The Old Man and the Bear

The Old Man and the Bear


As a member of an Alaska Native tribe called Ahtna, I grew up hearing the old stories, what we call ‘Atna Yanida’a, many about how Raven made the world. But some of the stories instructed how to live a compassionate life. In my young adult years, I began writing the myths down, not just from my tribe, but from others as well. In my 30s, I was appointed the executive director of our tribe’s Heritage Foundation where I continued my work in documenting and preserving our language, myths, and culture. This story about respecting elders may be more oral history than mythology. Variations of this story appear in Trickster and in The Raven and the Totem.

theraven     Way up in northeastern Ahtna country, there is a story of a very old man— nest’e’—who lived in a small village where there is no village today. It may have only been a summer camp. It was midsummer and there were salmon everywhere. In all of the streams and rivers there were plenty of salmon—łuk’ae. The muddy banks along rivers and creeks were covered with bear tracks. Some young boys wanted to go down by the river. The old man asked if he could go with them. He was so old that he was bent over and used a stick when he walked. The boys didn’t want the useless old man to go with them, but he did anyhow, and he was able to keep up with them. They were walking down by the river when they saw a big grizzly—tsaani. Those boys started teasing the bear. They threw rocks at it and called it names.

oldman           “Tsaani, you are afraid of boys!” they laughed.

They had no respect for the bear. The very old man told them to stop, but the boys just kept on teasing that bear. They wouldn’t listen to the man because he was so old.

Finally, the grizzly stopped and looked at them. Then it started walking towards them. When it came close the boys became afraid and ran away, leaving the old man to face the angry bear alone.

When it was very close, the bear charged the old man. The young boys thought surely the old man would be killed. But when the bear was almost upon him, the man stood as tall as he could and held his arms far apart with the walking stick in one hand. Then he yelled at the bear. That bear didn’t know what to think. He just stopped and sat down, his small dark eyes looking at the old man.

trickster    The very old man wasted no time. He hit the bar across the nose with his stick. The bear howled in pain and ran away. The old man had scared the bear away with only a walking stick!

The boys who had watched the whole thing in astonishment from afar learned something that day. From then on they showed respect for elders and they never teased bears again.


nest’e’ (nest-a) “very old man”

łuk’ae (thlook-a) “salmon [in general]”

tsaani (chaw-nee) “grizzly bear”

jsmelcer2    John Smelcer is the award winning author of over 50 books, including numerous books on Alaska Native mythology. He is an enrolled member of Ahtna, Inc. and a member of the Traditional Native Village of Tazlina. Aside from his dictionary of the severely endangered Ahtna language, he teaches Ahtna in a YouTube series aptly entitled Ahtna 101.

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