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Ursa Major

Part 4 - North America

Dakota Star Map Ursa Major is the most prominent constellation in the in the northern celestial hemisphere.

The constellation, especially the Big Dipper is part of mythology in many Native American nations.

Many of the stories are variations of the Cosmic Hunt, a myth that originated In Europe and Siberia at least 15,000 years and was carried to America by the first people crossing the Bering land bridge.
In order to keep similar stories together, the sources of the legends of Ursa Major are not sorted alphabetically, but rather (roughly) geographically, from north to south.

The most popular version of the hunting story in North America is based on the position of the Great Bear in the sky after sunset during the seasons of the year:
In spring, shortly after dark, the bear, represented by the four stars of the dipper, seems to be climbing out of her den, which is symbolized by Corona Borealis, the circle of stars that appear higher up.

In midsummer, she runs she runs along the northern horizon, pursued by seven hunters - the tree stars of the dipper’s handle and four additional, nearby stars.

By mid-autumn, the bear stands erect, ready to defend herself. At this time of year, however, in northern latitudes, only the three hunters on the dipper’s handle always stay above the horizon, they are the ones referred to as “the hunters that are always hunting.” the other hunters of the story circle below the horizon and loose the trail.

Later in the season, the bear appears to be falling on her back and is killed by the hunters. Her blood stains the autumn trees bright red.

In midwinter, as she is lying on her back, her den appears in the east to carry the sleeping new year’s bear within.

Source: Stewart, Williamson; They dance in the sky: Native American star myths p. 18
The position of the Big Dipper
after sunset throughout the seasons


Astro-Canada tells a brief Inuit version of the Big Hunt:

Four men were hunting a bear. The bear escaped by climbing into the sky and the hunters decided to follow it. As they climbed higher and higher, one of the Inuit lost a mitten and decided to return to Earth to fetch it. The other hunters continued their hunt in the sky and we can still see them today climbing after the bear in single file.

The legend goes on to say that it was the Inuit hunter who returned to Earth to find his mitten who told the story.

Source: The Inuit Sky

Aside from the hunting story, in Inuit folklore, Ursa Major is know as Tukturjuit, the Caribou. To some Inuit, the star group is one single caribou; to others it is a flock of seven, one for each star.

Sorces: Inuit Star Lore, Inuit Star Names

Tukturjuit and Aurora
© Prop Door Illustrations

Miꞌkmaq and Iroquois

The Miꞌkmaq People of Nova Scotia and the Iroquois People along the St. Lawrence seaway were among the first to inherit the story about the Big Bear from their Siberian ancestors. In their version, the quadrangle of the dipper (Dubhe, Mera, Phad and Megrez) represents a bear that is pursued by seven brave bird hunters.

Late in spring, a huge mother bear woke up from her long winter hibernation. Hungry, she ambled down a rocky hillside in search for something to eat.

Little Chickadee, hungry himself, spotted the bear and called six other hunters. Before they went chasing the bear, they made sure that Chickadee had his cooking pot. So important was the pot, that they placed one bird on either side of Chickadee.

Thus, Robin (Alkaid) led the hunt, followed closely by Chickadee and his cooking pot (Mizar and Alcor) and by Moose-bird (Alioth).

As autumn approached, Saw-whet, the last hunter in line, left the hunt. Horned Owl went in search of Saw-whet and also gave up the hunt. Blue Jay and Pigeon tried to keep up with the leaders, but soon they also left the hunt and flew home, leaving the closest three hunters to chase the bear.

The Great Bear Hunt;

Miꞌkmaq hunters; Source:

(Frank Dempsey identified Horned Owl as Arcturus (α Boötis) and the other three as "several of the stars between Arcturus and the handle of the Big Dipper").

As the bear attempted to stand up on two legs, Robin wounded her with an arrow and the bear's blood colored the leaves of the forest red. The wounded bear also sprayed on Robin. which was henceforth called Robin Redbreast.
Eventually, the bear died and was eaten. The skeleton remains traveling through the sky on its back during winter. During the following spring a new bear leaves the den and the eternal hunt resumes once more.

