Darkness Walker

In the beginning, he had a name. In that name was an understanding of who he was. 

Many winters ago, the bears appeared as Paukŭnawaw in their way of speaking. The name meant “darkness walker” or “one who goes about in the dark.”[1] It was a fitting expression for the bear, bestowed upon him by Narragansett people at a time when animals and humans spoke the same language. But given what has happened to this Algonquin language, we may never know with certainty the origins of this name. We do know it became present in their language long before sails ever appeared on the horizon. We also know the name itself derives from paukŭnnum, “the dark.”[2] That alone reveals a name pregnant with meaning.

            But the meaning behind the name, even the name itself, eventually succumbed to the crushing impacts of American Exceptionalism. Not only did Colonialists see themselves as a people of divine destiny, but once their numbers and might surpassed that of Native Americans, the way forward seemed all the more achievable. Eventually, Native America would no longer be the obstacle it once was to the progress of Eden-making. That manifested itself by way of a forceful hand. Each colony in its own way imposed an ultimatum upon Algonquian peoples. Assimilate or perish was the warning. What was to become of many tribes would depend on heeding this warning. Over time, debt, disease and desperation left many with no real option. So they conceded towards assimilation, even if it was only a superficial concession, knowing that life in the Christian towns was a slower and less direct kind of perishing. Even powerful tribes like the Narragansett, who had allied themselves with the colonies, were not immune to oppression and detribalization. Within two centuries of Roger Williams’ A Key into the Language of America, which translated Narragansett into English, fluent speakers of that way of speaking existed no more.[3] A few decades later, the Narragansett expression of the Algonquin language was declared extinct.

Perhaps that was the definitive moment when Paukŭnawaw himself returned to the dark from whence he came never again to be seen or spoken of in the same way nor called upon with the same intentions or meaning. For many, Paukŭnawaw has become an overlooked apparition enchained to ancient shadows in the woods, even while black bears still exist in remote areas there. The only evidence of his story are in old English transcriptions and a few surviving myths.

But there are a few who believe it is still possible to hear evocations from Paukŭnawaw haunting those nor’eastern woods on windless days when silence turns prophetic. There among the sugar maples and black oaks, we are told, one can hear the four-beat rhythmic hum of his name—pau kŭn naw waw—called upon by souls of yester-age, still reverberating ever so faintly from rock ledge to ravine bottom. If pronouncements from our distant past still emanate from these woods, as some say, then the Narragansett culture is still very much alive and so, too, is Paukŭnawaw. Every being that once lived among us is still present among us, having fulfilled its journey from life into death and then into our memory. And their names follow the same journey.

Like all of life’s souls, every name ever spoken in time has its own life; it has its own origin and destination, in the same way that the sounds of a rushing river has its own life. All sounds come from somewhere and are on the way to somewhere, in the same way that a river flows from its source and carries the presence of its headwaters in every bend and eddy as it cuts downward. Each sound made becomes a raindrop upon the headwaters. It eventually dissipates into a sea of sound, but never does it disappear entirely.

So it is with sounds, so too is it with names. A name proclaimed long ago in the forest becomes a droplet in the turbulent rush of noise over rocks, to be swept up in that obscure, chaotic current on down into a throng of sounds in the deep. Sometimes, when we listen more with the heart and less with the ears, names invoked at a time far agone momentarily become conspicuous and find their way back to us on the surge of an unexpected flood of illumination. There in that illumination is where we will hear Paukŭnawaw speaking to us; there, too, we will hear a myriad of other souls from that golden age. Our task is not only to listen for them, but to listen to them, for they have lessons to offer us, and their lessons shine light upon our path towards renewal.

In recent years, an effort at renewal has become evident in the Narragansett language reclamation project. And I often wonder what source of inspiration lives in the undercurrents of this effort. Is it driven by a need to restore a fragmented Narragansett identify? Is there something else, something more profoundly rich, driving it? Is language reclamation symptomatic of a deeper yearning to commemorate and reunite with voices forgotten? Or is it inspired by a desire to restore wisdom lessons once taught for the sake of renewed guidance? These questions are for the revivalists to answer.

