Two weeks ago, I flew to Edmonton to give a keynote address at the Alberta Museums Association.
The theme was “Landscapes to Language: What Shapes Us?” and I was there to talk about the exciting work happening all across Newfoundland and Labrador to safeguard heritage and tradition.
I’ve always been drawn to museums. I love history, and unravelling historical mysteries. I love artifacts and old objects. But I think what draws me most to museums and the people who work in them is that they are all about stories. I’m a folklorist, an author, and a storyteller; stories are what I do and love.
The Alberta conference was full of people who are passionate about history, and who love sharing stories. While I was there, I met Bobbilee Copeland, the program co-ordinator of the Aboriginal Language Revitalization Program at the University of Victoria.
She told a remarkable story about her grandmother’s grandmother, and what happened when that 65-year-old woman went berry picking and met up with a grizzly bear.
The fabulous thing about stories is how they pass from person to person. After meeting Bobbilee, I met up with an old storytelling friend, Kathy Jessup, from Alberta, who has performed here at the Labrador Creative Arts Festival. I knew Kathy loved bear stories, so I told her Bobbilee’s, and then added one that I knew from Labrador.
The Labrador bear story is a great mythological creation story, which explains where fog comes from. The indigenous peoples of this province dealt with fog for centuries before the Europeans showed up, and it is a pervasive thing here in Newfoundland and Labrador. It is no wonder that local myths evolved around the stuff.
I first found out about the story in 2008, in an article in Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, written by Hans Rollmann from Memorial University. He had found the story in a 1901 Moravian magazine, written by Rev. Albert Martin. Martin had lived in Labrador from 1888-1923, and had served as the Moravian Superintendent of Labrador.
“Once, a man went into the forest to get firewood,” writes Martin.
“While he was working in the forest, he was attacked by a black bear who wounded him badly, so that the man fell to the ground as if dead. The bear sniffed him to determine whether he was still alive, but the man held his breath, so that the bear believed the man to be dead and put him on his back to carry him off into his cave.”
The bear dragged the man back to his family for supper, but the exertion had made the animal tired, so he threw down his catch, and proceeded to go to sleep.
“The little bears that cavorted in the cave thought that their father was still watching,” writes Martin, “and when they saw that the human, whom father bear had just deposited in the cave, opened his eyes, they called out to the sleeping bear, ‘Father! Father! Look, the one you just brought us is opening his eyes!’ Drowsy, the old bear replied, ‘Even if he now opens his eyes forever, he has already given me enough trouble today,’ and continued to sleep.”
With this, the man saw his chance to escape.
“Then the man jumped to his feet, pushed the little playing bears aside and rushed out of the cave,” writes Martin.
“Mother bear was standing outside cooking. The man threw her also to the ground and fled. He came to a river, which he waded across. Now he was safe! In the meantime, father bear was awakened by his family and ran angrily after the escapee.”
The bear eventually came to the river, and he saw the hunted man standing on the other side.
“How have you been able to cross the river?” the bear asked the man.
“I drank it all up,” the man answered.
“The bear immediately started to do the same,” says Martin. “He drank and drank and drank, until he burst. Then, for the first time, thick fog covered the land.”
According to Rollmann, it is a myth that is told in various versions across the Canadian North and into Greenland.
If you have a Labrador connection, and have heard a different version, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.