Sunday, May 10, 2015

Native American Indian Folklore & Symbols -- The Bear

Native American Indian folklore might refer to bears as a brother, uncle, and even grandmother, including stories of bears becoming humans and vice versa. But there is a healthy respect for bears -- especially by tribes that live among bears. This is because bears of all sorts figure prominently in the mythology of nearly every Native American tribe. Bears were an important part of Native American Indian culture as various symbols of strength, hard work, and even great love. 

Many tribes considered the "Great Spirit" to often take on the form of a bear. Some tribes even called the bear "mother." White Bears were products of a recessive gene found in Black Bears and are now know as Kermode Bears. They were not polar bears. These white bears were known as spirit bears. 

Native American Indians believed they were gifts of the "Great Spirit" to remind people that they once lived in a land of ice and snow. The bear was seen as a hunter that knew the land.  Quick, big, and powerful, they were considered smart and brave while outfighting cougars and wolves. A Native American with the word bear in his name was considered to be an excellent provider as well as a powerful warrior. Bears were not seen as gods. But instead as mythical, magical, and even celestial gifts of God.

To Pueblo tribes, bears are considered one of the six directional guardians associated with the West and the color blue. The Zuni Indians ascribe healing powers to bears and carve stone bear fetishes to protect them and bring them luck. 

In most Native American cultures, one can't help but see that bears are considered a medicine being with impressive magical powers. In many tribes, bears play a major role in many religious ceremonies as symbols of strength and wisdom. A bear's claw was one of the talismans frequently included in medicine bundles, and warriors in some tribes wore necklaces of bear claws to bring them power and strength.

Sioux-style Bear Claw Necklace

OK, before someone writes to ask how anyone can, on the one hand, admire the bear, while on the other hand wear a talisman made of a part of a bear, remember that a talisman is believed to contain certain magical or sacramental properties which the wearer believes would provide good luck for the possessor or possibly offer protection from evil or harm. While it is OK to wear a bear claw, there were taboos regarding bears in different Native American tribes. One such taboo was to kill mother bears with their cubs.

Among the Innu Indians, it was taboo for children or unmarried women to eat bear meat. Some Apache tribes did not eat bears at all. It was also considered disrespectful and dangerous to insult bears. It was disrespectful to step on their scat or even utter their names outside of certain ritual contexts. 

A few Native American Indian cultures actually had Shaman or a Medicine Man who would dress in bear and other animal skins to take on an animal form. Imagine that!

Besides being seen as good medicine and healers in Native American folklore, bears are often portrayed as an enforcer figure who punishes those doing wrong. Bear personalities in folklore stories range from the wise and noble bear to being morally upright but somewhat stupid and gullible to being aggressive and intimidating. And of course, there are stories about the devoted maternal behavior of mother bears sacrificing themselves for their cubs or who adopted human children.

In most cases in Indian folklore, bears do not bother people who have not done anything wrong. But while some saw the bear as being noble, some tribes also tell stories about monsters resembling man-eating bears. Those tribes told stories of monster bears the size of elephants that would prey on innocent people and must be slain by heroes.

The Cherokee would sometimes portray bears as violent enemies of humans. But even though that is the case, the bear was still an important Clan animal to the Cherokees. 

Yes, bears are one of the most important and widespread Clan animals in Native American Indian cultures. Tribes with Bear Clans include the Creek whose Bear Clan is named Nokosalgi or Nokosvlke, the Chippewa whose Bear Clan and its totem are called Nooke, the Algonquian tribes such as the Mi'kmaq and Menominee, the Huron and Iroquois tribes. 

Bear Clans among the Plains Indians tribes are the Caddo and Osage, the Hopi whose Bear Clan is called Honngyam or Hona-wungwa, the Navajo and Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, and Northwest Coast tribes such as the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nisgaa-Gitksan, and Salishan tribes. 

The bear was an important Clan crest on the Northwest Coast and can often be found carved on totem poles. And though some think of Native American Bear Clans as being only those in the West or Northwest, many Eastern tribes such as the Lenape and Iroquois have a Bear Dance among their tribal dance traditions.

