The Nez Perce tribe have a story called, “The Man that Married a Bear". It shows a bear pretending to be a human girl and trying to get the interest of a man. In many ways, if you look at the story you can see that the bear is curious by nature, especially when there are strange intruders. The bear never does hurt the man and the man is just as curious. Together they find a common ground and become one, as husband and wife. The brown bear does die in the story by the man’s own tribe, and the man disappears soon after.
Spirit Bear as a Native American Animal Symbol
According to one of many Native American stories, the spirit bear was made white by the creator to remind its people of the past period of hardship known as the ice age. Another tribal legends states that the white spirit bear stands for harmony and peace.
It is thought that a spirit bear exists in about ten percent of all black bear births due to a recessive characteristic in their genes. The spirit bear really is not all white. In truth, it is more off-white or creamy in color.
The number of sightings dwindled for years due to a lower spirit bear population. However, thanks to some protection from the Canadian government, the Kermode bear is slowly climbing in numbers.
In recognition of the Native American’s culture in the role of the spirit bear as a significant Native American Animal Symbol, the government of British Columbia named the spirit bear as the province’s representative animal. Even with this bestowed title, the spirit bear will forever remain a prominent symbol in local British Columbia Indian mythology.
Grizzly Bear as a Native American Animal Symbol
The grizzly bear stood for many meanings and rituals among the American Indians. The Indian Bear Dance was considered the Ghost Dance, bringing back the ghosts of their ancestors while helping the grizzly bear fall asleep for its winter hibernation. Ancestors join in the dance in their spirit form while the bears are lulled to sleep. After the dance is complete, another Dance is celebrated, called the Circle of Life Dance. This dance will be held around a burning log fire until the fire burns out. The Native Indians will dance, sing and chant for warmth and light from the sun during the time the grizzly sleeps.
Although the Indians feared the grizzly bear, they hunted the large bears for food, clothing, and even jewelry. Claws were made into necklaces and often worn hanging from their waistband. Because of the Indians' beliefs that the bear had some spiritual power, wearing a bear claw necklace would mean protection and good health to wearer.
Today Indians still wear necklaces of grizzly bear claws but only a few are preserved from the 1800s in museums. One famous bear claw necklace can be viewed at the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Since bear claws were objects that Indians treasured, very few were obtained outside of the Indian tribes.
FreeSpirit Gallery has a page discussing the importance of the bear within Native American culture and as a Native American Animal Symbol, especially within the cultures of the Northwest Coast peoples.