The Miwok legend of the Grizzly bear, El Cap and the Measuring Worm

My last day in Yosemite, I visited the temporary camp a group of Native Americans from the Miwok tribe set up on the site where their ancestors’ summer village had been. I said hello to a woman with graying hair pulled back in a loose bun.

“What event are you holding this weekend?” I asked.

“We come here every year at this time to do a spiritual dance,” she said. Her fingers played across her skirt, showing the jeans she wore underneath. “Usually we meet in Tamarack, but this year there is too much snow.”

I asked about their tribe.

“Some people call us the Digger Indians because we used to dig roots to eat. We call ourselves the Bear Tribe though, because we believe our people are descended from bears. Have you ever seen a bear stand on its hind legs? They are very human.”

I nodded in agreement. “Their hind footprints resemble humans’,” I said.

“Yes, but fatter. Also, mother bears are protective are over their children, like humans.”

I told her my name, and she shook my hand gently. “Everyone calls me ‘Sis’,” she said.

She said to attend the dance, women must wear a conservative shirt and a long skirt. “And if you’re on your moon time you cannot come. Women have the life giving force, and it will take away the power of the medicine men.”

I tried to go to the dance that night, but at 11 p.m. they weren’t even starting to think about dancing yet, and I was falling asleep on my feet. I looked up few Miwok legends about the Bear and the People instead. Long ago, as one story tells, El Capitan was a small rock. One night a she-bear and two cubs slept on top. When they woke, the rock had become an enormous cliff. They couldn’t get down, and the people of the village weren’t able to rescue them. Finally, the Measuring Worm inched up the cliff. By then the bear and her cubs had starved to death, so he brought down their bones for cremation by their relatives, the people of the tribe.


Handbook of Yosemite National Park, A. L. Kroeber, 1921


About Emily Stifler

I grew up in Vermont and live in Bozeman, Montana. I love topography: mountains, rocks, weather and people.
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