Tuesday, 11 January 2022


Hiking in BC, both grizzly and black bear sightings are common. Nearly half the world's population, some 25,000 Grizzly Bears, roam the Canadian wilderness — of those, 14,000 or more call British Columbia home. 

These highly intelligent omnivores spend their days lumbering along our coastlines, mountains and forests.

Both bear families descend from a common ancestor, Ursavus, a bear-dog the size of a raccoon who lived more than 20 million years ago. Seems an implausible lineage given the size of their very large descendants. 

An average Grizzly weighs in around 800 lbs (363 kg), but a recent find in Alaska tops the charts at 1600 lbs (726 kg). 

This mighty beast stood 12' 6' high at the shoulder, 14' to the top of his head and is one of the largest grizzlies ever recorded — a na̱ndzi.

Adult bears tend to live solo except during mating season. Those looking for love congregate from May to July in the hopes of finding a mate. Through adaptation to shifting seasons, the females' reproductive system delays the implantation of fertilized eggs — blastocysts —until November or December to ensure her healthy pups arrive during hibernation. If food resources were slim that year, the newly formed embryo will not catch or attach itself to her uterine wall and she'll try again next year. 

Females reach mating maturity at 4-5 years of age. They give birth to a single or up to four cubs (though usually just two) in January or February. The newborn cubs are cute little nuggets — tiny, hairless, and helpless — weighing in at 2-3 kilograms or 4-8 pounds. They feast on their mother’s nutrient-dense milk for the first two months of life. The cubs stay with their mamma for 18 months or more. Once fully grown, they can run 56 km an hour, are good at climbing trees and swimming and live 20-25 years in the wild. 

A Grizzly bear encounter inspires a humbling appreciation of just how remarkable these massive beasts are. Knowing their level of intelligence, keen memory and that they have a bite force of over 8,000,000 pascals — enough to crush a bowling ball — inspires awe and caution in equal measure. 

They have an indescribable presence. It is likely because of this that these majestic bears show up often in the superb carvings and work of First Nations artists. I have had close encounters with many bears growing up in the Pacific Northwest, meeting them up close and personal in the South Chilcotins and along our many shorelines. 

First Nation Lore and Language

In the Kwak'wala language of the Kwakiutl First Nations of the Pacific Northwest — or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala — a Grizzly bear is known as na̱n

The ornamental carved Grizzly bear headdress was worn by the comic Dluwalakha Grizzly Bear Dancers, Once more from Heaven, in the Grizzly Bear Dance or Gaga̱lalał, is known as na̱ng̱a̱mł

The Dluwalakha dancers were given supernatural treasures or dloogwi which they passed down from generation to generation. 

In the Hamat'sa Grizzly bear dance, Nanes Bakbakwalanooksiwae, no mask was worn. Instead, the dancers painted their faces red and wore a costume of bearskin or t̓ła̱ntsa̱m and long wooden claws attached to their hands. You can imagine how impressive that sight is lit by the warm flickering flames of firelight during a Winter Dance ceremony.

Smoke of the World / Speaking of the Ancestors — Na̱wiła

Kwaguʼł Winter Dancers — Qagyuhl
Should you encounter a black bear and wish to greet them in Kwak'wala, you would call them t̕ła'yi. Kwakiutl First Nations, Smoke of the World, count Grizzly Bears as an ancestor — along with Seagull, Sun and Thunderbird. 

To tell stories of the ancestors is na̱wiła. Each of these ancestors took off their masks to become human and founded the many groups that are now bound together by language and culture as Kwakwaka’wakw. 

The four First Nations who collectively make up the Kwakiutl are the Kwakiutl (Kwágu7lh), K’umk’utis/Komkiutis, Kwixa/Kweeha (Komoyoi) and Walas Kwakiutl (Lakwilala) First Nations. 

There is likely blood of the Lawit’sis in there, too, as they inhabited the village site at Tsax̱is/T'sakis, Fort Rupert before the Kwakiutl made it a permanent home. 

Not all Kwakwaka'wakw dance the Gaga̱lalał, but their ancestors likely attended feasts where the great bear was celebrated. To speak or tell stories of the ancestors is na̱wiła — and Grizzly bear as an ancestor is na̱n helus.

Visiting British Columbia's Great Bears

If you are interested in viewing British Columbia's Great Bears, do check out Indigenous Tourism BC's wonderfully informative website and the culturally-rich wildlife experiences on offer. You will discover travel ideas and resources to plan your next soul-powered adventure. To learn more about British Columbia's Great Bears and the continuing legacy of First Nation stewardship, visit: 

Indigenous Tourism BC: https://www.indigenousbc.com

Great Bear Lodge has been offering tours to view the majestic animals of the Pacific Northwest. They keep both the guests and the animals' comfort and protection in mind. I highly recommend their hospitality and expertise. To see their offerings, visit: www.greatbeartours.com

Image: Group of Winter Dancers--Qagyuhl; Curtis, Edward S., 1868-1952, https://lccn.loc.gov/2003652753. 

Note: The Qagyuhl in the title of this photograph refers to the First Nation group, not the dancers themselves. I think our dear Edward was trying to spell Kwaguʼł and came as close as he was able. In Kwak'wala, the language of the Kwaguʼł or Kwakwakaʼwakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, the Head Winter Dancer is called t̕seḵa̱me' — and to call someone a really good dancer, you would use ya̱'winux̱w

Charmingly, when Edward S. Curtis was visiting Tsaxis/T'sakis, he was challenged to a wrestling competition with a Giant Pacific Octopus, Enteroctopus dofleini. George Hunt (1854-1933) had issued the challenge and laughed himself senseless when Edward got himself completely wrapped up in tentacles and was unable to move. Edward was soon untangled and went on to take many more photos of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. Things did not go as well for the octopus or ta̱ḵ̕wa. It was later served for dinner or dzaḵwax̱stala, as it seemed calamari was destined for that night's menu.