The Circle of the Bear – Part One: The Mound

The field I was standing in was scrubby and overgrown, at the top of a broad, low mound. It was at the corner of a pine plantation, and I had convinced the owner to let

The field I was standing in was scrubby and overgrown, at the top of a broad, low mound. It was at the corner of a pine plantation, and I had convinced the owner to let me dig in the area before he harvested. I had tracked down a rumored settlement of the Eyeish band to a hill above the floodplain where a large creek still met a small river. Standing on the mound, I was sure I had it.

The problem was, you don’t dig alone. Excited archaeologists tend to talk. Rumors of what we had found so far had run fast through the grapevine and found their way to the last person I wanted to know—Jimmy Wales.

Jimmy Wales was Eyeish, though you’d never guess he had any Native blood, just looking at him. He was blue-eyed, blond, with a face weather by years in the sun. He didn’t look much different than any other potbellied old redneck from East Texas. But his license said “Oklahoma,” and he had the beat-up old care they call a “rezmobile” to prove it.

Old Jimmy stood down the slope from me and looked all around the slice of mound we’d carved out. His eye took in the ceramics, fragile wooden artifacts, and thing that primarily concerned us both—the deceased.

The deceased was a bear.

It was the strangest thing I’d found in all my professional forays. The creature’s skeleton was laid out like some chief or warrior, a spear on one side and an effigy pot on the other. Eyeish effigy pots are finely wrought, stirring portrayals of the head or body of any number of beasts or men. This pot portrayed the roaring head of a bear, a horned rattlesnake wrapped around it.

But that was not the most striking. That honor went to a copper headdress, clearly shaped for the inhuman skull of the bear. Copper alone was unique for this culture and time period, even aside from its intended use. This was a burial site that would rewrite history.

Jimmy looked out over the swampy floodplain and sighed.

“Well,” he said at last, his thick accent multiplying the syllables, “Shit.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. This stuff’s too good, huh? You’re gonna publish.”

“Yeah. I reckon I am.”

There was no point in denying it. Jimmy had worked with me before. One of my papers contrasted classic Siberian shamanism with Native religious practices in the Caddo and surrounding peoples. We’d had some good conversations, and beers to go with them, and told stories of the times we’d gotten into trouble. He had more tales, but mine were better.

“Universities are pretty serious about Native claims these days. Well, more than they used to be. I can get them to stop.”

“Then it’ll be an unsigned paper, passed around the academic networks as a pdf. It wouldn’t be my first.”

He looked at me, shook his head, and sighed again. That was one of the stories I had told. It had involved drug rings and death threats and some bad voodoo, and a whole lot of other things scarier than an old Indian with a lawsuit.

“Alright. I suppose you’re in too deep, anyways. You might as well know.”

“Know what?”

He spit in the grass, looked at the skeletal bear, and then back out at the creek bottom.

“You remember I said there were things I wouldn’t tell you? Ceremonies?”

“Yeah.”

“You come to one. See what it’s like. Learn some things. Then you decide if you still want to publish that paper.”

I didn’t think about it long. I would have jumped at the chance, regardless of the circumstances. But this, on top of a copper crown in East Texas and a bear buried in the style of human warrior? You bet I was in. I told him so.

“It’ll be dangerous,” the old man said. “Part of why we don’t talk about it.”

“Dangerous how?”

“Have to kill a bear.”

“Do I get a gun, or have to use my teeth?”

It was the kind of joke that had gotten a laugh out of him other days. Not today.

“You’re swimmin’ in deep waters, Jon boy. And there’s stuff that’ll eat you. Take it serious.”

I didn’t then. To my cost.

A few weeks passed between Jimmy Wales showing up at my dig site and the time he arranged for the ceremony. That was fine by me. In the mean time, I dug up another chunk of mound that provided a wealth remains and artifacts, though nothing half as sensational as the crowned bear. I didn’t mention that when he came to get me in his rusted old pickup, and he didn’t ask on the five hour journey up to Oklahoma.

I say Oklahoma. We came up that way, but left the main roads headed east, and you can only go so far into the mountains that way and still be in the Sooner State. It was green enough to be Arkansas, but there was no real way to know. Cell signal was shot, and the roads stopped being paved or marked with signs a long ways before we stopped driving.

It was all dirt and gravel, half washed out, up and down steep slopes and along narrow valleys beside fast-running creeks for as long as it took to make me sick. Then it was a locked gate and a cattle guard, and we drove over tall grass through a pasture that didn’t have a single cow. It was freshly trampled and bent over into a path before us, and there was no evidence of frequent use. We were out in the boonies, well and truly.

At last we came to a row of vehicles at the foot of a big mountain. Two trucks and a van. The truck nearest us had a worn Sons of Confederate Veterans sticker beside “Native Pride.” That was worn, too, and just said “Nati Pri.” Close enough.

We got out, and Jimmy led me through a little grove of oaks to where a big tent was pitched beneath a much older, larger oak. The structure was enormous, with wooden poles almost as big as my arm, lashed together with cords and walled and roofed with enormous tarps. The flap was open, and you could see furniture inside.

A young man with a soft, round face and rippling, tattooed arms stood outside the tent. He shook hands respectfully with Old Jimmy, and then with me.

“Joseph, this is Jonathan Sparks, the professor I told you about. Jon boy, this is Joseph Hayes. He’s my sister’s grandson. Has a band. You ever get back to Tulsa, maybe I’ll buy you a beer, you can hear him play.”

“Sounds like a good time,” I said. Joseph had a firm handshake and an honest face. I was uneasy, but I couldn’t blame him for that. It was being out here, with strangers. That feeling was about to get a whole lot worse.

“Alright, Jonathan. I’m too old for this. Time for me to head out.”

“Fair enough,” I said. He’d told me on the way up that he’d be leaving. “Are we good?”

“We’re good. You gotta do what you gotta do. Joseph, go get the big man. Time for Jonathan to join the family.”

With that, my only friend in the camp left, and the big man turned up. The big man, the one who owned the pickup with SCV and Native Pride on the back, the one who knew the mysteries of the crowned bear, was Ned Bowles.

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