As for our journey here, we need not justify why this project complements our own attempt to revive the bear’s revelatory power. Restoring the Narragansett dialect is, if not explicitly then implicitly, a revival of Paukŭnawaw himself. By recovering his name and its context of meaning, we just might bring him out of the shadows again. After all, at the height of his fluorescence, Paukŭnawaw spoke Algonquian.

Of course, there are challenges in restoring the Narragansett dialect. Even the pioneering efforts of Frank Waabu O’Brien and Julianne Jennings are confronted with knowledge gaps.[4] Their inspiring efforts, which are largely founded upon seventeenth century English documents and comparative analyses of extant Algonquian dialects, are faced with hermeneutical hurdles. They are left with stories, static fragments and orphaned translations of what once was a living language. Much of what connects these fragments, in some cases, are irrecoverable in their authenticity. Some nuances specific to the pre-colonial Narragansett culture are seemingly lost in translation. No matter how similar the Quinnipiac, Pequot and Massachusett dialects are to the Narragansett’s there are some expressions and meanings that are not necessarily transferable. Surely, commonalities are decipherable, but there are also nuances uniquely Narragansett. Roger Williams himself realized the limitations of his work, noting that it was a “little key” that could “open the box, where lies a bunch of keyes” to the Narragansett and other New England tribes. But, he apparently did not foresee how oppression and forced assimilation would amount to closing the box and, once closed, to the difficulty of reopening it.

Given all these issues, we might hastily conclude an original meaning of paukŭnawaw to be out of our reach. But if we think less concretely, an original meaning may be closer than we think. Rather than extract what we think the name means through reasoned analyses or trivial interpretations, it may be possible for original meaning to come forth on its own. How we prepare for that revealing will require us to think in an entirely different way.

At first glance, we might assume the most efficient, reasonable way is to deconstruct the translation of Paukŭnawaw. If we want to understand what the Narragansett meant by “one who goes about in the dark,” we might assume the best way is to examine the most glaring word in that translation. But we face problems in our method if we overlook the “dark” within its proper context. Without context, we are left with a literal interpretation. At best, such an interpretation can be romantic, trivial and misleading because it ignores the depth and complexity of an oral culture. At worst, it can perpetuate the oppressions and violence against the richness and validity of Native American lifeways. So, before we continue, let us expose some of the insufficiencies of a literal interpretation in order to reveal an entirely different way of thinking about meaning.

Naturally, it is a short, easy step towards assuming the Narragansett word for dark, paukŭnnum, is synonymous with the word for night, nokánnawi. Even Roger Williams took this step when he listed paukŭnnum in his chapter “Of the Time of the Day.”[5] If we associate darkness with night without thinking, we are lead to presume the bear is associated with night. But we must keep in mind that, in every Eastern Algonquian dialect, there are several variations of night, including two Narragansett expressions that refer to “dark night,” póppakunnetch and aucháugotch. While the former may be phonetically related to paukŭnnum, the later is not. And while there were surely other expressions that married dark and night, we need not know them to understand how “dark” and “night” are different. From our own lived experiences, we know that night and dark are not mutually inclusive. To be sure, we can experience darkness when it is not night and we often observe nights that are not completely dark, especially when the moon and stars are bright. So, in a literal sense, we must not assume “dark” is synonymous with “night” nor is it an expression specific to a certain time of day. Even at midday, there can be dark clouds and dark woods, which suggests that “darkness” is not so much related to color or time of day, but to the mood and moment of an experience.

 At the same time, we must also avoid an empirical treatment of Paukŭnawaw’s name. If we were to apply biological analysis, we might assume that “going about in the dark” means he was nocturnal. But research refutes this notion. The American black bear (Ursus americanus)—the only ursine inhabiting pre-colonial New England—is widely considered a crepuscular being, meaning he is most active at dusk and dawn. Certainly there is evidence of periodic opportunism at night, but this behavior is more common during the bear’s metabolic stage of hyperphagia or, in some instances, during advanced cases of human-food conditioning.

