drowned by a massive flood. Terrified, all the animals ran for the safety of the Great Tree, a tree so tall it reached into the sky, almost into the Upper World. As the poor creatures huddled in the branches, fearing that the end had come, a massive fish no one had ever seen before rose out of the depths. It opened its huge mouth to its fullest extent and gulped up all the extra water. He drank so much water, in fact, that he grew to immense size and, too big to return to the ocean, he was turned into a mountain instead.

At long last, the earth was returned to normal. The sun and heat dried the earth, the flowers burst forth, and the animals were happy because summer had returned!

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