|Mammoth-is this the Great Elk?|
The Naked Bear, however, was a genuine creature in Native American legend. What was it and could the memory or knowledge of some real animal lurk behind the legend?
Now, a naked bear, by which I mean one with its fur shaved off, is a pretty grotesque looking creature. It is even somewhat repellant. But I do not think this is the creature of Indian lore, as its description is not similar. The Naked Bear was said to be in the first place very large, larger than any other bear. It had, on its back, a white hairy spot, but every other part of it was hairless. It was almost impossible to kill - you had to somehow break its backbone to slay it. J. Hackenwelder, writing in 1797, said that the Indians had informed him it was now extinct. What could it have been?
Before we answer that, let us look at another creature of Amerindian lore. Father Charlevoix, a missionary, said in 1744 that the Indians beyond the Missouri believed in a creature they called the Great Elk. The term elk can mean either a moose or a wapiti, depending on whether you are European or American, so it is unclear to which animal Charlevoix is referring. But the creature in fact sounds like no moose or wapiti you are likely to encounter.
The Great Elk was larger than any other elk and other elk would seem like ants in comparison with it. It could make its way through 8-foot drifts of snow. It had, moreover, an arm which came out of its shoulder.
In the first case, the Naked Bear sounds not unlike a mastodon. The Mastodon was, of course, known in prehistoric times. Did it survive in living memory as late as the 17th Century?
Mastodons are supposed to have died out at the latest about 8000 years ago; but Captain S. Cochrane claimed to have seen living mastodons in South America in 1820. J. Rankin in 1827 assures us they were to be found in the Andes at that late date. Some might argue there is no evidence mastodons ever ranged that far south; but the fossil record is limited and we cannot be sure.
The Great Elk, on the other hand, sounds like a Mammoth. When the Mammoth finally became extinct is a matter of some conjecture. And the arm coming out of its shoulder sounds suspiciously like a trunk. Among the Cree, there is a tradition of the katcitowack. This literally means a stiff-legged bear and we cannot be sure exactly what it refers to, but elephantoid legs look stiff when the animal is observed in the distance. We may have here a somewhat distorted description of a mammoth or mastodon.
The Great Moose, another creature of Indian lore, was reported to have a leg sticking out of its shoulder. Again, we suspect that here we have the memory of a trunked beast. Another legend speaks of the Great Pig (quisquis) which was supposed to have attacked a village near Lake Ontario. Knowledge of the beast was preserved among the Tuscarora.
On the whole, it is my suspicion that these beasts represent memories of elephantoid creatures and I harbor the suspicion that they did not die out as early as zoologists suspect. Indeed, they may not have died out at all. Who knows what the icy wastes of the northerly American continent still conceal?