Native American Animal Symbols
The Bear and the Native American

Native American Animal Symbols - The Bear

Brown, Spirit, and Grizzly

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Brown Bear as a Native American Animal Symbol...

...has always been part of Native American history, showing both gentleness and ferocity. The bear was a magnificent animal that commanded respect. The mother would fight to protect her cubs, as any mother would do while also being gentle and quiet. And, she was just as good a hunter as the Indians.

Many tribes have varying stories about the brown bear as a Symbol, and there are universal meanings throughout. This bear stands for courage, strength, protection and life. If an individual were given a name that included "bear", he knew that the tribe thought he was brave. Most of the time it would signify having had a tough time in life, such as if parents had died and the individual took care of their family, or they got into a fight with a bear and lived. When an Indian receives a gift like this, they get to tell the story again.

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

In the light of day, the spirit bear is a special species of black bear that is mostly found in the British Columbia area of Canada, specifically the islands of Prince Rupert or Princess Royal.

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

Native Americans regarded the grizzly with awe and respect. Early hunting tribes noticed that these bears had very complex behaviors and many native tribes thought the bear a "god". American Indians saw that these grizzlies were large and very strong animals that could move quickly in spite of their size. It's no wonder that these magnificent animals would become the center of many legends. Often found in Indian paintings and engraved in jewelry, the grizzly was a sign of strength.

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.

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