The title and numerous passages throughout the novel allude to a bear, or bears, which the Cherokee feel themselves pushing against during their hardships on the trail. This imagery comes from an ancient bear story in Cherokee mythology. In this myth, bears cause a tribe of Cherokee, the Ani-Tsa-gu-hi, to turn to greed and individualism, thinking only for themselves and satisfying their hunger. Maritole is the first to mention the bear, and states: “It was as if a bear sat on my chest all the way to camp. I felt air would not come into my lungs. It was a heavy grief I couldn’t push away” (15). She also states that “the bear we pushed would not move away. Each day I felt his ragged fur” (80).
The true meaning of the bear does not come clear until page 176, the myth of the bear is summarized. The bear symbolizes both greed and a desire to protect oneself over the unity of the Cherokee people. The horrific hardships the characters face on the Trail of Tears change their priorities to self over the whole, displaying the lack of unification the Cherokee knew they would face in Indian territory, or present day Oklahoma. In the end, Maritole specifically faces the bear, saying, “The bear had once been a person. But he was not conscious of the consciousness he was given. His darkness was greed and self-centeredness. It was part of myself, too. It was in all of us. It was part of being of the human being. Why else did we march? No one was free of the bear” (183). Glancy uses this imagery specifically to draw her audience into recognizing the break-up or segmentation that resulted from the Trail of Tears.
Although the Cherokee people depended on all types of agriculture and natural goods for their livelihood, corn is mentioned throughout the text as being one of the most important crops for the Cherokee, at least those from North Carolina. Corn is particularly important to the Cherokee because of one of their ancient myths. Maritole narrates about this myth on page 4. She states: “Didn’t the soldiers know we were the land? The cornstalks were our grandmothers. In our story of corn, a woman named Selu had been murdered by her sons. Where her blood fell, corn grew” (4). Maritole’s father extends their need for corn by saying, “Corn! That’s what we eat. We can’t live without corn. It’s our bodies. Our lives” (79).
Glancy's incorporation of the Cherokee connection with corn into her novel displays the loss of land and agriculture that the Cherokee experienced with their removal, but also the loss of their culture and beliefs. In the book Seven Cherokee Myths, author G. Keith Parker writes about the myth of Selu and the corn stating that Selu “knows she is to be the martyr and still plays the role of mother in seeking to give ongoing nourishment even after she is to be gone” (Parker 75). He continues by stating that “in the Cherokee context, the positive role of women, and especially the mother, is captured in this story. [. . .] It emphasizes not only the deep Cherokee connection to Selu as symbolic mother figure but also to corn as their basic source of nourishment for many centuries” (Parker 76). Thus, the importance of corn is woven throughout Pushing the Bear to symbolize what the Cherokee have left behind, both their matriarchal society and the crops they depended on for their livelihood. Each of these elements was crucial to the Cherokee way of living, therefore alerting the reader to recognize the extent of what was lost during Indian Removal.