Leaving no stone unturned, that might lead us to consider the possibility that bears were nocturnal at one point. And it is a reasonable consideration. Some research shows diurnal or crepuscular mammals adopting nocturnal behavior as an avoidance response to daytime human activities that disturb their habitat and security as well as disrupt their daytime feeding patterns. But, if that research is applied here, then we must assume the black bear felt greater habitat and feeding pressures four hundred years ago than he does today. That seems unlikely. Given the current status of bears in the northeast and the mounting impacts of human development and the extent of that development, we should expect the opposite to be the case. If anything, black bears should be more nocturnal today. So while it may be a reasonable consideration to pursue, let us keep in mind that the consideration itself assumes that “darkness walker” meant nocturnal.

If he was not nocturnal during that time, then we might conclude that the Narragansett people perceived him and named him wrongly. Before we make that conclusion, let us not forget the Narragansett’s familiarity with bears. Before European arrival, American Indians possessed centuries of experience with the black bear. Even today, they have a wealth of knowledge that surpasses strictly observational, research-based knowledge and, of course, possessed far more knowledge than the European settlers, many of which had never seen a bear before reaching this continent. Also, the nature of their encounters with the bear was quite different long ago. Not only did Narragansett people hunt bears, but historical population estimates indicate that there were far more bears in New England then. So rather than assume we know more on this matter, which itself is a presumption of ignorance and naivety imposed upon pre-Columbian Indians, we might give credit to the Narragansett people’s wisdom. From countless shared experiences, they already knew the bear was more active during twilight hours. They expected to encounter him at any time of day. They already knew when he denned, when he copulated, and when and where cubs were born. They also knew what foods he preferred during different seasons and where those foods were located, which aided them in knowing when and where to avoid him and when and where to find him. They also knew how to talk with him—that is, they knew how to encounter him when necessary and how to minimize aggressive provocations.

Still, it is possible to think a being most active in the waking and waning light was also active throughout the night. That also seems a reasonable consideration. And yet, this consideration discounts the more frequent encounters with the bear during daylight. It suggests the more frequent mode of encountering did not factor into their name for him and that the Narragansett gave preference to his nighttime doings. And, if that were the case, then it raises questions: If Paukŭnawaw does refer to “night walker,” then why not grant this name to a more befitting creature? Wouldn’t this name be more appropriate for a cougar or raccoon or some other being closely identified with eveningtime prowling?

Finally, we must also consider the fact that the Narragansett had more than one name for the bear, which leads us to ask if Paukŭnawaw was only used when the bear was seen at night. One name in particular, mosq, appears to be etymologically related to neighboring Algonquian tribes' names for this animal. As O’Brien suggested, mosq appears to be a common term for the black bear. In Williams’ key, he uses mosq and paukŭnawaw interchangeably twice, both in reference to the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.[6]

This then leads us to consider the possibility that paukŭnawaw was a specific reference to the bear constellations while mosq was a specific reference to the bear. This seemingly makes sense, since “going about in the dark” coincides with an image of the bear rotating about through the starry heavens at night when darkness is more pronounced. There are two problems with this argument. First, the Narragansett people would see many constellations in the sky. As Williams noted, “by occasion of their frequent lying in the fields and woods, they much observe the Starres (sic), and their children can give Names to many of them, and observe their motions, and they have the same words for their rising, courses, and setting.”[7] So why attribute paukŭnawaw only to the bear constellations? Wouldn’t other images in the heavens, like the hunter, also be “darkness walkers?” Second, there is clear evidence that paukŭnawaw was used in other aspects of Narragansett life not specific to the night sky. For instance, the phrase, paukŭnnawaw ntio, which Williams translated as “I hunt a bear,” does not convey the hunter pursuing a constellation.[8] Here, we come to realize that paukŭnawaw did not refer specifically to a constellation, but to the bear’s image within it.

