Bears figure prominently in the mythology of nearly every Native American tribe. In most Native
cultures, Bear is considered a medicine being with impressive magical powers, and plays a major role
in many religious ceremonies. Bears are symbols of strength and wisdom to many
Native Americans, and are often associated with healing and medicine (since bears continue fighting
after being seriously injured, Native Americans often believed they were capable of healing their wounds.)
Among the Pueblo tribes, bears are considered one of the
six directional guardians, associated with the west and the color blue. The Zunis ascribe healing powers
to bears and carve stone bear fetishes to protect them and bring them luck. A bear's claw was one of
the talismans frequently included in medicine bundles, and warriors in some tribes wore necklaces
of bear claws to bring them power and strength.
There were also many taboos regarding bears in different Native American tribes--
the use of hunting seasons (to avoid killing mother bears with their cubs) was the most common,
but in some tribes, it was considered disrespectful and dangerous to insult bears, step on their scat,
or even utter their names outside of certain ritual contexts. Among the Innu, it was taboo for
children or unmarried women to eat bear meat, and some Apache tribes did not eat bears at all.
In folklore, Bear is often portrayed either as a sort of enforcer figure who punishes disrespectful or
improper behavior among other animals and people, or as a humorless "straight man" for weaker but
cleverer trickster characters to play against. Bear personalities in these stories range from wise and
noble, to morally upright but somewhat stupid and gullible, to aggressive and intimidating, but in
most cases, they do not bother people who have not done anything wrong. (There are a few exceptions
to this-- in some tribes, such as the Cherokee, bears are sometimes portrayed as violent enemies of
humans. Some tribes also tell stories about monsters resembling man-eating bears the size of elephants,
which prey on innocent people and must be slain by heroes.) The devoted maternal behavior of female
bears is often noted in folktales, with mother bears sacrificing themselves for their cubs or adopting
Bears are also one of the most important and widespread clan animals in Native American cultures.
Tribes with Bear Clans include the Creek (whose Bear Clan is named Nokosalgi or Nokosvlke,) the
Chippewa (whose Bear Clan and its totem are called Nooke,) Algonquian tribes such as the Mi'kmaq and
Menominee, the Huron and Iroquois tribes, Plains tribes such as the Caddo and Osage,
the Hopi (whose Bear Clan is called Honngyam or Hona-wungwa), the Navajo and Pueblo tribes
of New Mexico, and Northwest Coast tribes such as the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nisgaa-Gitksan, and
Salishan tribes. Bear was an important clan crest on the Northwest Coast and can often be found
carved on totem poles. And many eastern tribes, such as the Caddo, Lenape, and Iroquois,
have a Bear Dance among their tribal dance traditions.