Peoples and Grizzly Bears
Grizzly bears are an important aspect of life in the Yukon, and there are probably no people to whom they have played a more significant role than the Indigenous population of the territory. Historically, grizzly bears have featured prominently in the cultural and social underpinnings of Yukon First Nations people for a span of time that predates our modern era, and stretches out to the very beginnings of recorded time. It is fair to say that Yukon Indigenous people have a special relationship to the world of the grizzly bear, one that can be examined by discussing their cultural, historical and economic interrelationships in some detail.
The attitude of Yukon First Nations people to grizzly bears can be fairly summed up through the use of the concept of “respect”. It is necessary to clarify at this point that among the dominant culture and Indigenous people, the term has come to take on significantly differing connotations and definitions.
By way of explanation and to cite an important example, the Yukon Environment Department and the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board in 2019 published their Conservation Plan for Grizzly Bears In Yukon, containing guidelines, background and recommendations for the species. The word “respect”, as either a noun or a verb, is employed no less than 28 times in the course of the 52-page report. Its ubiquitous use does not dispel the fact that the concept is subject to some varying interpretations, especially when viewed from an Indigenous standpoint. (Yukon Department of Environment: 2019)
Another telling phrase employed in the report relates to the term “harvest” when describing the Yukon’s grizzly bear population. In agricultural usage, we might employ the term to perhaps denote the cultivation of a field of potatoes or cabbages. But when the report talks about harvest numbers in reference to grizzly bears, it is employing a euphemism for hunting and killing them, pure, simple and unadorned. “Harvest” is used in the report no less than 85 times, and the phrase “sustainable harvest”, meaning the level at which grizzlies can be killed without doing significant damage to the total population of bears, is used 13 times.
The difference between the Indigenous view of grizzlies and that of the dominant culture is that wildlife management experts consider grizzlies as components and groupings of aggregate populations. Indigenous people, however, consider grizzly bears as “non-human persons”. The concept is not as ludicrous as it might sound. In 2018, New Zealand enshrined groundbreaking legislation, which declared that all animals are sentient beings, capable of a range of emotions totally congruent with those of humans.
British Columbia-based environmental scientist Gosia Bryja emphasizes that the management-based attitude toward grizzly bears denies any possibility of attributing anything but a mechanistic approach to the lives of grizzly bears:
“We are still privileged to have iconic grizzly bears roaming about our forests and mountains, but this is a privilege we should not take for granted. Fortunately, the choice is ours to make. We do not need to hold on to the outdated model of wildlife ‘management’ that views socio-ecological systems as statistically predictable and animals as emotionless entities that can be managed like crops. We now know that neither of these is true. Let this knowledge guide our actions.” (Bryja:2016)
A 2009 study that was partly based in the Yukon and employed interviews with Champagne-Aishihik First Nation members conveyed the same sort of approach to the question of respect for grizzly bears:
“Aboriginal people express concerns that common research techniques such as capturing and radio-collaring bears and removing DNA, teeth or tissue samples are deeply disrespectful and may even make handled bears more dangerous, despite protestations from scientists otherwise and arguments that they are doing such things in the interests of bears.” (Clark, Slocombe: 2009)
A good insight into the traditional relationship between Yukon Indigenous people and grizzly bears can be gained from the folklore tale of The Girl Who Married A Bear, as documented by anthropologist Catherine McClellan, and based on Tagish Tlingit legends.
The story involves a chief’s daughter who goes out picking berries with her friends, and becomes upset and angry when she accidentally steps into a pile of bear excrement. To the consternation of her friends, she roundly denounces the bear, calling him out for his stupidity and sloppiness. Eventually she falls behind her friends as she attempts to clean herself up. A young man wearing a bearskin robe, who persuades her to follow him to his camp as darkness approaches, follows her. He turns out to actually be a bear, and the girl stays with him as winter and hibernation approaches. With the approach of spring she finds that she has given birth to two bear children.
The girl’s brothers become aware of what has happened to her, and go hunting for her and the bear, who is aware of humans and their doings. He cautions the girl that her brothers are coming to kill him, but instead of defending himself against them, he prepares to become a sacrifice to them. He instructs the girl in the rituals and procedures that must be performed in carrying out his death, and is eventually killed by the brothers. Nonetheless, later the brothers are killed by the young bear-children, who leave the camp, never to return. ( Loucks: 1985)
This tale has traditionally been employed to teach some profound truths about grizzly bears. One lesson relates to their awareness of the world of humans, while another relates to time-honoured taboos concerning the ways that we should communicate to and about bears. Indeed, one of the cardinal rules of Yukon Indigenous people is never to talk about bears, at least not directly, (Clark, Slocombe: 2009). Traditionally, among the Southern Tutchone for example, the grizzly bear is referred to as Attsia sho, or “Big Grandpa”. The mistake made by the girl was to not only acknowledge the presence of a bear, but to speak of it in disparaging terms. This could well bring about disastrous consequences, for as one anthropologist notes, “…of all the hunted animals, the bear was the only one capable of turning the tables and hunting man.” (Brightman: 1993)
It should also be noted that among Yukon Indigenous people, although black bear meat was traditionally commonly eaten, grizzly bear meat was rarely consumed. It can be conjectured that such a practice would almost be akin to cannibalism, given the spiritual significance of the bear’s commonality with the world of humans, and would no more be tolerated than would the consumption of a species that has coexisted with humanity for much of its existence, such as dog or even wolf.
In relating to grizzly bears, there is a traditional Indigenous awareness not only that there is a continuum on the scale of consciousness and awareness between humans and bears, but also that bears are ultimately deserving of reciprocity in our dealings with them. One example of this reciprocity was the exchange taking place in former years on the Tatshenshini River during a salmon run, as outlined by a Champagne-Aishihik participant in a focus group for the previously-cited study, wherein “…everybody left the river by the afternoon ‘cause the morning was the people time and the afternoon and evening was the bear’s turn to fish… “ (Clark, Slocombe: 2009)
We see this reciprocity being practiced in the tale of The Girl Who Married A Bear, when the bear leaves instructions on how he is to be handled after his death. For there is an intrinsic relationship between the hunter and the hunted. The bear is aware of the role that he plays in the life and death cycle between itself and the Indigenous people for whom he plays an important role, as a source of food and clothing, but also in affirming the unity and interdependence of the animal, human and spiritual world. As such, he is constantly cognizant of the sacrificial role that is necessary to maintain that eternal balance, in what one might dare to conjecture is almost a proto-Christian schemata.
In summary, there is much that can be learned from traditional Indigenous ways of knowledge, as our society gradually comes to realize that there is a common sphere of coexistence that can be attained between ourselves and grizzly bears, as we share and respect the nobility that is the paramount distinctive feature of both of our species.
Yukon Department of Environment. (2019). A Conservation Plan for Grizzly Bears In Yukon. Whitehorse YT: Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board.
Bryja, G. (2016). Navigating the Anthropocene: embracing compassion and empathy for the grizzly bears in an age of uncertainty and unpredictability.
Clark, D. & Slocombe, D.S. (2009). Respect for Grizzly Bears: an Aboriginal Approach for Co-Existence and Resilience. Ecology and Society 14 (1): 42.
Loucks, G. (1985). The Girl and the Bear Facts: A Cross-Cultural Comparison. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies V, 2: 218-239.
Brightman, R. A. (1993). Grateful Prey: Rock-Cree human-animal relationships. University of California Press, Berkely, California, USA.