Following Their Footsteps: What We Can Learn from Indigenous Peoples' Kinship with Bears

Search the internet for news on grizzly bears and you're likely to find plenty of articles detailing human-bear encounters that end in tragic fatalities. These gruesome headlines represent what are, in reality, incredibly rare incidents. According to data from Yellowstone National Park, which hosts the second largest grizzly population in the Lower 48, only eight people have been killed by bears in 150 years of the park's operation. That's an average of one fatality every 18.75 years. Just last year, however, wildlife officials euthanized 11 grizzlies in and around the park following encounters with people.

The way we talk and write about wildlife matters. When we oversimplify the narrative and sensationalize bears as vicious killers, we neglect the many benefits of having them around. This disservice to our grizzly neighbors also discounts the practiced wisdom of communities that have long lived alongside bears.

As Indigenous peoples in the Mountain West have been expressing since their first interactions with Europeans, a healthy fear of bears is appropriate, but it is not the whole story. Their teachings about kinship reveal that we miss out on a whole host of positive interactions when we adopt antagonistic attitudes toward wildlife.

Many who live in grizzly country already understand that, beyond fear, interactions with bears can also involve feelings of awe, curiosity, humility and joy. These powerful experiences will only happen as long as healthy grizzly populations remain. Vital Ground is working to repair two centuries of destructive history between people and bears in the West by protecting grizzly habitat and by helping communities prevent conflicts, including through tribal partnerships.

The Ancient Path

Before modern borders crisscrossed the raging rivers and serene forests of western North America, this landscape was segmented by a different set of boundaries.

In 2021, a study confirmed what the Nuxalk, Haízaqv, Xai'xais, Gitga'at, and Wuikinuxv First Nations of present-day Canada had long held true about their historic relationship with bears. Mapping archaeological evidence and brown bear genetic data together, researchers found that three distinct subpopulations of brown bears aligned with the territories of three Indigenous groups separated by language. Native communities and bears congregated around shared areas of resource abundance and evolved unique genetic and linguistic identities as a result.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) informs us that this wasn't just a case of cohabitation. Indigenous peoples were, and continue to be, reliant on bears as teachers. Quite literally.

"Elders pass on stories about people watching and learning from bears as they eat many of the same things," explained Jennifer Walkus, a council member of the Wuikinuxv First Nation, in a recent article in The Conversation co-written with Lauren H. Henson of the University of Victoria. "Bears and people both learn from their ancestors what to eat and where."

From delicious thimbleberry and salmonberry to medicinal clover and dandelion, closely watching bears helped Indigenous communities learn which plants were good to eat and where they grew readily. As parents of each species passed these lessons on, humans and bears learned how to thrive alongside one another and did so for many generations, thanks to stewardship practices that ensured there was enough for everyone.

Walking Together as Stewards

Each summer, following the paths of the mighty rivers back home to peaceful streams, salmon return to the inland waters of the Great Bear Rainforest along the northern Pacific Coast. Two of the largest mammals in the forest wade into the current. With either claws or nets at the ready, they begin their harvest.

Both bears and Indigenous peoples rely heavily on the annual salmon migration for sustenance and pay this abundance forward. Whether through salmon celebrations that offer reminders about respect and reciprocity or by transporting salmon remains into the forest to nourish the soil, they give back to promote the well-being of the entire ecological community.

Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council (a land management group that consists of six First Nations), explains that being attentive to bears is also part of their stewardship work.

"The grizzly bear is an icon in our cultural heritage. It's always been important to work in harmony with them," he said in an interview with CBC.

Protecting grizzlies not only safeguards their ability to inspire wonder and offer spiritual guidance, it lets them continue their work as an ecological force. With claws that aerate the soil, scat that spreads seeds, and a salmon feast that leads to the redistribution of marine nutrients, robust bear populations contribute to the flourishing of the broader ecosystem. The give back as much as they receive-another lesson bears have to teach us.

Treading Carefully

Part of loving grizzlies is prioritizing safety on our shared landscapes. Carrying bear spray and properly storing attractants minimizes the chance of human-bear interactions turning hostile, allowing us to experience the awe-inspiring power of bears without putting anyone in danger.

Taking these steps also honors the generosity of bears as caretakers of the land who have a right to be here just as much as we do. We can allow alarming headlines to provoke anxiety and create distance between us and our fellow mammals or, following the leadership of Indigenous communities, we can choose to walk a different kind of path, one where we learn from ancient wisdom, modern science, and from bears themselves about how to respect the necessary boundaries that keep us all safe.

Vital Ground is deeply grateful for the conservation community that helps advance our mission to protect grizzly habitat for generations to come. Beyond sharing their immense knowledge, tribal nations are active members of this community-our Kennedy Creek Project, for example, was completed in 2020 in collaboration with the Blackfeet Nation, returning 74 acres of rich habitat just outside Glacier National Park to tribal stewardship.

From our Indigenous partners who continue to care for their ancestral territories to individual conservation supporters far and wide, we give thanks for all who walk with us on the path of stewardship, one where pawprints and footprints fall side by side.


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