Whether it is with Native American Indians or with Europeans going back thousands of years, bears are part of human culture. And yes, unlike the soaring grandeur of eagles, perhaps no other animal has stirred human fear than bears.

I have seen many bears here in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Of course, the black bears here are a lot smaller than the larger grizzly that I saw in Yellowstone National Park when I visited there. 

And yes, I have come face to face with a black bear in the middle of the night only once while camping years ago. It is not an event that I ever want to repeat. 

The night before, the bear entered our camp and rummaged through our supplies. It couldn't get a plastic tote box open, so it actually swatted it. The box was filled with pancake mix, sugar, powder milk, coffee, powder creamer, and bread. The box landed about 20 feet away, but the bear went after it. And yes, we gave him a wide berth and let it gorge himself, or herself, on the contents of the plastic tub which he finally pried open. 

After he, or she, finally left, my friends and I inspected the plastic tote box. The bear's claws punctured the plastic box. We found the holes bigger than one of my .45 caliber bullets. That's very impressive.

I then understood why Native American folklore says that a bear's claws can disembowel both man and beast with a single swipe of its huge paw. That big bear came back to raid our camp again the following night. 

But this time, instead of finding easy pickings, it found me sleeping next to our food containers armed with a pistol. The bear tossed aside a few boxes and our cooler, then growled only a foot or two above my head.  

It was then that I pulled my pistol and immediately let go of two rounds in the air. The roar of my 1911 pistol sent the bear running the other way. He was the same big cinnamon-brown color black bear from the night before.

The next day, while fishing, we met a family whose children were horrified in the middle of the same night when a bear -- probably the same one -- clawed and ripped its way into a tent where the children were sleeping. Their parents made the mistake of keeping food in the children's tent. Their parents heard the children screaming and started yelling and banging pots and pans to get the bag to leave -- it worked. When we met them, they were packing up their camp and leaving. The children were still visibly shaken. 

While some say bear attacks are rare, and those same people say that warnings about them create "unnecessary fear," I don't see anything excessive about being warned about things people just don't know about -- bear being one of those things.

And frankly, while bear attacks might be the case for someplace where bears are not present, for the places where bears are indeed present, it is smart to keep your distance and take precautions.

Most National Parks have warnings for a reason. For some unknown reason, there are those people out there who see black bears as being not a big deal. 

Many of those people see a 300-pound black bear as being "relatively benign." Of course, those same people have never had their car pried open, their camp raided, their children horrified, or their livestock killed by a black bear who couldn't find other sources of food. 

Yes, limited food sources are the number one contributing factor for black bears to feed on human crops and livestock. 

Crops are raided and eaten by these bears, especially during autumn when natural foods are scarce. Favored crops may include apples, oats, and corns. While Black bears are certainly not grizzlies, please don't think that black bears can't do extensive damage.

Don't think so. Just ask some living in parts of the Northwest where black bears are believed to strip the bark from trees to feed on the cambium. 

While not a widespread problem, livestock depredations by black bears occur mostly in the Spring. Though black bears have the capacity to and certainly have been known to hunt adult cattle and horses, they prefer smaller prey such as sheep, goats, calves, and pigs. 

They normally kill by biting the neck and shoulders, though they may break the neck or back of prey with blows from the paws. It is fairly easy to note the evidence of a bear attack from one of these "relatively benign" black bears. Evidence includes claw marks and is frequently found on larger animals' necks, backs, and shoulders. And yes, black bears have been known to go after pets. Dogs that are most prone to harass a bear are killed by black bears. A bear that is after the family dog has the potential to threaten human lives as well. 

Some bear species, such as the black bear, grizzly, and brown bears, are dangerous to humans, especially in areas where they have become used. We should make no mistake about the fact that all bears are physically powerful and are very capable of fatally attacking a person. We should not rely on the fact that they are shy and are easily frightened away for the most part. We should not depend on the fact that they will avoid humans. 

Even though that may be the case in most instances, where yes, banging a couple of pots and pans together can frighten a bear away, it is always recommended to give all bears a wide berth because they are behaviorally unpredictable.

That sort of healthy respect for bears, black bears, grizzlies, and brown bears, goes deep in Native American Indian cultures. Yes, it is true that Native American animal symbols, like the bear symbol, can vary in meaning from one tribe to another and across the cultural groups of North America. But it's fairly accurate to say that the symbols are portrayals of celestial bodies, natural phenomena, and some sort of spiritual guide because the qualities and traits of the animal are alike.

The bear symbol was important because it represented, as it still does in many tribes today, a protector, courage, physical strength, and even leadership. Bears are strong, agile, and quicker than most think. The meaning of the bear symbol signifies a good omen and conveys authority. 

While I don't know how many tribes still believe this, it is known that some tribes used to believe that it was possible to draw power from a bear by dreaming of one, or by killing one, or by eating parts of one. And yes, believe it or not, some tribes even believed that a warrior was strengthened if he just touched a bear.  All of these actions were said to make a warrior invincible. 

The Abenaki tribe believes that the stars of the Big Dipper are the Great Bear (Kchi-awasos). According to Abenaki mythology, the Great Bear is chased every night by three hunters. Yes indeed, bears seen as mythical, magical, celestial creatures were part of many of the tribes' beliefs. Besides day and night, American Indians used the Great Bear to explain the changing of the seasons. 

The story goes that the bear rises up in the spring, waking up the earth and brings things to life. As summer approaches, the bear runs across the top of the heavens avoiding hunters. Its hot breath flows across the land to make the world hot and sweaty. The Great Bear would lead hunters on great chases and was killed every fall. His blood dripped to earth, which showered the leaves, which of course, changed the colors of trees and the land to mainly red and orange. Through the winter, there is no life in the bear. That is seen the same as how the earth is cold and lifeless during winter. Lucky for us, the Great Bear is reborn every spring.  

And by the way, about those who wore bear claws? 

Many Indian tribes were scared of the grizzly bear. Yet, as amazing as it is, like the buffalo, they hunted grizzly for food and clothing. And yes, the claws were made into necklaces like the Sioux bear necklace pictured below.

Pawnee-style Bear Claw Necklace
These necklaces were considered to contain spiritual power. Wearing a bear claw necklace would mean protection and good health to the Indian wearing it. They were never traded, but they could be given as a special gift. And because most Native American Indian cultures believe that the bear has spiritual powers, even today, some believe wearing a bear claw necklace is good medicine, protection, and strength for the warrior wearing it.

Tom Correa


  1. Lovely words. It was nice to see a wide knowledge within this page. Thank you, may the blessings of all that walked before you smooth your path to the land of enlightenment. ah ho

  2. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. This was a very enjoyable read.

  3. If you've ever had teddy bears or other stuffed toys, you know how dusty and dirty they can get if left laying around or placed in the care of a young child. They do get dirty after awhile and unless they are placed in some type of protective casing, they need to be cleaned from time to time. Some are machine washable and many are not. Especially if you are a collector that has spent quite a bit of money on some antique or rare old teddy bears. Remember a Teddy Bear is really no different than an antique piece of upholstery or tapestry. They come in many different fabrics and should be cleaned similarly. Gently with great care. Here are some suggestions on caring for your Teddy Bear. funny teddy bear names

    1. Ummmmm ....this was about REAL BEARS !! wow... I collect bear toys too but just not sure how this is relevant.. not not being mean just ...a tad confused is all said with ♡ and respect ..:)

  4. I found a bear claw necklast and it looks like an artifact .all natural everything diwn to beads that look silver but have hairs ECT ingrained as well chrystals growing within the entire necklaces that I can see with my microscope.found in Maine .please help .anyone who can help me identify what I've found

  5. can anyone help me identify a bareclaw relic necklace I found in Maine?

  6. Is it still a bad idea to eat a bear claw in front of a grizzly or am I just exaggerating?

  7. I've been told that in Native American culture, the bear represents the mother. The mother protects the cubs from predators in the same way a parent protects their children. If this is true, it says a lot about Native American history. And it's also something worth knowing. I guess it's true because there's nothing a mother bear WON'T do for her cubs. But if it's a male bear, it represents the father. And if so, the male bear is the father who gives advice to the son or the daughter about the future and their way of life. So in a way, the bear is a teacher as well as a parent. Fascinating.


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