American Indian Storytelling–How Daylight Came To Be: Ant and Bear

<meta name="google-site-verification" content="EJL0jt83vkSM3ByoSicwfDy3sYsFknBSbEr1kHh15TA" />American Indian Storytelling–How Daylight Came To Be:

Long, long ago, so long ago, there was no light, there was only darkness.  In those days, the Ant people worked very hard.  But sometimes they would go looking for food, and could not find their way home again.

 Sometimes, they would hear heavy footsteps, and a monster would reach into their homes and steal and eat their babies, disappearing into the darkness again.


This monster was Tsimox, the Grizzly Bear.  Even now, bears will sometimes dig up the nests of ants to eat their larvae.


There was one person, Ant Woman, who was smarter than all the rest.  “If we had light, we could see to work.  We could find our way home.  We could watch for the monster Bear, who steals our children.”

Ant Woman decided to go to the house of the Creator, and ask for light on behalf of her people.  It was a long and dangerous journey.  She did not know it, but Bear followed her, to see what she would do.

“Oh, Creator,” she said, “give my people light, so we can see and work…”

But before she could finish speaking, Bear stepped in front of her, saying, “Don’t listen to her!  Don’t give this little bug person what she wants!  I want it to always be dark so I can sleep and be cool!”

The Creator replied, “There will be a contest—a dance contest—and the winner will get his or her desire.”

This was the very first Powwow, when people came together to compete in dance.  Just as now, people came from the four directions to see the dancing.  They brought all sorts of food to share with one another.

As soon as Bear saw all the different types of food, he became very excited and began to eat.

But little Ant Woman fasted.  She concentrated on praying on behalf of her people.  She pulled her belt tight around her waist, so she would not feel hungry.  Finally it came time for them to compete.

She stood up, and told the people, “I am Ant Woman—I dance for light!”  And then she did a fast dance, pulling her belt tighter and tighter.

When she had finished, Bear stood up and wiped the crumbs from his lips, saying, “I am Bear—I dance for night!”  Then he did his slow and lumbering dance.  When he had finished, he went back to eating.

For what we would now call four days and four nights they danced against each other.  Ant Woman did not eat during this time, continuing to fast and pray.  She pulled her belt tighter and tighter.

Bear stood up to dance against her, but he was now so fat and full, he could hardly move.  He was so tired and sleepy…  “I am Bear…I dance for…” and then he fell asleep right in the middle of his dance.  He began to snore loudly.

“Little Ant has won,” said the Creator, “but both the Ant and Bear are my children and I love them both.  For that reason I will give them both what they wish for—daylight for the Ant People so they can see and work, and night time for the Bear, so he can sleep and be cool.”

And so it is today we have day and night because of the wonderful little Ant Woman.  And if you see an ant today, you’ll notice she still has a tiny waist, so you know this story is true.  In the Twana language, the name for ant is “tlatlusid” which means “tied or cinched at the waist.”

A Twana story, retold by CoyoteCooks

This is a lovely little story that has a lot of memories for me.  Many years ago, several of us were involved with something called the Indian Readers Series, which was a project out of the NW Regional Educational Laboratory.  A number of American Indian reservations in the Pacific NW designated American Indian storytellers and artists to put some of their traditional legends into booklets that were geared to the reading levels of various grades.  My major objection to this was the fact the oral comprehension level of young children will be higher than their reading comprehension.  As a result, this story, which was retold and illustrated by my relative, Bruce Miller, had to be restructured to a Kindergarten reading level, which lost a lot of its intricacy.  I did the illustrations for a couple of other books in the series. I had always wished the laboratory had made audio recordings to supplement the material designed for the lower reading levels.

At one point, a dear friend of mine, Vi Hilbert, was doing American Indian storytelling demonstrations in her Native language of lushootseed. She saw me in the audience, and asked if I would come up and help her tell the story with her son, Ron.

