My Teacher Bobby Lake-Thom (A.K.A Medicine Grizzly Bear) died this year. He was one of the last great Medicine Men in North America. He loved the old stories and published a collection of them. It feels appropriate to share one of his favorites: The Origin of Human Sickness and Medicine. This story was recorded as told to Bobby by Cherokee Medicine Man, Rolling Thunder, in 1978.
Medicine Grizzly Bear (A.K.A Bobby Lake Thom)
In the olden days, before my great-grandfather’s time, the animal people, bird people, fish people, snake people, bug people, tree people, and plant people could all talk. They lived together in balance, peace, and good will. They all depended upon each other and helped each other in their relationship with the human people. But as time went on the human beings began to increase so fast that their settlements spread over the whole Earth. As a result, all the other “relations” on Mother Earth found themselves beginning to be cramped for room to live. To make matters worse, the human people invented bows, knives, blowguns, spears, fish-hooks, and many different kinds of tools. They began to slaughter the larger animals, birds, and fishes for their flesh or their skins, while the smaller creatures, such as the frogs and worms, were crushed and trodden upon without thought, out of pure carelessness and contempt; no longer respected as equal relations.
So the animals decided to have a special council meeting and discuss what they could do for their safety. The Bears were the first to meet in council in their townhouse under the sacred Kuwa’hi mountain, known as the Mulberry Place; the old white Bear chief presided over the council and its matters. One by one the “relations” in Nature complained of the way in which the Human people had killed their friends and family; how the Human relations had ate their flesh, used their skins, made religious regalia out of their teeth and claws, or just took their feathers without even asking permission.
Thus it was decided to begin a war against the Human beings for their lack of respect and constant cruel and selfish behavior. One of the animal people asked what weapons did man use to destroy them. “Bows and arrows”, cried out one of the red Bears. “And what are they made of?” was the next question. “The bow of wood, and the string made from our entrails”, replied one of the Bears. It was then proposed that they would make some bows and arrows and fight the human beings with their own weapons.
One of the younger Bears got a nice piece of locust wood, then another sacrificedhimself for the good of the rest in the group, offering parts of his body for the string. But when everything was ready and the first Bear stepped up to make the practice shot, it was discovered that in letting the arrow fly after drawing back the bow, that his long claws caught on the string, hence spoiling the aim. Then it was suggested that the Bear’s claws be trimmed, hence after the second attempt the arrow went straight to its mark.
But the old white Bear chief objected, saying that it was necessary for them to have long claws in order to climb trees, get food, dig for herbs, and defend themselves. He counseled that it was better to trust the teeth and claws that the Creator had given them for survival in Nature, rather than sacrificing themselves for human’s weapons.
After much smoking and serious meditation, no one could think of a better plan, so the old white Bear chief dismissed the council and they all went back into the woods without ever coming up with a way to stop the increase and abuse of the human race.If the council meeting had gone otherwise, we would now be at war with the Bears.
A few moons later the Deer people held a council under their chief, Little Deer, and after some serious discussion decided to send rheumatism and arthritis to every Human hunter who should kill a deer, unless he took special care to ask for permission for their life, and offer tobacco as payment; in this way show respect to the powers of Creation. So the Deer People sent notice of their decision to the nearest settlement of Indians, and told the Human people that this would be one of the Laws of Nature.
Now, whenever the hunter shoots a Deer, the Little Deer spirit who is swift as the wind and cannot be wounded, runs quickly up to the spot, and bending over the bloodstains, asks the spirit of the Deer if it has heard the prayer of the hunter, and was given payment in exchange for its life; and all the good things it has to offer.
If the reply be “Yes”, then all is well and the deer spirit will go on its way. But if the reply be “No!”, then he follows on the trail of the hunter, guided by the drops of blood on the ground, until he arrives at his cabin in the settlement. At that point he will enact punishment and strike the hunter and/or his family with rheumatism or arthritis, making them a cripple, to live in pain for the hunter’s selfishness. That is why today, no hunter who has regard for his health, and the welfare of his family, ever fails to do a ceremony and ask pardon of the Deer for taking it’s life.
Next came the Fish and Reptiles and Snakes, who had their own complaints against the human beings. Within the council meeting they decided to make their victims have tormenting dreams of snakes twining about them in slimy folds, and blowing bad breath in their faces; or to make them have bad dreams of eating raw or decaying fish; so this way the Human people would go crazy, lose their appetite, get sick, or die. That is why Human people today have such bad dreams and illness.
Finally the Birds, Insects, and the smaller Creatures came together for the same purpose. The notorious Grubworm was chief of the council. It was decided that each in turn would give an opinion, and then they would vote on the question as to whether or not Human beings were guilty of the offenses against Nature. Seven votes should be enough to condemn. Thus one after another they denounced Human cruelty and injustice toward the other relations in Nature, in favor of the Human being’s to get diseases and death. The Frog spoke first, saying:
“We must do something to stop the increase of the Human population, or they will become so numerous that we shall become extinct. See how they have even kicked me about because they think I am ugly, until my back is covered with sores; and he showed everyone the spots on his skin.
Next came the Bird People, no one today remembers now which one it was, who condemned the Human beings for their ruthlessness against the Birds and Nature. They all began to devise and name so many new diseases, one after another, that had it not been for some failures in the plot, the entire Human race would not be able to survive. The Grubworm especially, became more pleased as the name of each disease was called off, until at last they reached the end of the list; when someone proposed to make menstruation a sickness and problem for women.
The Plant People, who have always been friendly to Human beings heard what had been decided and done by their other relations in Nature, so they too held council. The Plant People with their herbal power, made a pledge to continue to help the Human people; it is their power, medicine, and gifts that can defeat the evilness and sicknesses now bestowed upon humans. Hence each plant, every kind of tree, even certain shrubs, down to the grasses and mosses and mushroom type growths can furnish a cure for the various human diseases and sicknesses. Some even hold the secret to stop death and dying, or to bring a human back from death. Even weeds were made for some good purpose, if only we learn to respect and learn to listen to the Plant People. Thus came medicine, and secrets from Nature.