Sources: American Association of Variable Star Observers, University of Arizona

Frank Dempsey tells another Iroquois legend, in which three hunters and their dog were hunting Nya-gwa-ih, the Celestial Bear. They " ...came tantalizingly close to killing the bear, but the bear always outran them. They wowed to never stop until they overtook and killed the bear. The bear led then far north and into the sky, where they can be seen as the three handle stars with the dog near the middle star and the bear as the bowl stars of the dipper."

Source: Frank Dempsey: Aboriginal Canadian Sky Lore of the Big Dipper

Pamela K. Kinney tells a variant of the same story.

Nya-gwa-ih at Pinterest


In large parts, the bear hunt legend of the Cree people in what is now Canada, here told by Wilfred Buck, is similar to the story of the Miꞌkmaq and Iroquois. In other parts, it is different, concen-trating on the bad behavior of a bully (the bear) and its opportunistic flowers (the raven), until the smaller birds rose up against the bully.

"Kayas - long ago - there was a huge bear that roamed over the lands.... All beings were afraid of this bear because it was big, mean and powerful. It did what it wanted to do when it wanted to do it. It wrecked homes, destroyed winter food caches, scared game, ripped up edible plants and killed all who stood in her way. This went on for many years.

One day, some fed-up animals decided to hold a meeting and discuss what could be done about this situation. A meeting was called and almost all of the animals showed up, because they all felt that the situation with the bear was unacceptable. After great outcries and stories of horror and tragedy, it was decided that the bear had to be removed from their traditional lands. At various times, the beings of the land tried to reason and calm the bear, but to no avail. The bear always did what it wanted to do and continued to damage property and hurt or kill others. Thus, it was decided that seven of the best trackers and hunters were chosen to remove the bear.

It just so happened that the seven best trackers and hunters were birds and off they flew. The hunt was on as Tehpakoop Pinesisuk, the Seven Birds (Represented by the constellation
Corona Borealis), chased Mista Muskwa.

Not all beings were put off by the activities of the bear. The ravens found that they could have a comfortable, well-fed life if they just followed the bear around and feed on its left-overs. When they heard about what was to hap-pen to the bear, the ravens went straight to Mista Muskwa and told him. He was outraged and set immediately out to find these 'great hunters'.

Mista Muskwa in the Cree Sky Map
created by Native Skywatchers

Mista Muskwa; Source: Atchakosuk

Ursa Major; © natievetouch

So it was that around the 11th and 12th full moons of the year, a confrontation between Mista Muskwa and the hunters occurred.
This confrontation was brief and did not lead to violence because when Mista Muskwa failed to scare his pursuers, he turned and fled, as all bullies do when confronted with determination and resolve.

It is said that Mista Muskwa and his pursuers were so fast that they flew into the northern night sky. Just as this happened, the bear was mortally wounded and he turned and faced his attackers. Mista Muskwa was bleeding badly and he shook, as a wet dog would shake, and as he did, blood from his wound fell to the earth and landed and stayed on all the broad leafed plants. That is why the leaves of all broad-leafed plants change color in the fall.

As Mista Muskwa shook, he also splattered a drop of blood on the bird that mortally wounded him. To this day, pipichew – the robin – has a red chest.

To remind all of the rewards of bullies, Mista Muskwa was placed in the sky along with the seven birds. Pipichew (the brightest of the seven birds) was given a further honor by being granted a special egg. It was the color of the sky and had speckles that represented the stars."

Source: Wilfred Buck: Ininewuk Stories of the Stars
The great bear hunt; Source:

Coeur d'Alene

The Coeur d'Alene people in what is now Washington State see a grizzly bear in the cup of the "Big Dipper" and have a story about how it got into the skies:

Grizzly Bear lived with his wife and three brothers-in-law. The youngest of the brothers-in-law liked Grizzly, the others hated him. They thought it was mean the way he bit people and became angry so easily. So the two brothers-in-law said, "Let’s kill him. What’s he after anyway? Probably something to eat."

They tracked him. Then they saw him standing. They took up their places, first the oldest, then the second and the youngest, last. The eldest gave orders, "All get ready so if one shoots all will shoot together." They went on, the two oldest close together ahead, but the youngest lagged behind at a distance because he liked Grizzly. When they came close the first two got ready to shoot at him. The youngest watched and just as the string was about to twang he said, "My brother-in-law! You are going to be shot."

