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The Legend of Bear Rock

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In the Black Hills in Crook County, northeastern Wyoming, a large plug of volcanic rock rises dramatically above the surrounding countryside. Now, Devils Tower may seem a good name for this enormous plug of rock but that’s just the name that the white men gave to it. The people who had lived here for many thousands of years before the arrival of the white men knew better. They knew rock had nothing to do with the devil.

Indeed most of the tribes that lived in that area had a very different name for the rock, they called it the Bear Rock. Up and down its sheer sides are deep, long streaks and gashes. Visitors often ask how they came to be there and that is a very interesting story. Listen well and I will tell you.

The story begins a long time ago, when two young Sioux boys managed to get themselves lost in the prairie around their homeland. They hadn’t meant to get lost; in fact they didn’t know they were lost until ….. Well, until they were. That’s the way it happens isn’t it? One moment you are playing shinny ball and shooting arrows out into the purple sage around the village and the next moment you don’t know where you are or really how you got there.

The two boys stopped their game, put down their bows, looked around at their surroundings and then at each other. They didn’t recognise this part of the woodland; it wasn’t somewhere they had ever been before. Each of them was about to suggest they start back home, when they heard a small animal make a noise nearby and they just had to investigate.

They could not find the animal that had startled them but they did find a stream with many beautiful pebbles shining out from the water. For a few moments they were fascinated by the stones and, once again, forgot that they were lost. They followed the babbling stream as it wandered through the trees, taking them still further away from their home and, before they knew it, they had come to a low hill.

Now the thing about a hill that you’ve never been to before is, you want to know what is on the other side, don’t you? Well, so did the boys. Forgetting that they had no idea where they were, they scrambled up to the top and peered over the ridge. On the other side they saw a small herd of bison.

Their fathers had taught them how to track animals and they just could not resist this chance to try out their skills and so they stealthily followed the animals and ... wandered even further away from their home.

It was only as the day drew on into the afternoon, that the boys realised how hungry they were and thought that going home for food would be a very good idea. But, as they looked around at the unfamiliar landscape, they realised that they really didn't know where they were, at all.

After some discussion, they set off in a direction which they thought would lead them to their village but, without being aware, they were walking still further and further away from home. The late afternoon became evening and, as the sun slipped below the hills and the sky spread its dark blanket across the land, they knew they could walk no more. Not knowing what else to do, the two young boys curled up beneath a tree and tried to sleep.

The next morning they awoke very early, ate some wild berries, found some chokecherries and drank water from a stream. For two long, hot, exhausting days they walked towards the west, going ever further from their families. It was on the third day that the anxious boys suddenly had a feeling that they were not alone. They looked around and in the distance was Mato, the bear.

Now Mato was no ordinary bear, but a large grizzly, so big and so hungry that the boys would make only a small mouthful for him. But a mouthful is still better than nothing and Mato had not eaten for many days. He lumbered closer and closer, his colossal footsteps making the earth shiver and shake and his towering body casting a long, dark shadow over the boys as he stumped towards them.

The boys started to run, their eyes darting left and right, desperate for a place to hide, but there was nowhere, and the grizzly was moving so much faster than they, that he was almost upon them. In the gloomy light of the forest they did not see the tree root stretched across the path. They caught their feet in it and stumbled. Mato roared in triumph. They could see his red, wide-open jaws packed with enormous, wicked teeth. They could smell his hot evil breath.

Now these boys were old enough to have learned to pray, and they called out in desperation:

" Wakan Tanka, the Creator, Tunkashila, Grandfather, have pity, save us! Spirits of the forest, help us.”

All at once the earth shook and began rapidly to rise. The boys rose with it, up, up, up into the sky above the forest. Out of the earth emerged a cone of rock, pushing further upwards until it stood more than a thousand feet high - with the boys on the top of it.

Mato howled - angry and disappointed to see his meal disappearing into the clouds. I did say that he was a large grizzly bear, didn’t I? Well, that’s not quite true.
He was in fact a giant bear, so enormous that when he reared up onto his hind legs, he could almost reach to the top of the rock. Almost, but not quite.

His claws were as large as a tipi's lodge poles and Mato dug those claws into the side of the rock, trying to get up, trying to get those boys, desperate for the mouthful that he could almost taste.

He attacked from every spot, from every side of the towering rock and, at every futile attempt, he raked huge gouges into its sides.

The boys watched, safe as eaglets in their eyrie, as he gradually wore himself out, became exhausted and, finally, gave up. Leaving the rock covered with gashes made from his giant claws. Peering over the edge, they saw him lumber away, a huge, growling, grunting mountain of rage disappearing over the horizon.

The boys were saved. But how were they to get down? They were not birds who could fly. They were not so light that they could float down like a falling leaf. So how did they get down? This story does not tell us; but we can be sure that the Great Spirit did not save those boys from Mato, only to let them die of hunger and thirst on the top of the rock.

Maybe, Wanblee, the eagle, who has always been a friend to the Sioux people, grabbed the boys in his huge talons and carried them safely back to their village. Or maybe you can think of another way?

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