"Daughters of the Northern Lights" - Artist: Gerhard Munthe. Woolen tapestry loosely based on Norse legends and mythology depicting three polar bears approaching three female figures with stylized flame-like blonde hair; stylized waves and mountains in background. Credit: The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

8/21/2013 6:03:27 AM

Observing Indigenous Wisdom by Way of the Flying Bear

By Moki Kokoris

As the earth continues to warm, our attention is inevitably drawn to the profound impacts rising temperatures have on the natural world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Arctic, where the consequences of a changing environment are felt more directly and intensely by the indigenous people and creatures and the ecosystem upon which they rely. The lives of man and beast alike are being permanently altered, and yet they remain intricately intertwined as integral threads in the tapestry of polar subsistence.

Whether they are among the Inuit, Chukchi, Yup’ik, Nenets or Samoyed, all Arctic indigenous peoples have deep traditional and spiritual connections with the animals of the Far North, particularly the polar bear. While the rest of the world may view this charismatic creature solely as the symbol or ambassador of the Arctic, it also plays a significant material and cultural role in the lives of the native people who have coexisted with it for millennia. Since humans and polar bears possess similar qualities and traits, none of these indigenous groups has ever viewed the bear strictly as a resource.

Native hunters across the Arctic still harvest polar bears for clothing and food, but an intimate relationship between the hunter and his prey strongly persists, though with varying nuances depending on the cultural group and region.

Originally descendants of Yenisey taiga fishermen and hunters, the Kets of eastern Siberia regard the polar bear as their ancestor and refer to it as gyp, meaning grandfather. In their culture, the bear is a spiritual guardian.

The Nenets of the Khatanga region in northern Siberia valued the polar bear’s canine teeth particularly and wore them as talismans. The teeth were also traded in villages further south and used by the forest-dwelling people as protection against brown bears. The belief was that “little nephew” would not dare attack a man wearing the tooth of its powerful "big uncle."

The Inuit view themselves as equal partners with all the animals within their territories, but certain species are worshipped in a more spiritual sense because they are believed to possess divine powers. Seals represent intelligence and friendship, whales symbolize wisdom and good luck, and reindeer are associated with rain. But it is the polar bear whose characteristics of power, courage and endurance are most highly valued as is evidenced in Inuit legends, hunting rituals, religious ceremonies and art.

According to some Inuit beliefs, the Great Spirit who controls the caribou often takes the form of a white bear. Only a shaman possesses the power to influence that spirit to send caribou to the Inuit during times of starvation. Inversely, it is the “flying bear” spirit that can take the shaman to the sky or the sea from where he summons help for his people.

Another Inuit legend tells of a polar bear escaping a hunt by climbing into the night sky, and describes the three stars of Orion’s belt as the hunters who continue their pursuit in single file.

In western Alaska, the polar bear is considered to be the father of the Yup’ik people, and the spirit of the polar bear is often invoked as a witness to the taking of oaths. Polar bear claws are hung near entrances of dwellings to ward off evil spirits, and the Yup’ik also believe that the claws have therapeutic qualities and can cure headaches.

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