Grizzly turned around and just as he was warned he made the noise of transformation. They all went to the sky as stars and now we see them up there.

Grizzly bear hunt; © Tom Beecham

Grizzly bear hunt; Source: Oil Painting Factory

The four stars which form the cup of the Great Dipper are Grizzly’s feet. The northern one moved and made the track formed by it and the star immediately above it. The three stars of the handle are the brothers-in-law, the one nearest the cup is the one who liked Grizzly best.

Sources: Gladis A. Reichard: An Analysis of Coeur d'Alene Indian Myths
Stewart, Williamson: They dance in the sky


The Meskwaki people in present day Michigan tell another variant of the hunting myth.

In their version, "... three hunters set out chasing the bear first towards the north, then towards the east and then towards west and end up following the bear into the sky before they realize that it was too late to return to Earth and so the three hunters perpetually chase the bear around the sky."

Source: Frank Dempsey: Aboriginal Canadian Sky Lore of the Big Dipper


The Wasco people in what is now Oregon tell a hunting story from the time before humans:

Once there was a curious coyote who lived with his friends, the five wolf brothers. Every day the wolf brothers and their dog would go hunting. When they came home, they shared their meat with coyote. They also talked around the campfire about something strange and frightening they had seen in the sky. But they would never tell coyote what it was.

Every night coyote would ask the wolf brothers what they had seen in the sky. His curiosity grew and grew. Finally one of the wolf brothers said, "Let's tell coyote what we have seen." They agreed to tell him that very night.

The wolf brothers told coyote about two strange animals they had seen high in the sky. They were very brave hunters, but there was no way they could get near the creatures. Soon coyote had a plan!

Coyote gathered many arrows together and began shooting the arrows into the sky. The first arrow stuck. The second arrow stuck to the first, and the third arrow stuck to the second. After a while, there was a trail of arrows leading up into the sky.

Bear and Wolf from

Bear and Wolf from

The next morning coyote, the five wolf brothers, and their dog climbed the arrow trail. They climbed for many days and nights, and finally reached the sky. The two animals in the sky were fierce grizzly bears, and coyote was afraid. But the two youngest wolf brothers were not afraid. They approached the grizzly bears and nothing happened, so the next two wolf brothers followed. Finally, the oldest wolf brother and his dog joined the group.

Coyote admired the beautiful picture they made in the sky. He began to back down the trail of arrows, breaking off the arrows as he went. To this day, the wolf brothers and their dog face the two grizzly bears in the sky. We call this sky picture the Big Dipper. When Meadowlark sings at night, he is telling everyone to come and look at coyote's picture in the sky.

The grizzly bears are the stars in the Big Dipper's bowl that point to the North star. The youngest wolf brothers are the stars that face the bears across the bowl of the dipper. The middle wolf brothers are the fist and last stars in the handle of the dipper. The oldest wolf brother and his dog are Mizar and Alcor, the two stars which appear as the middle star of the handle.

Sources: University of Arizona, Stewart, Williamson: They dance in the sky

Extended versions of this story can be found at and

The bears, the wolf brothers and coyote
Source: Tell Me a Story

The Chinook, neigbors of the Wasco tell a similar story that can be found here.

Source: Tell Me a Story


Not every hunting story targets a bear. The Snohomish people in what is now Washington State tell a story about an elk hunt. This version of the Cosmic Hunt also has its roots in Siberia:

A long time ago the land around Puget Sound was a wonderful place to live but it did have one problem - the sky was too low. It was so low that sometimes tall people bumped their heads on it! The tribes in the area all agreed that the sky must be raised up. A message was sent to all the people to get as many giant fir trees as possible. They brought the trees to a gathering place and were told what to do. Everyone was to hold the base of a fir tree and shove its top against the sky. Then they were all supposed to push up the sky and move it away from the earth.

