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Mom and Cub

photo: Mom and cub

Courtesy Craighead Wildlife-Wildlands Institute

Bears in general held a special place in American Indian cultures, because they resemble people in certain ways. They eat the same types of food. They stand on their hind legs, and sometimes walk upright, their forelegs hanging like arms. And of course they are sometimes impossible to deal with. Bears are half human, some Indians say; "humans without fire," say others. The Blackfeet word o-kits-iks stands for both the human hand and a bear's paw. The Ojibwa often refer to bears as anijinabe, the same word they use to describe themselves.

But not all Indians regard all bears in the same way. The Blackfeet call a black bear kyaio, which means bear; the grizzly they call nitakyaio, which means real bear.

Tribes who live in the mountains, where there were few buffalo or elk in the old days, would eat black bears, but not grizzlies. The latter were definitely more powerful and dangerous, and were to be avoided, or at least treated with the greatest respect and deference—spoken of in a low voice.


As Meriwether Lewis observed in his journal for April 13, 1805:

When the Indians are about to go in quest of the white bear, previous to their departure, they paint themselves and perform all those supersticious rights commonly observed when they are about to make war uppon a neighbouring nation.

To get power from a bear by dreaming of one, by killing and eating part of one, or even by touching a bear, made a warrior invincible. Among the Shoshonis, though, the the man with a grizzly for a guardian spirit was considered likely to have a short temper.

Further Reading

David Rockwell, Giving Voice to Bear (Niwot, Colorado: Roberts Rinehart, 1991).