Grizzly Bear: Ursus arctos horribilis

Bears in general held a special place in American Indian cultures, because bears 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.

Bears are "half-human," some Indians used to say; "humans without fire," said others. The Blackfeet word o-kits-iks stands for both the human hand and a bear's paw. The Ojibwa often referred to bears as anijinabe, the same word they used to describe themselves.

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

Tribes who lived in the mountains, where there were no 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 man with a grizzly for a guardian spirit was considered likely to have a short temper.

image map with same links as found elsewhere on this page

image map by Joseph Mussulman

What powers did this bear have over Indians and the men of the Expedition?

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