The sky was quite heavy and so everyone had to push up at the same time. Each tribe spoke a different language but fortunately there was a word that all of them knew. That word was "ya-hoh" and it meant "lift together." When everyone was ready the chiefs yelled, "ya-hoh!" and everyone pushed upwards but the sky didn't budge. Again the chiefs yelled, "ya-hoh!" and everyone pushed upwards and this time the sky moved a little. Again and again the chiefs yelled "ya-hoh!" and again and again the people pushed the sky a little more upwards. Finally the sky was pushed as high as it is today and the people celebrated.

Now it so happens that while the people were pushing up the sky there was a hunting party that had gone far afield to find food for their tribe. There were three hunters and a dog in the hunting party and they did not know about the sky raising. They had found four large elk and were chasing them across the land. The chase lasted many days and took them to the edge of the earth - where the ground almost touched the sky.

Elk Hunt;

Spirit of the Elk; © Carol Cavalaris

Having nowhere else to go the four elk jumped up into the sky and kept on running. The hunters wasted no time in following the elk and they too jumped up into the sky. It was then that the people pushed up the sky leaving the elk and hunters with no way to get back down to earth.

You can still see the hunt going on today. The four stars of the Big Dipper's bowl are the four elk. The three stars in the Dipper's handle are the hunters. The little star next to the middle hunter is his dog.

Sources: Modern Constellations, Stewart, Williamson: They dance in the sky


The Skidi Pawnee saw the stars of the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper as stretcher-bearers who carried the sick and the death.

The Big Dipper was called rarukaitukidiputs, the Large stretcher. α UMa, β UMa, γ UMa and δ UMa were seen as the ends of the two poles forming the stretcher. They were followed by a Medicine Man (ε UMa), his wife (ζ UMa and her dog (g UMa) and Errand Man (η UMa).

Big Dippwer and Little Dipper in the Pawnee Star Map
Source: Washington University in St. Louis

Ursa Minor, the "Little Dipper" was seen as Small Stretcher Bearing a Sick Child.

Polaris, the Star That Does Not Walk Around was seen as a chief watching over the the Stretcher-Bearers as they traversed through the sky.

Both constellations are close to the Milky Way, which was seen as the path the spirits of the dead take as they are blown along from north to south by the north wind.

Sources: Stewart, Williamson; They dance in the sky: Native American star myths, p. 52,,
Ralph N. Buckstaff: Stars and constellations of a Pawnee sky map, George E. Langford: Reachable Stars,


The Ojibwe envisioned the Big Dipper as a fisher (Pekania pennanti), a mamal belonging to the weasel family.

A popular Ojibwe legend is called "How Fisher went to the Skyland." An extended version of the story can be found at

Here is a shortened version, told on

"In the days of perpetual winter, the days were cold and the food was scarce. One day, Ojiig the Fisher and his strongest friends, Otter, Lynx, and Wolverine, decided to climb the highest mountain and break through the barrier around the Skyland and return the warm weather to the earth.

After several tries, Wolverine and Fisher broke through the sky and found the warm weather hoarded by the sky people. While there, he heard the beautiful songs of caged birds, and he realized if he freed these birds, and they flew down to earth, they would provide good food.

As he was releasing the birds, the sky people returned and tried to stop him from escaping. Rather than dive back through the hole, he waited and chewed the hole in the sky larger to let as much warm air out as possible. The Fisher had magic that protected him from the arrows the sky people fired, but eventually they hit the one vulnerable part of his body, the tail, and he started to fall from the sky.

Fisher; Wikipedia

Fisher with the arrow in his tail
Ojibwe Star Map by Native Skywatchers

The spirits took pity on him, and caught him before he hit the ground, and gave him a place of honor in the sky. That place is the visible constellation we were raised to call the big dipper, and the handle is the tail. Every year, he makes his journey up into the sky, and every winter he breaks through to free the songbirds and the warm weather. And, every winter he is struck by the arrow and begins to fall back first from the sky. But then, as he brings an end to winter, he returns to earth and the journey begins anew."

Sources:, Stewart, Williamson: They dance in the sky


In a variation of the prehistoric tale of the Seven Brothers, the Blackfoot people tell a legend of seven brothers and their little sister.

A woman changed into a bear chased the brothers and their sister into a tree. One of the brothers waved his medicine feather and they all escaped to the sky, becoming the Big Dipper with the little sister becoming the star we call Alcor.

