Published on November 2, 2012 by Casey
Some people believe that the Stiff-Legged Bear/Big Man-Eater figures are a representation of mastodons or woolly mammoths, still preserved in Native American stories thousands of years after they became extinct. Ideas supporting such a connection include:
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*Some southeastern Native American people used their native word for Big Man-Eater when they first saw African elephants.
*Elephants have a peculiarly stiff-legged gait, with their legs positioned vertically directly underneath their body, different from other animals such as bears.
*Elephants have proportionately very large heads compared with animals like bears. Stiff-legged Bear is usually described as having a large head.
*Stiff-Legged Bear/Big Man-Eater is frequently described as similar in size and strength to a mastodon. (Modern elephants can push over trees as the monster was said to.)
However, there are also several ideas arguing against Stiff-Legged Bear being any kind of ancient elephant:
*Native American storytellers in most tribes described the creature as being a giant bear– a creature these cultures were very familiar with and could hardly have confused for an elephant.
*In every story we know of, Stiff-Legged Bear/Big Man-Eater is a carnivore that eats people. Elephants are vegetarians. The Paleo-Indian ancestors of the storytellers were hunters of mammoths/mastodons, not their prey. Surely if a cultural memory of an extinct animal had really survived for thousands of years, something as culturally important as the animal’s basic relationship with their ancestors would have been more accurately remembered than the shape of the animal’s legs.
*Stiff-Legged Bear is never mentioned as having a trunk. How could anybody describe an elephant without mentioning its most distinctive feature?
There is a another related possibility, which is that the Stiff-Legged Bear myth might have been based on mammoth/mastodon fossils which Native Americans had unearthed. This kind of thing has been known to happen before, with dinosaur fossils reported as dragon bones in both Europe and Asia. An elephant’s large head and stiff legs could be observed by looking at its skeleton, whereas its trunk would not be preserved. Furthermore, mastodons have sharp teeth– 18th-century scientists thought it might have been carnivorous for that reason, so Native Americans who came across mastodon fossils might have made the same mistake.
The third possibility, of course, is that the Stiff-Legged Bear is not based on an elephant at all and is exactly what the storytellers describe it as: a mythological bear the size of an elephant. Bears would have been a lot more familiar to Native American storytellers and audiences than long-extinct animals or even fossils, and it is very common worldwide for mythological monsters to be giant versions of well-known animals.
At any rate, whatever the inspiration for the Stiff-Legged Bear stories was, they are told in many different tribes throughout North America, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of the continent.
Mammoth or Stiff-Legged Bear:
Academic discussion of stiff-legged bear mythology.
The Mastodon (Yakwawi):
Lenape Indian legend of an ancient war with the Yakwawiak (who this storyteller associates with mastodons.)
The Ktci-awa’s and the Witch:
A young Penobscot hero defeats a night witch and a group of stiff-legged bears.
Rabbit and Big Man-Eater The Adventures of Rabbit and Big Man Eater Rabbit and Big Man-Eater Rabbit Kills Big Man-Eater:
Alabama stories about Rabbit’s encounters with a Big Man-Eater.
Tshakapesh and the Elephant Monster:
Innu myth about the culture hero fighting the monster Katshituashku.
When the Chenoo Howls: Native American Tales of Terror:
Collection of eerie stories about the Shawnee stiff-legged bear Yakwawiak and other Native American monsters.