And there’s something more telling about this phrase to consider. When we reflect on the phrase paukŭnnawaw ntio, “I hunt a bear,” one essential clue into the original meaning of paukŭnawaw appears. In Algonquian cultures, hunting was not merely a means to acquire food. It was a ritual act. Hunting bear was a sacred event marked through ritual, signified through altered behaviors and sanctified through symbolic rites. The action of the hunter was inseparable from his attitude. Naturally, respect and reverence for the bear was an essential element to attitude. Success of the hunt depended on it. So, the fact that paukŭnnawaw was used in reference to hunting bears indicates that paukŭnnawaw was a reverential expression for the bear, not a common one. Based on these considerations, we can surmise that “going about in the dark” or “darkness walker” meant something more than any literal interpretation might convey.

A literal interpretation of “darkness walker” is superficial because it overlooks depth and complexity. The Narragansett never intended his name to be superficial. Originally, the culture was an oral one and the names bestowed were not meant to be explained away by empirical research or literal interpretations because, in both cases, they overlook the depth and complexity of how the unconscious and irrational factor into naming.

In oral cultures, naming is an act of acknowledgement. Speaking, we know, is a kind of listening. Language announces what’s “there.” It is a modality through which we embrace and take notice of the world around us. So a name given and spoken points to something that exists, something that appears before us. In that way, once a being is named, that being enters into language and, therefore, comes to life in the mind. The manner in which that being is named, and the name itself, reveals something about how this being appeared to the one who named it. It also reveals something about how this being is to be perceived by others. In other words, the name itself conveys a “truth” about the being and the manner in which it exists. The name is not only an acknowledgement of the being named, it is an instruction from that being on how to engage it or enter into a relationship with it.

For this reason, naming is also a gesture of thanks-giving. Insofar as something appears before us and warrants being named, we might say that the appearance itself is a kind of gift, and the manner in which we acknowledge that gift, by giving it a name, is itself a way of showing gratitude. Here, the encounters through which the bear appeared before the Narragansett as a “darkness walker,” was acknowledged through their bestowing upon him the name paukŭnawaw. That bestowing was essentially a gesture of thanks-giving—made present in their way of speaking—for his entry into their world and for his vital role to their lifeway.

Finally, naming is an act of consecration. As Bernard Second reminds us, naming itself is rooted in an entire religious lifeway that engages all that is vital and relates to everything that matters.[9] The act of naming contributes to sharpening religious sensitivities and to cultivating spiritual perceptions that nurture a different way of seeing, sensing and listening.[10] Thus, it is a sacred endeavor, an act that acknowledges a being’s presence, gives-thanks to that being’s vital role, and consecrates the illuminating powers it possesses. For this reason, names are sacred and, therefore, not to be tampered with by others.

And yet, they were and continue to be tampered with by others. Most of this comes from glancings and trivial graspings. The meaning of paukŭnawaw, based on the English translation “darkness walker,” can appear easy to understand at first glance, but usually that leads one towards a misunderstanding. This is not the fault of the naming process in an oral culture. Rather, it is the fault of one’s inability to understand the language and culture from whence the name was borne. As Vine Deloria so piercingly noted, a primary reason for misunderstanding meaning in names can be found in the fact that the non-Native worldview is entirely different from the Native worldview.[11] Therefore, if we want to grasp paukŭnawaw’s meaning, we must avoid looking solely at the English translation. If we are unwilling to do so, then unsurprisingly we will likely grasp its meaning based on an English or Christian paradigm.

For instance, in predominantly Christian-based European cultures, darkness is often perceived as the opposite of brightness. It is a dualistic concept, one extreme in a pair of opposites. What it stands for religiously and philosophically contrasts with what it stands against. We are already familiar with darkness’s association with evil. In Christianity, evil is associated with a diabolical deity, with Satan or the Devil, and the Devil is often thought of as the “Prince of Darkness.” At the same time, periods of turmoil, suffering, ill-doing and faithlessness are often considered to be “dark periods.” These associations are still prevalent today in societies with undercurrents of Christian paradigms. We also find darkness used to represent philosophical ideas of emptiness, ignorance, unruliness, and meaninglessness.