The last brother was the star at the end of the handle of the dipper; the Blackfoot people used the position of the Last Brother relative to the bowl stars to mark the time.

Source: Frank Dempsey

The tale is popular among all nations of the Plains Indians and some of the nations of the Northeastern Woodlands.

Seven Brothers;

The Assiniboine had a similar story; only in their version, there were only six brothers and a little sister.
In the Penebscot people’s version of the tale, there were six brothers and an older sister, which turned into a bear that killed everyone in the village except for the two youngest children. When the six brothers returned, they were all able to escape into the sky.

Source of all the above: Frank Dempsey


In North America, the most popular version of the tale of the seven brothers is told by the Cheyenne, who moved from a region west of the Great Lakes westward to the Great Plains.

It is story of seven brothers and an adopted sister, called Quillwork Girl. They were pursued by a thundering herd of bison who wanted to take Quillwork Girl for themselves. The brothers and Quillwork Girl scrambled up into a tree. The youngest brother had special powers and made the tree grow larger and taller, and they all climbed into the sky just as the angry bison forced the tree to fall.

The brothers and their sister are visible in the sky as the Big Dipper. Quillwork Girl is the brightest star and she is decorating the sky with her patterns and designs.

Source: Frank Dempsey

Quillwork Girl;


Together with the Lakota and the Assiniboine, the Dakota form the three main groups of the Sioux people. The have several meaning for the asterism known as the Big Dipper:

To Win/Tuƞ Wiƞ - Blue Woman/Birth Woman

Midwives and others pray to the Blue/Birth Woman Spirit so newborn babies will enter this world safely. She is a doorkeeper between worlds.

Wiçakiyuhapi - Stretcher

The Stretcher carries a person that has passed away into the spirit world. These are the four stars on the bowl of the Big Dipper. The Mourners are the three handle stars that are carrying the deceased.

Oceti Sakowiƞ-Seven sacred rites/council fires

The Big Dipper also represents the Oceti Sakowiƞ, the Seven Council Fires of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota (Assiniboin) nations.

Çaƞnunpa - The Sacret Pipe

The Big Dipper is part of the 'Pipe Ceremony in the Stars':

The first day of spring or the Vernal Equinox has held a place of high honor in the yearly calendar for many cultures and throughout human history. It is a day of balance, with twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night. It is one of two days where the Sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west. The Spring Equinox is one of the four guideposts or gateways in the circling of Earth around Sun.

At sunrise, Dakota and Lakota peoples will celebrate the first day of spring with a Pipe Ceremony in the Stars. On this day, around sunrise, this sacred ceremony will unfold along the eastern horizon. The rising Sun, Wi, represents the fire or the hot coals. Looking northward along the east horizon is the asterism of the Big Dipper. In D(L)akota these same seven bright stars are known by several names and relevant here are the names Wicakiyuhapi (the Dipper) and Can Cinkska (Wooden Spoon).

The Big Dipper represents the Sacred Pipe or Çaƞnunpa. Between the pipe (the Big Dipper) and the fire (the Sun) is the plant medicine that is used in the smoking mixture, Chanśáśa ipúsye (Dried Red Willow). The Chanśáśa ipúsye constellation is made up of the three brightest stars in Aries and Triangulum.

Sources: Pipe Ceremony in the Stars, Dakota Constellation Guide, Dakota Star Map

To Win/Tuƞ Wiƞ
Dakota Star Map by Native Skywatchers

Stretcher and mourning people
© Karl Bodmer

Pipe Ceremony in the Stars
© Annette S. Lee


The stars of the Big Dipper, called Náhookòs Bi’kà’, the Male Revolving One, can be culturally seen as a male warrior, a leader who protects his people. He is sympathetic and charismatic, as well as a provider for his family and home.

As a father he provides spiritual and physical protection to his family.

The term Náhookòs refers to the double motion of the constellation as it revolves around the north star, while rotating at the same time. This constellation is always paired with a female counterpart, Náhookòs Bi’áád (Cassiopeia) in a relationship of complementarity.

Sources: Navajo Skies,, Navajo Constellations

Náhookòs Bi’kà’ © Melvin Bainbridge

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