Chippewa Folklore: The Legend of the Sleeping Bear

This is a Native American legend from the Chippewa people that tells how North Manitou Island and South Manitou island, were created in the Great Lake now called Lake Michigan and how the Sleeping Bear Dune on its shore came to be.


Pixabay – Image by skeeze – CC0 Public Domain

Mishe Mokwa

A long time ago on the Wisconsin side of Mishigami, the great lake, which is now call Lake Michigan, lived a mother bear called Mishe Mokwa, who gave birth to twin cubs in the spring. In keeping with her sacred duty to her young, she taught them how to live in the wild and how to find shelter. She taught them how to find clean water from the creeks and rivers, how to use their claws to dig out the dead trees for ants and grubs and how to follow honey bees back to their nests and steal their honey. Mishe Mokwa taught them plants that would heal them when they were sick and she taught them which animals were to be avoided and all the dangers of the wild woods because even for bears there were many.


The summer that followed the birth of her cubs became hot and troubled. The sun appeared bigger and closer to the earth and the clouds did not appear in the sky to cast cooling shadows and so no rain fell. Day after day the sun scorched the earth drying up the rivers and streams and the plants and trees grew brown and withered and the woods became bone dry and food became scarce. One morning she led her cubs down to the creek to drink but the creek was dry.

Fire in the forest

Mishe Mokwa knew they had to leave to find water and food and called her cubs to her telling them, “The sun has dried the water and we have to have water.  We can no longer stay, we have to follow the dry riverbed to the great lake Mishigami where we shall drink our fill.”

Mishe Mokwa was wise and relied upon her instincts and led her cubs along the dry riverbed towards Mishigami which was still some distance off. They traveled all day but as night fell out of the darkness came a great storm. The thunder rolled across the skies and lightning struck several trees and the parched woods were quickly turned into a sea of flames and smoke.  Mishe Mokwa called to her cubs,

“Quick, we must run for our lives down the dry creek bed to the great lake where we can hide in the wide water and be safe, run, run, run!”

Her cubs responded and they followed her as she ran down the dried riverbed with the flames so close their fur was singed.  Eventually and just in time they reached the great lake and swam out to safety. Turning round and looking back they saw the entire  shore in flames. The cubs looked upon the terrible sight in fear and one of them cried,
“Where, oh where will we live our home is burning!”

And the other one cried,
“How will we live with no home!”

Crossing Mishigami

Mishe Mokwa looked at the scene of devastation and inside she quailed but she knew she had to stay strong for her children. “There is a land on the other side of the lake where we can live. We will swim to it, follow me!” she told them.

So Mishe Mokwa began swimming in the opposite direction to the burning woods with her cubs following her. They swam all night and when the sun came up they found themselves in the middle of a vast world of water with no land anywhere in sight but they were heading straight for the sun.

Treading water they turned and looked back towards the shore where flames still raged and smoke rose into the skies. Mishe Mokwa and her cubs were now far from the shore and could see no land only plumes of smoke rising into the skies above Mishigami.

“Look, our old home is gone, there is no more land only smoke. How do we know which way to go we are surrounded by water and we can’t go back!” asked the cubs.

Mishe Mokwa said,  “Last night I followed the stars and today we swim for the sun and see how the wind flies across the water pushing us to our new home. We must keep on swimming, quick now!”

Once again she led her cubs swimming before them across the great lake ever urging them on, ever urging them to keep close.  All that day they swam on and on and night came and still Mishe Mokwa urged her cubs on.  The next morning they were again swimming into the rising sun.  “Mother, can you see our home yet?” asked the cubs,

”No, not yet we must keep swimming!”  she replied

“We are so tired and so hungry!” cried the cubs.

“I know, but we must keep swimming, we have to reach the shore on the other side, keep going!”

Of course, Mishe Mokwa was worried but she knew there was no alternative other than to keep swimming. They swam all day and night began to fall with no sign of land. She urged her cubs to stay close and carried on swimming finding her way in the darkness by the stars. Dark clouds began to roll across the sky that night and blocked out the stars, but Mishe Mokwa could feel the wind pushing her on and she encouraged her cubs again, but another storm broke upon them.

Storm on the lake

The wind whipped up and drove the family apart. All Mishe Mokwa could do was swim in circles in the darkness calling out to her children but no answer came. Eventually, the storm abated and the sun rose. She swam round and round but could find no trace of either of them. Not knowing what to do she waited in the water hoping they might hear her voice and find her. She waited and waited but still they did not come. Then she thought they were much lighter than she and the strong winds of the storm may have pushed them on in front of her.  She started swimming again heading for the sun, calling out all the way hoping to catch up with them.


Pixabay – Image by 246738 – CCo Public Domain

She swam all that day and the next night but still neither saw or heard a sign of them. As the sun rose she found herself wearily clambering up a sandy bank on to new shore. Thinking they must have made it safely she searched the sand for their tracks but none could she find. Thinking they may have landed at another point she searched up and down the shore but no sign of them could she find.

Mishe Mokwa was tired and hungry and terribly afraid for her cubs and searched all day. When night fell she lay down facing the water to rest still hoping to see them come struggling out of the water. Day after day she searched resting only at night but her cubs did not come and she fell into despair and sleep came upon her.

Manitou looks down

Manitou, the Great Spirit who is wise and the creator of all looked down upon Mishe Mokwa with kindness and pity and took her up into the spirit world where her cubs ran to meet her. Dancing joyfully around her they cried, “We tried to follow but the waves were so high, the wind too strong and we were so tired and we were lost in the water!”

And with great happiness Mishe Mokwa told the, *I know you tried hard and did your best but now I have found you and we are all together forever!”


The Sleeping Bear Dune has suffered much from erosion Image by Royalbroil – CC BY-SA 3.0

Looking on and smiling Manitou was touched by the love and dedication he saw and decided he would do something so that others of his children should remember such devotion. Calling upon his great power he caused the bodies of the cubs to rise out of Mishigami, the great water. Today they are called the North Manitou and South Manitou Islands. To remind the people of the devotion of Mishe Mokwa he lovingly and gently blew and his breath caused fine sand to gently cover the body of Mishe Mokwa which is now known as the Sleeping Bear Dune on the banks of Lake Michigan.

© 20/07/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright July 20th, 2016 zteve t evans


13 thoughts on “Chippewa Folklore: The Legend of the Sleeping Bear

  1. Other than at a zoo, I’ve never seen a bear in person, yet I dream about them with some regularity. Wonder what that means (guess it depends on the context, too)!? What a great folk tale/origin story you’ve related here, Zteve!

    • Hi Leigh, Thanks for commenting! When I first found the story I thought it very sad and didn’t realize it related to a real place. Then I read it again and saw it as a message of hope. I don’t know what dreaming of bears means but it sounds like a good story waiting to manifest. Could be a sign!

    • Thanks! Yes, indeed she fulfilled her sacred duty to the best of her ability with love and dedication and was rewarded by Manitou by reuniting her with her children. The North Manitou and South Manitou Islands and the Sleeping Bear Dune reminds us on earth of our sacred duty and that the Great Spirit sees us. Thanks for commenting greatly appreciated!

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