These ideas, accompanied with the Christian ideas, are what permeated the colonist’s mindset. Darkness was, after all, the antithesis of light; and light, we already know, was symbolic of peace and goodness, purity and innocence, knowledge and truth. Together the Christian and philosophical ideas of darkness were projected upon wilderness in the New World. Wilderness became the antipode of the Puritan vision of a bright, Godly city on the hill. Wild creatures were perceived as violent, brutish, corrupted and sinister. Underneath it all, the idea of darkness was tuned to a negative key and any being identified with that idea was cast as a villain.

If in that early period paukŭnnum referred to a being of evil and unrest, then surely Roger Williams, a Calvinistic Baptist minister and Separatist Puritan, would have noticed, especially since his interpretations were fraught with 17th century Christian assumptions. But Williams never explicitly identified paukŭnnum with what he perceived to be Narragansett words for evil and nothingness. Insofar as evil is concerned, the Narragansett expression machit (or matta) was interpreted by Williams to mean “evil or naught”, which would then support the idea that mattand (or mattanit) meant evil or bad spirit.[12] He also translated wachè machaùg to mean “about nothing” and wuche mateâg to mean “out of nothing.” But at no point in his work did Williams make connections between these expressions and the bear’s name.[13] More importantly, we also find in his work what seems to be evidence that the Narragansett infused matta and machaùg into other expressions to emphasize negation.[14] For instance, good weather, wunnuh-quat was distinct from bad weather, matta-quat. That said, if Williams correctly translated pre-Columbian Narragansett expressions, then the words used for evil and bad as well as those used to imply some negation, are not present in paukŭnnum. Nor are they present in paukŭnnawaw, suggesting that “going about in the dark” did not mean “going about in evil” nor did it mean “losing sight of the sacred way.”

To prepare the way for original meaning, we must avoid the Christian paradigm, which tends to perceive “darkness walker” in a negative or sinister manner.[15] We must instead be willing to shed these taken-for-granted assumptions that prevent us from seeing paukŭnnawaw through a different paradigm. Additionally, it is also necessary for us to consider how real experiences essentially allow phenomena like darkness to be employed into a religious idiom in such a way that their use in the naming of things cultivates the spiritual perceptions of a culture and engages all that is vital to that culture’s worldview. In other words, it allows the dark to express something more than darkness; it allows the dark to symbolically express a religious idea relevant to that culture. So, if as pointed out, “darkness walker” does not necessarily refer to nocturnal or sinister behavior, then with what else might we identify its meaning?

In oral cultures, names do not convey facts. They are metaphorical. As metaphor, they tell a story. N. ScottMomaday expressed it eloquently in his memoir, The Names, where he reminds us that stories breath life into names. A name is defined by a story and the meaning behind the name is found in that story and, in turn, is preserved by the storytellers. So paukŭnawaw tells a story of the bear’s life and the bear’s life is reflected in the name. The bear comes from somewhere just as the river comes from somewhere. The bear is journeying onward just as rivers are. Present in the river are its source and mouth; present in the bear are the den world, the lived world, and some other worldly realm—a realm, in this case, that is best conveyed by darkness. As “darkness walker”, paukŭnawaw conveys more than just a story; it conveys a movement. The bear’s entire life journey seems to be one expressed symbolically in terms of “going about in the dark”, with special emphasis on the metaphorical power of darkness.

This is where we now find ourselves: questioning how our lived experiences of darkness as a definite phenomena represents something metaphorical that is applicable to the bear. As we already stated, darkness is encountered as the absence of brightness. Experientially, our eyes see best in the light and, in complete darkness, our eyes cannot see. Darkness itself then, is more likely synonymous with not seeing at the experiential level. When we are in complete darkness, we simply do not know what is out there. So, coinciding with the inability to see is the inability to know. So rather than get too far ahead of ourselves by associating darkness with nothingness or evil or meaningless, we might instead stop short of that and associate it simply with the visible presence of the unknown, of mystery.

But his name conveys so much more than that.

We know that sensuous experience is the fertile ground for the human’s naming of things. This also is evident in oral traditions. In the Narragansett culture, we can surmise that the origin of the bear’s name likely came from illuminating encounters with him—from evanescent moments of union when the bear stood before the human and the human stood before the bear. Then and there, when both pairs of eyes met, the bear appeared before the onlooker as something more, as possessing an imponderable essence that even his black coat could not contain.

