Illustration by Stacy Reece
Illustration by Stacy Reece

The Bear Essentials

On Cherokee land, the black bear is an eternal presence—from the lore of thousands of years ago to the way Native people see them today.

On an exceptionally sweltering midsummer day in 1981, a crowd gathers at the edge of downtown Cherokee,  North Carolina. Despite the radiating heat of the asphalt parking lot, this collective of vacationing mill workers and other travel-worn tourists have found an inexpensive goldmine of family amusement. Tuffy Truesdale has just paraded out the undefeated wrestling legend, Victor the Bear, to meet the masses.

Victor the Bear may sound like a well-composed pro wrestling personality, someone akin to Jake “the Snake” Roberts or the Junkyard Dog, but Victor is literally a bear. Though declawed and toothless (though wearing a muzzle for added safety), Victor (and there would be more than one Victor over the course of a couple of decades) is Tuffy Truesdale’s highly trained performing Canadian Black Bear. Standing roughly seven feet tall and weighing in at nearly 600 pounds, Victor is formidable, despite the man-imposed safety precautions.

Tuffy calls to the crowd for a volunteer. Who is brave enough to take on this monster of a mammal? Fathers and sons, eager to avoid having their masculine prowess questioned, drop their eyes, and avoid engaging with Truesdale. And then, just when it looks as if Victor has scared off all competition, from the back edges of the ring of onlookers comes a voice—youthful and spirited. It is a sizeable young man. Over six feet tall and broad shouldered, but a mere teenager all the same.

“I’ll do it!” He calls out. “I’ll take ’im on!”

“Look at this brave young man, folks. What’s your name, son?” Truesdale asks.

The teenager moves forward, parting the crowd. “Robbie.”

Truesdale nods and gestures toward Victor. “He’s all yours, Robbie.”

Robbie approaches Victor from behind, laying one hand on his shoulder. Before the crowd can even steady their cameras, Victor has reached behind him, pulled Robbie over his shoulder and dropped the teen on his back in front of him. Robbie reaches around and quickly realizes that the maneuver has ripped his jeans clear through the seam.

“Well, folks. Looks like it’s a split decision!” Truesdale announces through stifled laughter.

Robbie is slightly embarrassed, but he knows he’s still getting paid, just as he has been paid for every set-up he has assisted Truesdale with up and down the East Coast for years. Robbie’s job is to build the confidence of other men in the audience so that they will fork over the fee to wrestle the most famous bear in America.

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My late grandfather, Principal Chief Osley Bird Saunooke, befriended Tuffy Truesdale when they both toured on the professional wrestling circuit. Robbie, Victor’s fall guy, is my first cousin (Osley’s grandson) and became my grandfather’s de facto stand-in to continue the family tradition of wrestling entertainment.

We who have lived with them as neighbors our entire lives see Smoky Mountain Black Bears a bit differently.... We see ourselves in these animals, and if we pay attention, we have much to learn from them.

That’s the story I heard, anyway. Victor is likely the reason I named my favorite teddy bear Tuffy—the one a salesman gave me as a child at my dad’s Cherokee souvenir shop. The same one my husband fondly calls Scruffy today.

In the wild, bear cubs with their innocent play can charm us, but then we get chilling a reminder that a protective mother is close by. Even when we cannot see them, their distinct huff, coupled with a rustle in mountain laurel, is enough to straighten anyone’s spine. Their presence in the wild allows us a moment, no matter how fear-stricken we may be, to consider just how imperceptible the border between being a human and being an animal really is.

These exhilarating, death-defying (manufactured or not) experiences are likely what many newcomers to Great Smoky Mountains wilderness sites expect when imagining black bear encounters. However, we who have lived with black bears as neighbors our entire lives see Smoky Mountain Black Bears a bit differently, even if we have long mythologized them. We see ourselves in these animals, and if we pay attention, we have much to learn from them.

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Bears share an ancestral home with the Cherokee and, therefore, have been part of our stories since the beginning of time. In the traditional Cherokee belief system, bears are closely related to humans—the two beings even shape-shifting back and forth in some stories. Some say the first bear was a boy who spent so much of his time in the woods that he eventually learned that this environment provided all he needed to prosper.

