"How We Used to Hunt Polar Bear" - Inuit artists: Imoona Karpik & Sowdluq Nakasook

© Ray Anderson Inuit Art Collection, University of Northern British Columbia

8/23/2013 1:52:25 PM

The Flying Bear Spirit, Part Two

By Moki Kokoris

Although some traditions vary from village to village, the Yupik people of northeastern Siberia perform a special rite called inegnintitku immediately after killing a bear to prevent offending the bear’s soul. The polar bear’s head is turned toward the east, and the hunter kneels and addresses the animal’s head by saying, ”You go back home now. The road to my house is very bad, so please visit us some time later.” Then a special polar bear ceremony of thanks and celebration begins with the hunter giving the bear a “drink” of fresh water as well as pieces of reindeer meat, bread, and sometimes candies, during which he says, “These are your provisions to eat on the way to the Upper World.” The hunter then asks the bear for forgiveness, reminding the bear’s spirit that its body had been taken not for fun or sport but for food and clothing.

Only after these rites are completed is bear’s meat distributed among the residents of the settlement so that all may benefit from its sustenance. On the second day, the men from the village bring the bear’s skull to the ancestral sacrifice mound and cover it with stones to protect it from dogs. A shaman or elder casts spells and expresses his gratitude to the spirit of the distinguished guest for not harming the hunter who so capably and respectfully ensured his community’s prosperity. Other members of the celebration group play tambourines or drums and sing to please the animal’s soul while enacting scenes from the hunt.

On Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula, present day government protection, management and hunting rules notwithstanding, polar bear hunting has historically been strictly regulated. Because the Chukchi people believe that they and polar bears share and interchange spirits, no bear is allowed to be killed without direct permission from the community’s eldest hunter. Many rituals are performed prior to a hunt. After a bear has finally been taken, no other bears may be hunted by the village members for a prolonged period of time, and the bear’s spirit continues to be honored for many months.

Custom dictates that whenever a bear is killed on the ice, it should fall with its head toward the mainland so that its spirit can return to shore, and thereby bring further good luck to the hunters. By government regulation, only an indigenous person is allowed to own a polar bear hide. Even though the pelt may be sold, it is more often used as a tablecloth during the traditional thanks-giving ceremonies.

Another indication that the Chukchi are intimately familiar with the polar bear and its behavior is the fact that they have nearly two dozen name variations for it, among them: nenenel’yn for a nursing female, turk’liketyl’yn for a recently matured three-year old bear, ymel’yn for a bear that is moving over land, al’ek’atyl’yn for a bear moving on the water, nygsek for an adult male with very white fangs, and mervel’yn for a hungry, thin, exhausted bear. The extraordinarily descriptive terms unequivocally prove that indigenous people are by necessity precision observers. These generations-old accounts can be invaluable to scientists studying different polar bear populations because they offer prevalent and up-to-date localized data.

Fundamentally, it is the ancient traditional beliefs and interactions that are essential components to the sacred bond that exists between indigenous people and not only the polar bear but the natural world as an interconnected whole. By striking and maintaining this critical balance between the physical and spiritual they ensure their collective survival.

As many conservationists and environmentalists strive to protect the polar bear from harm and demise, it is important to remember that the bear does not exist in isolation. We must equally protect the ancestral pact the indigenous people have with it. Aware as we are about the polar bear’s vulnerability to exploitation, throughout history traditional rituals and religious observances inherently limited the quantity of bears taken and curbed human influence on their populations, guaranteeing sustainable harmony. While some government oversight and regulation is necessary to prevent overhunting, prohibiting all harvesting – even by native hunters – inevitably compromises ecological thinking and leads to loss of cultural identity, all of which could hasten the catastrophic consequences on the polar bear, especially in the current economic climate.

Through their sacred traditional practices, the native peoples have always been the species’ guardians. Ultimately, just as the polar bear has been the gyp and the spiritual guardian and guide to many of the Arctic’s indigenous cultures, it is their indigenous wisdom that should now help guide our decisions, policies and path forward as it relates to protecting the big white bear and its “flying bear” spirit.

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