Historical and Cultural Context of The Legend of the Big Dipper

The legend of the Big Dipper is a legend which has embedded itself in American Folklore, today it remains one of the best known and prevalent star formations in the North American night sky. Clarence A. Smith’s retelling of the story in the Carlisle Indian School reflects the cultural importance that it had in his tribe in the fact that it was the story that he chose to retell about where he came from. Within his tribe, the Arapahos, sources confirm that the story of the Big Dipper was one of cultural significance. Two of the great American Anthropologists of the early 20th century were told a version of the same story while researching Arapaho traditions for their book Traditions of the Arapaho which they published in 1903 when Clarence was fifteen years old. The two anthropologists, Alfred L. Kroeger and George A. Dorsey, spent time with the Arapaho collecting their stories and traditions and compiling them and one of the legends which they transcribed was The Girl Who Became a Bear. Upon reading their retelling of the story, it is clear that The Girl Who Became a Bear is the same legend as Clarence A. Smith’s recounting The Legend of the Big Dipper though some of the details differ. What is very interesting though is that only a few sections later in their book, Kroeger and Dorsey also included a second story called Bear, the Six Brothers and the Sister, which actually retells the same story, although the english is far choppier and some of the ideas seem to have been lost in translation. Another notable fact about the repetition of the story is that it was transcribed once by both authors, Kroeger signed The Girl Who Became a Bear with his initial while Dorsey signed the second piece with his initial. This is so significant because it shows how deeply embedded the story of the Big Dipper was in the Arapaho culture and explains why Clarence A. Smith would have chosen it as the piece he wanted to write for The Indian Craftsman.

The cultural significance of the bear in the Arapaho culture is second only to horses, they decorated their clothing, their bags and their wigwams with emblazons of bear claws, ears, and teeth. Alfred L. Kroeber wrote a second book on his findings while studying the Arapaho, this selection titled The Arapaho, this book does not study the legends of the tribe, but instead provides a comprehensive look into the different symbols that the tribe used. One of the symbols that shows up again and again in his work is the bear which relates how culturally important it was as a symbol. One of the examples that Kroeber provides is a design on a bag which he analyzes in his work. The symbolism on the bag is extensive and complex but one of the parts that he emphasizes is the inclusion of “a ‘white quadrilateral area resembling the life-symbol. These areas represent bears’ ears, which are used as amulets.” (Kroeber, Kindle Location 1747).


Kroeber’s work helps distinguish the symbol of the bear in Arapaho culture as one of importance, so important that it’s ears represented life in Arapaho culture. This understanding of bears in Arapaho culture adds an interesting twist to the three retellings of the Big Dipper story which have been referenced, in the stories the bear is destructive and destroys a village. Kroeber also identifies the use of bear claws as an extremely important symbol in Arapaho culture and art. He wrote that the design of the bears foot is called “wasixta” and “was said to be the oldest of the parfleche designs, and to have been invented by Whirlwind-Woman, the first woman on earth” (Kroeber, Kindle Location 1730), it is a motif that appears on an impressive amount of the objects that he studied from the Arapaho. In Kroeber’s retelling of the Big Dipper story he says “When they played, she said: “Bring the claws.” Then she would tie the claws to her hands” (Dorsey, Kindle Location 5312) it is told as though it was in this action that she was turned into an actual bear, reiterating the mythical powers and cultural importance of the symbol of bear claws and the animal itself.

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