FIRE TO THE BEAR GODS

Outdoor Life - - HUNTING -

Ben Long

It was late sum­mer, and the ir­ri­ga­tion reser­voir along the west front of the Rock­ies was drawn low. I walked the caked mud­flats, along with an­thro­pol­o­gist Bar­ney Reeves, look­ing for small cir­cles of rocks, ev­i­dence of an­cient cook­ing fires. These camp­fires had burned cen­turies be­fore a dam in­un­dated this val­ley, and the low wa­ter was mak­ing them vis­i­ble. We found black­ened bones of bi­son and bighorns, the pre­ferred prey over deer and elk. Only once in his ca­reer, Reeves told me, had he found a black bear fe­mur in one of these pits.

One fire pit stood out. In­stead of com­mon stones, every rock in the ring was red argillite. It was a cer­e­mo­nial fire ring, Reeves said. Per­haps the pit had been at the cen­ter of a sweat lodge. But what shocked me was what was in­side the ring of red rocks. The pit was full of the ca­nines—the fang teeth—of adult grizzly bears. The bones had crum­bled with time, but the harder, enamel-coated teeth re­mained eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able. Some­one long ago, for some long-for­got­ten rea­son, had cooked the skulls of sev­eral griz­zlies in that spot.

I imag­ined the scene: glow­ing coals, smell of burnt flesh and sweet­grass, prayers to an an­cient god of­fered in an an­cient tongue. I snapped a pic­ture and we left the site un­touched. The next spring’s snowmelt re­filled the reser­voir, tak­ing the mys­tery with it.

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