The Moment is Now: Decolonizing the Conversation Around Grizzly Bears

But we forgot what being human is. We’re so divided, not only in this world, but this country, that we’ve forgotten our place is a species on this planet. We see ourselves above it. We put money, the economic gain above everything else. But really to relearn how to be human is to be able to respect the bear.

– Jason baldes, eastern shoshone tribal member

There are incontrovertible truths regarding the relationship between tribal nations and the dominant Euro-American society that we must accept when discussing the history, culture, and humanity of those nations. Chief among them is this: We don’t listen. If we do listen we don’t act as though we listen. And when we act, it is often clear that we didn’t hear. “We” in this case is federal and state governments predominantly, but also conservation organizations, activists, academics, scientists, religious institutions, individuals. “We” the colonizers. It is uncomfortable to read and doubly so to be, but that’s what we are.

Examples of our metaphorical deafness are myriad. Effectively without end, really. But this is a blog about bears and people who care about them. The question at hand is: what can we learn about the relationship between bears and humans from people who were here long before us?

The first thing to learn is that it matters. Bears and our relationship with them matter. For First Nations peoples in Canada and Native Americans in the United States it matters a great deal. 

The Great Bear Initiative is an alliance of nine British Columbia First Nations dedicated to protecting the Great Bear Rainforest. According to Google Maps, the Great Bear Rainforest is a “colossal temperate rainforest with bears.” Colossal by way of its 12,000 square miles and named for the bears that have ranged there for millenia. Protecting bears is one among many objectives of the initiative. The short documentary “Bears Forever” is indicative that it is of singular importance to the original inhabitants of that land.

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The bullet points versions of why, not surprisingly, are rooted in the language and viewpoint of those in the wider society who might be susceptible to the message:

“Why protect bears?”

“Trophy hunting is inconsistent with First Nations traditional teachings and values…”

“Hunting grizzly bears hurts ecotourism industries in our communities…”

“Bears play an incredibly important role in coastal ecosystems…”

Watch the film and something much deeper emerges.

“Our teachings that have been handed down say that our first ancestors came from the upper world in the beginning of time in the form of the grizzly bear.”

“They used the grizzly bear as a way to move between two worlds.”

“They’re us. We’re them. This is ours, we share it. We’ve been living so close to them for years and years… we feel like they’re family.”

These are words of reverence. Not of an ‘other’ to be managed but of an equal that is worthy of our utmost respect.

Our understanding of the very concept of “respect” is illustrative of the differences between how native peoples view bears versus the viewpoint of wider society. 

Writing for Ecology & Society in 2009, Douglas A. Clark and D. Scott Slocombe explain how First Nations in the Yukon and Northwest Territories “respect” bears in a way that is significantly different from their non-indigenous friends and neighbors. Both groups indicate a great deal of “respect” for grizzly bears. Both groups express a level of desire to protect bears and live in harmony with them. From there the worldviews diverge.

The respect afforded bears by dominant society is largely based on an understanding of what bears are capable of when encountering humans. That is: their strength and power, especially in regards to their ability to threaten a person’s life. Further, governments and even many conservation organizations “respect” bears as part of a wider ecosystem. To be managed for the benefit of the environment. 

First nations peoples indicate a respect for bears as equals; valuable as individual beings. Clark and Slocombe are clear in this: “Implicit in the holism of Aboriginal cosmologies is the positioning of people on an equal level with all other forms of creation, including bears.” They go on to quote anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell, “Man and animals, instead of being separate categories of being, are deeply rooted in a world of nature that is unified.” 

Jason Baldes is a member of the Eastern Shoshone nation and a resident of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. In a wide-ranging discussion of wildlife in general and bears specifically, impossible to do justice in this short post, he shared his perspective on the role of grizzly bears closer to home in the lower-48. Jason’s father was a scientist and wildlife manager working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and his grandparents were rooted deeply in the traditional life of their tribe. This has provided him a position to view the topic from both perspectives. 

“When we talk about the policies of Wyoming or Idaho and Montana, it’s very misguided. Because you know, settlers and pioneers moved in here, they eliminated the buffalo and tribes were put on reservations and they acquired vast amounts of land for agriculture and livestock, and all the great American dream. And that has been to the detriment of our wildlife species, in particular our predators. So wolves and bears are a threat to cattle and therefore they should be shot on sight. And that philosophy, that worldview that was brought here perpetuates in our management today. So when the tribes set protections for our wolves and bears it was from the morals and values of our grandmas and grandpas, and that is that you respect these animals. They have a place here. We have learned a great deal from them about how to be a good human being and those things should be reflected in our management. We didn’t eat those animals, they are a fellow hunter. They are kin, they’re our relative. And respecting them as such is what we’ve always done. We’ve lived with wolves and bears for millennia as a people and today to prioritize the way our lands are used for cattle and for economic gain is contrary to the relationship and the connection that we should have, not only with those predators but with the land that we live on, and the water that we drink.”

Jason is one voice. One perspective. He doesn’t speak for all tribal nations or even everyone in his nation. But we hear the same call from others, whether they’re in British Columbia or further north. Seen through the prism of our present circumstances, there has never been a better time to start listening.