Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

The Legend of Sleeping Bear

May 25, 2010, 11:21 am

One of our favorite bits of national park lore is the Legend of Sleeping Bear, which inspired the naming of Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

American Indians have lived in the area of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for thousands of years, hunting, fishing, and making maple syrup; enjoying the natural beauty and abundance of the forests, rivers and lakes. They traveled along the shores of Lake Michigan, both on foot and in canoes, using natural landmarks to find their way.

One tall bluff along the lakeshore had a tree-covered sand dune perched on top it, which, from a distance, resembled a furry bear looking out across the water. The Ottawa and Chippewa Indians held black bears in high regard, sometimes respectfully calling them “Grandmother.” They named the bluff Sleeping Bear and the nearby islands Manitou, which meant Spirit. A story about the Sleeping Bear Dune was passed down by word of mouth. Grandparents told the story to youngsters, who later told it to their children. American Indians have used story-telling to teach important lessons and skills, and to preserve their history from before the time of books and paper.

Here is the Legend of Sleeping Bear:

Long ago, along the Wisconsin shoreline, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The bears swam for many hours, but eventually the cubs tired and lagged behind. Mother bear reached the shore and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for her cubs. Too tired to continue, the cubs drowned within sight of the shore. The Great Spirit Manitou created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the faithful mother bear.

This legend is told in the beautifully-illustrated children’s book The Legend of Sleeping Bear by Kathy-jo Wargin. It is the Official Children's Book of Michigan, and is a must-read for family planning a trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes.