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/ A W A R E N E S S M A G A Z I N E
M A R C H / A P R I L 2 0 1 1
12 / A W A R E N E S S M A G A Z I N E
M A R C H / A P R I L 2 0 1 1
he bear is not only a
signature species of a
still healthy ecosys-
tem, but also a symbol
of protectiveness, giv-
en the fierce and devoted way
a mother defends her cubs. And
as bears increasingly suffer at
the hands of encroaching civili-
zation, it is us who are called to
do the protecting.
It is only recently that we
have forgotten as a culture what
these great animals have always
given us. Our ancestors in both
the "Old" and "New World"
watched the bear go into its den
every winter and emerge every
Spring -- an obvious herald of
rebirth, the return of life to a
hungry land and hungry people.
The people of civilized Eu-
rope harnessed the bear, and the
bear's mythology, to the purpos-
es of the field and plow. In Eng-
land they had the "strawbear."
While in Germany he was called
the Fastnachtshar: a man dressed
up in a strawbear costume who
would be led in early Spring to
each house of the village.
There the man-bear danced
with all of the women. The more
enthusiastically they danced, the
richer the coming crop would
be. Pieces of the straw cos-
tume would be snatched by the
young girls, and placed beneath
their pillows to insure fertility,
or placed in the nests of their
chickens to encourage the lay-
ing of eggs.
The bear has forever repre-
sented as going into the self,
into the Earth in order to be re-
freshed, revitalized and reborn
again. Those who would be stu-
dents of the bear, travel the dis-
comforting trail into their inner
self, only later returning to the
busy surface with the strength
and secrets found within. They
know that out of the icy sleep
of winter comes the regenera-
tion of life.
Entering into an initiation
rite is often like going into hi-
bernation. The initiate is likely
placed in the dark and isolation
of a secluded hut, pit or cave.
They may be further wrapped
up, blindfolded, or otherwise
have their senses and mobility
limited as it would be in the
womb. As with hibernation, the
initiate would seem to die in-
side, giving up one persona and
climbing out in a new, empow-
ered form.
For this reason, the Dakota re-
fer to a boy's rite of passage as "to
make a bear." The coastal Pomo
included both boys and girls in
an initiation where the children
are symbolically "killed" by the
kuksu spirit, with the help of a
costumed grizzly bear.
They were then removed to
the forest for four days and
nights. When they were "reborn"
into the tribe, they brought with
them the secret medicine songs
and plant knowledge learned
in their travels to the middle
For the Ainu of northernmost
Japan, the bear was "The Divine
One Who Rules the Mountains."
To the Cree they are the "Angry
One" and "Chief's Son." The
Sami translation is roughly "Old
Man With Fur Clothes," while
the nearby Finns say "Old Light-
foot" or "Pride of the Woods."
Wherever they are found they
are called "Grandmother" and
"Grandfather" out of respect.
Long after adoption of fire-
arms in both Europe and Ameri-
ca, the indigenous people con-
tinued to hunt bears with their
most primitive weapons, insist-
ing on honoring their quarry
with the personal engagement
and inherent fairness of hand-
to-hand combat.
The totemic energy of the bear
was invoked by both men and
women of one of the select war-
rior classes of "barbaric" Europe.
They got their name "Berserk-
ers" from the bear ("ber") skins
("serks") they wore instead of
the uniforms and armor of their
more civilized antagonists.
Men and women are said to
have fought together, biting at
their shields, and raising such a
tumultuous animal roar that the
earliest Roman invaders fled in
a total panic. They were famous
for their ability to ignore pain,
facing unfair odds with uncom-
promised ferocity.
Among Great Plains tribes of
America they were called "Bear
Dreamers" and "Bear Warriors."
Known for running head long
at their foes, at times with no
more than a bear-jaw knife. They
believed the bear spirit would
protect them, inspiring incred-
ible feats of courage.
The Pueblo name for bear is
often the same as for doctor.
The bear not only ushers in the
spring vegetation, but shows
those who watch close enough
which plants and roots to eat,
and which herbal medicines to
gather for their people. In this
country the bear showed the
people where to find the kinn-
ickinnick (also called Uva Ursi,
or "bearberry"), the yarrow and
osha root. The Lakota emergence
myth describes the people being
tricked into leaving the middle
earth by the Trickster Iktomi.
For leaving the embrace of the
Earth Mother, the people were
subjected to disease, cold and
hunger for the first time -- pos-
sibly an allegory for humanity's
progressive disenfranchisement
from the rest of the living plan-
et. It was the bear, the doctor,
that felt sorry for the wayward
humans and showed them the
plant remedies they would need
to ease their self-inflicted suffer-
Acceptance of the wild bear
is tantamount to acceptance of
the unbridled wilderness, of the
unbroken energies of woman-
hood, of an untamed life. It
means acceptance of the duali-
ties of nature, of the dark and
light, of all sides of the Earth
Mother and whole life.
For many thousands of years
humankind has looked to the
bear as both reality and symbol,
seeing many different things in
both. A few land-based tribes
in Siberia and North America
continue to actively revere the
mighty grizzly as a worthy rival
and invaluable guide.
Conservationists and nature
lovers may continue to see them
as important aspects of a healthy
ecosystem, and some still draw
on them for inspiration, example
and power. But for most people,
the relationship has progressed
to one of estrangement, with all
wildlife becoming distant curios-
ities or televised entertainment.
They are no longer even tro-
phies to "bag," let alone threats
to avoid at all cost.
To them, the bears are veri-
table historical artifacts, barely
breathing throwbacks to a wild-
er and more intensely realized
time. They're magic, and they're
indeed disappearing. But they're
also as real as we are. In another
way, they're always here, stalk-
ing the edges of our dreams and
bear skulls found in ancient caves are among the first evidence of human
ritual and veneration of any kind. Finding and decorating this black bear
skull was author Jesse's way of continuing with that tradition, while
being an activist for bear protection.
Photo by Jesse Wolf hardin
The Clan of The Bear
Finding The Power Within
by Jesse Wolf hardin