This child had left a town where the people were starving. He began staying in the forest for ever longer spans of time until thick hair grew all over his body. His parents became worried about him and left the town to look for him and bring him home. When they found him in the woods, he was healthy and happy. They had been struggling merely to survive and could not argue a case that he was better off in the world of people. Eventually, they were so swayed by his claims of a better way of life that they fasted for seven days and then joined him to live as bears in the forest.

Others from the town pursued the family in an attempt to bring them back. Yet, when they saw how richly they were living, they too, remained in the woods after seven days of fasting. This new community called themselves the Yona, the Cherokee word for bear. They told the remaining townspeople that when they were hungry, they could come to the woods and call on them. The Yona would feed the people with flesh from their own bodies, and the Yona’s bodies would, in turn, be renewed. The Yona taught the town’s messengers the songs with which to call them, and these songs were passed on to bear hunters for generations.

They are cunning, dexterous creatures who have always survived here. Thus, I accept I am the intruder, the danger that threatens an unbalance.

The detail of seven days of fasting before transformation is not a nuance that can be edited from the storytelling. It shows our relationship to these creatures—that they are sacred, that their lives embody moderation and patience and purity. That we should seek such qualities in our own lives.

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Today, our bears, through outlets such as social media, are finally being seen in much the same ways Cherokees have always seen them. Not only do we notice how similar we look and move and respond, but we also hope we take on their personality traits. We strive to protect our young like mama bears. Heck, there are even  T-shirts proclaiming such. We admire how bears stop traffic by ambling among onlookers, seemingly without a care in the world. We want to lounge in the sun and eat wild berries or wrestle in spring fields with siblings, just as the bears do. We see the wildness in these bears not as ferocity, but as freedom.

This duality of the Smoky Mountain Black Bears is likely one reason locals and tourists alike are fascinated by interactions with these creatures. We debate the best course of action when unexpectedly happening upon one in the woods, as if we could communicate directly. We devise complicated trash bins outside our homes to thwart their extreme ingenuity.

I always choose an alternative route when I face my four-legged Cherokee cousins. They are cunning, dexterous creatures who have always survived here. Thus, I accept I am the intruder, the danger that threatens an unbalance.

For decades, roadside attractions boasted opportunities for visitors to get up-close glimpses, like those with Victor, or even to feed them. But these bears were not—are not—the ones who might visit our campsites or lounge on patio furniture in the suburbs of Asheville. They were prisoners in a world nowhere abundant enough for them. They were the inverse of their traditional Cherokee story. This is what happens when we try to rush a connection to the natural world. The history of Smoky Mountain Black Bears reminds us of the limitations of the chaotic, structured world we live in and its threat to the graceful peace that lies just beyond the forest’s edge.

When I think of the first Cherokee boy who left to live in the woods, I am struck by his choice to welcome those who chose his way, while respecting those who did not enough to provide for them when they were in need. We can see that balance in black bears.

There is no one right way to live. We all have choices about where we seek peace and how we react when faced with potential threats. It is never our place to decide another’s place, nor to abandon their wellbeing. These are the lessons of the black bear, uncaged and well-fed.

Author Profile

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, an enrolled citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, lives in Qualla, North Carolina, with her husband, Evan, and sons Ross and Charlie. She holds degrees from Yale University and the College of William and Mary. Her debut novel, Even As We Breathe, was released by the University Press of Kentucky in 2020, was a finalist for the Weatherford Award and named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2020. In 2021, it received the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award. Her first novel manuscript, Going to Water, is winner of the Morning Star Award for Creative Writing from the Native American Literature Symposium (2012) and a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (2014). Clapsaddle’s work has appeared in Yes! Magazine, Lit Hub, Smoky Mountain Living Magazine, South Writ Large, Our State Magazine, and The Atlantic. In 2023, in partnership with Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Clapsaddle launched Confluence: An Indigenous Writers’ Workshop Series that seeks to bring indigenous writers to the Qualla Boundary to work with aspiring writers several times throughout the year.

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