Long, long ago in the far northern wilderness before white men arrived and built cities and roads, there lived Little Squirrel, a Chippewa Indian boy.
One night as Little Squirrel was sleeping in his deerskin wigwam, the roar of a mountain lion awakened him. He sat up on his blanket bed and peered through the wigwam opening into the moonlit forest.
In the darkness all around him, in the caves and in the thickets, lived the wild forest creatures. Little Squirrel’s eyes penetrated the darkness for their shapes. His ears listened for their sounds. The Chippewas thought of wild ones as people—four-footed forest people. Some of them were enemies, but most were friends. Often one would live in a wigwam, sharing the family’s food and shelter.
Little Squirrel knew the forest people well. He knew their names and secrets. He had learned to speak their language. One of them had even lived with his family for awhile.
Six summers past, his father had found a black mother bear dead in her den, a tiny cub crawling over her. Because a Chippewa would never leave an animal to starve, his father had brought the bear cub home and put it by his little son, who was nestled in a linden cradle. “For you, Little Squirrel,” he had said.
As Little Squirrel grew, he romped and wrestled with the cub. His first steps were taken by her side as his fat fingers clutched her thick black fur. He loved the bear. He called her Bear Sister.
Together they gobbled up berries that grew in tangled thickets. Side by side they searched for honey hidden deep in bee tree holes.
But one day without warning, the bear vanished. She ambled off into the pine trees and did not return. Little Squirrel cried when she first went away. He missed their fun together. He missed his furry sister snuggled on his blanket bed during the cold northern nights.
His mother had told him Bear Sister had gone into the forest to find her own bear people.
But Little Squirrel had never ceased looking for her. As he looked into the forest, he listened for any sound from her.
Suddenly he saw something—a shadow moving through the pines. His black eyes sparked with excitement. It might be Bear Sister, he thought, and his heart was filled with hope.
Trembling like an aspen in the first warm rush of summer, he stepped out of the wigwam. The shadow moved before him, but he only heard its sound. Almost without thinking, he slipped through the trees, following the footfalls that crunched down the leaves. His thoughts were with Bear Sister.
Indian boys were encouraged to go for midnight walks in the wilderness. Watching the ways of the forest people was their school. They learned how the beaver people trim trees and build dams. They listened to the owls chirring to their owlets—they listened to the owls’ secrets so they too could be wise. Little Squirrel moved ahead swiftly, silently, following the sounds of the shadow.
Suddenly in a shaft of moonlight the shadow turned into an elk. His heart cried out. It wasn’t Bear Sister after all. Little Squirrel sighed and sat down on a log as the elk sauntered off.
An owl hooted from the pine boughs above. Little Squirrel’s eyes searched until he found the owl. Then he scanned the trail of stars scattered over the deep dark of the sky above. He was once again absorbed in the wonders of the wilderness.
The pines began to whisper and the owls began to scold him. “Go back to your wigwam,” they seemed to be saying.
I must go, he decided as he stood up and began his walk back to the village. His thoughts were of the wigwam, warm and safe.
Halfway around a rocky ledge overgrown with thickets, he suddenly stopped. What was that sound off there in the depths of the thicket? he wondered. He stood as still as a tree trunk. Again he heard it. His heart began to beat like the wings of a giant bird. It sounded like the grunt of a bear. In the black shadows of the night, he watched and waited. Then in the distance he saw a dark form emerge from behind the rocks. It was a bear!
The moonlight dusted the bear’s fur, but Little Squirrel was too far away to be sure of the color. If it were Bear Sister, would she remember him?
Instinctively he began to sing a song—softly, sweetly, so this bear and all others might know of his love for them. Because of his Bear Sister, he could never harm nor kill one of their people. This was the way of the Chippewas, and this was the message of his song.
Little Squirrel sang of how his father had found a bear cub in the forest many moons ago. He sang of hunting berries and of searching out bee trees; he sang of a bear and a boy together on a blanket bed.
As Little Squirrel sang, the bear moved its head back and forth, growling softly. The boy knew the bear understood the song. He knew the bear understood how he felt in his heart, for the Indians and forest people knew each other well. But Little Squirrel could not be sure if this were really his own Bear Sister.
Then a young bear cub appeared from the rocky den, and the heart of Little Squirrel almost burst within him as it beat a steady rhythm to his soft bear song. And suddenly it didn’t matter even if this were not Bear Sister, for all bears were his friends!
The she-bear grunted to her cub, an owl chirred to its owlet, and the wind began to whisper to the treetops.
By the time Little Squirrel reached his deerskin home, all the forest people had heard of the little Chippewa Indian and his love for the forest people.