Today we often refer to this imponderable essence as “mystique” or “immanence” or “numinous presence.” And we can call upon the poets and transcendentalists or even nature writers of our choosing to help us articulate it. Some of these creative works bring forth truths that “speak” to everyone. A work of art conveys something that never really belonged to the author or poet, nor does it come from them. It comes instead to them, through lived experience and is evoked forth through the artist’s work. Then, once we discover the artist’s work, as Joseph Campbell explained, we witness in their expression some truth borne from the unconscious in all of us; we discover some truth that we have always knew and wanted to say but did not know how to say it.[16]

Aldo Leopold had an especially eloquent way of expressing imponderable essence when he wrote of the “venerable presence” the bear brought to the mountain and of the “secret opinion” that mountains have of wolves. In his words, we find a way to articulate something we have already experienced.

We may also call upon the mystical traditions and their rich heritage of dealing with the “spirit” or “soul” of things.  More so than naturalists, which pointed to notions of the sacred but rarely delved into it, the mystics swam in it and spent lifetimes reflecting upon, discerning, and conveying their experiences of the sacred. Through their works we come to realize that the sacred and imponderable essence are heavy notions not meant to be trivialized or romanticized. That at least is a cautionary lesson. To grasp imponderable essence, we must be careful to avoid trivializing what is not for words alone to convey. We must also be careful to avoid romanticizing an essence that not always appears benign and “good” for there are also terrifying and threatening aspects to incomprehensibility.  Also, we already know that trivializing and romanticizing names and expressions tend to disregard the depth and complexities of Native American cultures.  That can be, at least, a subtle insult, and at worst, a subtle violence that perpetuates oppression and forced assimilation and wreaks havoc upon that culture, whether that culture is dead, threatened or very much alive. So, if there is any lesson we can learn from the mystics, it is that this imponderable essence is not to be interpreted haphazardly.

Of course, we can always resort to a literal or empirical understanding of imponderable essence. But both are problematic. A literal interpretation is essentially rooted in a kind of fundamentalism that need not involve critical thought and, therefore, overlooks the possibility that the real power is in the revelations that words point to, but cannot explain themselves. Nor can we engage in a strictly objective interpretation since a scientific treatment of imponderable essence, which speaks in objective voice, does not speak the language of the unconscious. It deals with the rational, with the pragmatic and explainable. It does not deal with, nor does it want to deal with, the irrational or the unexplainable.[17]  

But whatever we choose to call this imponderable essence or however we choose to articulate it, we cannot doubt those moments in our own lives when, standing before the bear, just as the Narragansett people stood before him, we catch a glimpse of some transcendent or incomprehensible aura radiating outwards from somewhere deep within him into the ravines and over the ridge tops to permeate every thicket and every shadow as it spreads. In that moment, we may say that we can “feel” the bear’s presence. Even when the bear is no where in sight, we somehow “feel” his presence nearby. Indeed, there are revelatory moments when the bear no longer appears as just a bear, but becomes a gathering source, a centering subject, for the mystique of the entire surrounding woods. Surely there are moments when the bear reveals something inexplicable that quietly affirms our emotional sensitivities and challenges our intellectual perceptions. So much so, in fact, that we not only come to admire the bear, but find ourselves drawn towards him and inspired to safeguard him like an earthly brother, perhaps not realizing that it is what draws us towards him that motivates scientists and advocates alike.

This is where we are, standing before the bear, like Narragansett hunters in those days of old, at a loss for words at our witnessing of an inexplicable illumination emanating from the bear. The words escape us and the word “bear” seems unimportant, inessential, sterile. We seek to give the bear a name that encapsulates the “more” emanating from him. But rather than supplant his common name with a name more fitting of his imponderable essence, we instead speak of his “numinous presence” or “mystique”, with the assumption that this mystique is somehow not unique to the bear and, therefore, something that is outside of the bear. But, we might learn a thing or two here from the Ancient Ones.