If you are more familiar with NW culture, the story then carries many more layers of meaning.  One of the most important elements of the tradition among the Salish people is the Winter Spirit Dance, which incorporates the Vision Quest familiar to a number of Native Nations.  This can then be understood as part of what Ant Woman is doing…her focus on prayer and fasting.  In a number of Native communities, there is also the tradition of asking something from the Creator (health and recovery for a beloved, or in Ant Woman’s example—help for her community) and an offer to give something of oneself.  In the initiation process, it is not unusual for the person undergoing the ceremony to have a woven woolen sash or belt that is tied around the waist.  When the person ceremonially dances, he or she will often have helpers who will hold on to the belt and pull against it, helping to strengthen the dancer.  The initiation process, at least the Vision Quest aspect of it, often lasts for four days, although there are other legends and teachings about how someone may have one last much longer, or for a shorter period.

Different Nations have different versions of this legend.  My Aunt used to tell the Sahaptin version, where it wasn’t only Ant and Bear who danced—it was several different animals, each hoping for something special.  For example, Rabbit danced so it would always be springtime, so he would have tender green things to eat.  He lost the contest, but the old people say that you can still hear rabbit thumping on the ground—which means he’s practicing his dance, so next time he’ll win.

Just so, Ant Woman didn’t dance by herself, but with her relatives—the other insects with small waists, like the Wasp.

In thinking up a recipe to go with this story, I thought about what sort of things Bear might eat in the story, but I decided a recipe for insect larvae wouldn’t be a big hit for a lot of readers…

Thinking about so many special people in my life who have crossed over—Bruce, Vi, my Aunt Beans, I also thought about Roberta Wilson, a Lakota woman I met when I started graduate school.  One Saturday in her kitchen, she showed me how to make what she called wojapi in the Lakota language.  It’s a type of berry “pudding” that she would use on fry bread.  It’s a very simple recipe, but takes a bit to simmer down to intensify the flavor.

While traditionally it can be made with dried fruit—like dried chokecherries, because of Roberta, I’ve always associated it with freshly picked berries.  I prefer huckleberries, but I’ve also make it with blueberries.  You can experiment with what you have available.  Nowadays with so many frozen berry choices so easy to find at your local grocery store, you can discover what you enjoy the most.

One of the realities of being shown how to do something is that there really aren’t measurements, since amounts will vary according to how many berries you have, or how much wojapi you want to make.  Because there are no preservatives, I normally make wojapi in small amounts, with the expectation it will be used up in a day or two.  I’ve never tried freezing it.

Basically, the recipe consists of taking the amount of berries you want to use—a few handfuls of berries are what I will usually throw into a bowl.  I’ll mash them up with a potato masher, but I try to keep the mixture chunky, so I don’t do it too thoroughly.  Some wojapi makers prefer theirs to be smoother.  I then cover up the berries in a small sauce pan with water and start to simmer the mixture.  If the berries are sweet enough, I don’t feel a need to add sweetener to them.  Others may add honey or sugar to taste. 

Reducing the mixture down can be enough, but Roberta preferred to use flour to thicken it.  Personally, I tend to use arrowroot or cornstarch for thickening.  If you do too, make sure you mix the thickening agent separately into cold water and then when it’s smooth, add it to the simmering berry mixture.  If you add it in directly, it’s hard to keep lumps out.  For the small amount I make, I will rarely use more than a teaspoon of thickening agent. If it’s still not the consistency I want, I’ll add in a little more of the arrowroot or cornstarch.  If you put in too much, you can add additional water to thin it, until you finally get the balance you’re wanting.  When I get it just right, then I’ll take it off the stove and let it cool, although depending on who was watching me make it, it might not have much of a chance to cool before it was being spread on fry bread, or whatever carbs were at hand.  It also makes an excellent topping for ice cream.  I’m sure Bear would approve…

Explore posts in the same categories: American Indian, American Indian Legends, Native American food, Native American Foods, Storyteller

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2 Comments on “American Indian Storytelling–How Daylight Came To Be: Ant and Bear”

  1. Joanne Says:

    Great story. Great recipe. I love berries and the idea of simply reducing them in water without any heavy sugar addition is so preferred in my book.
    Thanks for idea.

    • coyotecooks Says:

      You’re welcome. The reduction of the liquid helps intensify the flavor. As an additional choice, you can substitute fruit juice for the water. For example, apple juice will often compliment many of the berry flavors and add an additional touch of sweetness if you’re wanting to avoid adding all the sugar people often want to throw on berries…

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