FIRE TO THE BEAR GODS
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.