This revelatory moment is nothing new. As we explored in the previous chapters, it has been going on for thousands of years. And the Narraganset, we can suppose, were no exception.  They too were vey much aware of an imponderable essence in things. They too had experienced a pervasive mystery in the bear and even had an expression for it, which early English translators misinterpreted to mean “gods”. That expression was manitoo, which we now come to understand as meaning “incomprehensible essence or power.” Their awareness of the bear’s mystique was further made evident in an act of acknowledgement or thanksgiving, which was exemplified in the custom of crying out “manitoo!” whenever they witnessed this mystique or, as Williams once wrote, this excellency in things.

That he was manitoo was further confirmed by his quiet disappearance each autumn after the last leaf fell and the winter spirit, papònand, arrived; and then each spring by his dramatic reappearance when the warm winds of the healing spirit, hobbokan, breathed life back into earth. To the various Algonquian peoples of the northeast, the bear underwent a physical death each winter only to be reborn again each spring. In the between of death and rebirth, consistent with most Algonquian beliefs, he went on a spiritual journey into the realm of the ancestors and returned again. And life followed him.

To travel back and forth between worlds was a transcendent power, which was not held within his being but permeated from it. Such power also indicated that the bear had knowledge of the secrets about birth, life, fertility, spirit world, especially since these secrets were and essentially still are mysteries to us. To have knowledge of these secrets was, then, a sign that one possessed some of their power. That power made him more than just a bear. He was a higher mode of being, often called upon as paukŭnnawwanit, or spirit bear. As a darkness walker, he essentially walked in the unknown, he possessed secrets to what was unknown.  He was not so much the one who walked about in the dark. He was more so the one who walked about in mystery. He wasn’t a god, but he did speak for god. And it seems apparent to me that the fluent speakers of the Narragansett language knew this.


[1] Algonquin dialects were originally phonetic, which is to be expected for oral cultures. While the exact spelling of pau-kŭn-aw-waw is unclear, especially since there are several variations of spelling, the variation we will use is based on work done by Frank O’Brien’s   was essentially William’s best attempt at syllabic representation in English how the name must have sounded to him. Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI, 1973, p 156. William’s 1643 book is one of only a few remaining sources that document the Narragansett language with respect to European and American Indian relations.

[2] Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America, 142, 156. See the etymological relationship between the Narragansett word for dark, paukŭnnum, and the word for bear, paukŭnnawaw, which Williams also spells as paukŭnawwaw.

[3] Donna Hightower Langston, The Native American World, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2003, p 239.


[5] Williams, A Key into the Language of America, p 142.

[6] Williams, A Key into the Language of America, p 86, 156.

[7] Williams, A Key into the Language of America, p 155-56.

[8] Williams, A Key into the Language of America, p 227.

[9] Bernard Second, Mescalero Apache Singer, as cited in Clair R. Farrer, “Singing for Life: The Mesacaro Apache Girl’s Ceremony,” Southwestern Indian Ritual Drama (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980), 125.

[10] Lawrence Sullivan, “Understanding Native American Religious Lifeways: An Introduction,” in Native Religions and Cultures of North America: Anthropology of the Sacred, edited by Lawrence Sullivan (New York: Continuum, 2003), 3.

[11] Vine Deloria, The Metaphysics of Modern Existence (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), vii.

[12] Williams, A Key into the Language of America, p 120.

[13] Williams, A Key into the Language of America, p 195.

[14] Williams, A Key into the Language of America, p 121.

[15] If paukŭnnawaw was a negative or sinister expression for the bear, then surely we might see an infusion of machaùg or matta into the name or, at least, some apparent association similar to how the Narragansett described “bad” weather. For instance, based on Williams’ text, the qualifiers for “good” and “bad” in Narragansett are wunnuh and matta, respectively.  At the same time, the words for “good weather” and “bad weather” are wunnuh-quat and matta-quat, respectively. At no point, unless there is a specific instance where the bear appeared or interacted with the Narragansett in a bad way, do we find paukŭnnawaw associated with a negative qualifier.

[16] Joseph Campbel, The Power of Myth, Anchor Books, New York, 1988, p 71.

[17] William Barrett, Irrational Man, Doubleday and Company, New York, 1958.