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  • By Kara Newcastle

Why the Bear Has a Stubby Tail (Native American Legend)

Why the Bear Has a Stubby Tail (Native American Legend)

I heard this story from a Native American storyteller when I was in grade school. Unfortunately, I don’t remember which tribe the story came from, but it was my favorite.

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Long ago, the Bear had the most beautiful tail of all the animals in the world. It was gorgeous, thick and silky, streaming through the air like a cloud, it was amazing. Many animals were jealous of the Bear’s tail, and the Bear knew it. Not only did he know it, he reveled in it, and bragged relentlessly about how fabulous his tail was. Anyone he ran into, the Bear would always tell them about his tail, showing it off for everyone to see. If somebody started talking about something else, the Bear would always bring the conversation back to his tail. And because he was so proud of his tail, Bear would act snobby, picking on other animals for their less than impressive tails, refusing to associate with creatures who had an ugly tail.

This went on for so long that Fox decided he had had enough of Bear’s snobbery and was going to put an end to the boasting once and for all. Fox put his plan into motion that winter, when the nearby lake froze over. Sneaking down to the lake, Fox chopped a large circle of ice out of the surface, baited a fishing line and tossed it in. The fish were hungry and eagerly went after the bait, and as soon as they were hooked, Fox yanked them out. Soon, he had a large pile of fish sitting on the ice beside him.

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Hearing Bear tramping through the woods, Fox took one of the fish, tied it to the tip of his fluffy tail, and dipped it back in the water. He sat there, singing idly and loudly to himself, drawing Bear’s attention.

Ordinarily, Bear wouldn’t have wasted any time with an animal with such a pathetically inadequate tail like Fox’s, but when he heard Fox singing, he glanced over, and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the stack of fish sitting beside the Fox.

“How did you catch all that fish?” Bear exclaimed.

“Hm? Oh, them!” Fox nodded to the ice hole behind him. “I caught them using my tail.”

“You did what?”

“I used my tail. See?” Shifting over a bit, Fox pointed to his red tail, still dipped in the water. “The fish get so hungry when the lake freezes over, that they’ll bite anything—whoops, there’s another one!”

With a flourish the Fox jerked his tail out of the water, dragging the still wriggling fish with it. Triumphantly, he unhooked the fish from the tip of his tail and held it up for the astonished Bear to see. “It’s so easy.”

Bear blinked. “I never thought about doing that. I always just swept them up with my paw.”

“Oh, no, no, no, that’s much too inefficient, too tiring. Using your tail is the best way to catch fish.”

Bear felt himself starting to drool as he watched Fox gather up his fish. “Can I have a fish, Fox? I love fish, you know.”

Fox straightened up and looked at Bear with surprise. “I would, but I need to bring these home. Why don’t you catch some of your own? With your long fluffy tail, I bet you can catch a lot at the same time.”

“Well, all right.” Bear looked uncertainly down at the ice, testing it with a forepaw. “How do I do it?”

Setting the fish down, Fox waved Bear over. “Come here and I’ll teach you. Don’t worry, the ice is plenty thick enough for you.”

His craving for fresh fish overriding any doubts, Bear ambled out onto the ice, his beautiful tail swishing through the air behind him. Eagerly, he sat down at the edge of the fishing hole as Fox instructed, and dipped his tail all the way down into the water.

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“Okay, so you just sit there for a bit,” Fox said as he gathered up his fish. “The fish might have been startled off when they saw you walking over the ice, but they’re so hungry they’ll come swimming right back in a minute. Have fun!”

Bear grinned. “Thanks Fox! For an animal with such a little tail, you’re actually pretty nice.”

A slow smile spread over Fox’s face as he walked off into the woods with his catch. “Think nothing of it, Bear … I’m just here to help.”

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With the Fox gone, Bear sat by himself, waiting patiently to feel a fish chomping down on his tail. He waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, and waited …

Eventually, Bear waited so long that the sun began to set on the horizon, and still, no fish had bitten his tail. Bear growled furiously at the wasted time, wondering how Fox had been able to catch all that fish with that measly tail of his, and Bear couldn’t get a single nibble. Deciding that he had enough and that he was going to go out and find Fox and demand to know what his secret was, Bear stood up--

--and was instantly pulled back down.

Startled, Bear tried to stand up again, but a heavy weight on his tail pulled him back down onto his rump. Twisting around as best he could, Bear craned his head back to look to see what had caught his beautiful tail … and saw that the ice hole had completely frozen over, trapping his tail in the ice!

Outraged and panicked, Bear struggled to stand, his claws skittering over the ice, big bear feet sliding everywhere. He pulled and strained, wailing in frustration, until …


The pressure gone, Bear tripped and fell forwards, somersaulting wildly across the ice, sliding to a stop at the edge of the lake. Dazed, he slowly pushed himself upright, and turned around to see what had happened. To his horror, he saw that his beautiful tail had been ripped off his backside, and was still trapped in the ice. All he had now was a little stubby thing poking out of his fur.

And that’s why the Bear has a stubby tail … and why he’s so grumpy.

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