Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

December 2, 2000 - Issue 24


The White-Faced Bear

Aleut Legend

Generously contributed by Glenn Welker

 Indigenous People's Literature--


In a tribal village there lived a mighty bear-hunter. For more than three years, he had been constantly successful in killing so many that his friend tried to persuade him to stop hunting.

"If you insist upon hunting one more bear, you will come across a huge bear who might kill you," he said. The hunter ignored his friend's advice and replied, "I will attack every bear I come across."

A few days later the hunter started out and saw a bear with two cubs. He decided this was not the huge bear he had been worried about, so he attacked the mother bear, and after some difficulty killed her. The cubs ran away. After the hunter dragged the bear home for his tribe, his friend continued to urge him to give up the bear hunt, but without success.

On another hunt, after a few days on the trail, the hunter met a stranger who informed him that near his village were a great many bears. "Every year many are killed by our hunters, but always there is an invincible one that has destroyed many of our hunters. Each time he kills a man, the bear tears him apart, examines him carefully as if searching for a special body mark. He is different because his feet and head are white."

They parted, and the hunter started out to look for that hunting ground. On his way, he stopped near a fish creek looking for game, but after a long night none appeared. Next morning he moved onward and came to a high bluff; below it he saw many bears on the tundra. He waited until some separated and looked over the remainder.

Among those, he saw the white-faced bear with white feet and concluded that this must be the ferocious, huge bear he sought. First he would keep an eye on it and wait for a favourable opportunity to kill it.

Now it seems that at one time, the white-faced bear was a human being and a very successful bear-hunter, too successful for his own good. His friends were envious and plotted to kill him. So they went to a medicine-man deep in the woods, and begged him to transform the successful hunter into a beast.

"Shoot a bear, skin it and place the skin under the pillow of your successful hunter," advised the shaman.

After the bear-skin had been prepared, the shaman and his friends quietly went to the man's hut and placed the skin under the man's pillow. They hid themselves to see what would happen when the man went to bed. Upon waking, the man found that he had become a huge bear with a white face and white feet.

"The white marks will show you which bear he is," said the shaman, who disappeared into the woods.

Now our bear-hunter still sat at the edge of the bluff. Toward evening he saw the bears begin to leave, all except the white- faced bear. He was the last to get up, and he shook himself three times and acted as if he was deeply enraged. He moved toward the bluff where the hunter sat perfectly still. But the bear approached, and when he was almost face to face, asked, "What are you doing here?"

"I came out to hunt," he replied.

"Is it not enough that you have killed all my family, and recently killed my wife, and now you want to take my life? If you had injured my children the other day, I would now tear you to pieces. I will, however, spare your life this time on your promise that you will never hunt bears again. All the bears you saw today are my children and of my brother. Should I ever see you hunting bear, I will tear you apart."

Relieved to get away so easily, the hunter headed homeward. His friend met him and inquired about the white-faced bear, and when told what had happened, he urged the hunter to give up hunting. A whole week passed before the hunter set forth again, taking along six hunting friends.

For two days they hunted without luck, then came to the fish creek where they camped overnight. Next morning their leader took the six to the edge of the bluff where they could look down at the tundra and see many bears. But they could not see the white- faced bear and, encouraged, followed their leader toward the animals.

"Look at that strange-looking beast with white paws and a white face!" exclaimed one man.

The hunter-leader caught sight of that special bear and ordered his followers to retreat at once. So they went around another mountain where they saw many bears. They killed seven, one for each man.

Loaded with their spoil they took the homeward trail, but a short distance behind them they heard a commotion. They saw the white faced bear rapidly approaching them. The hunter aimed, but his bowstring broke. The others shot and missed. The white-faced bear spoke up and said, "Why do you shoot at me? I never harm you. Your leader killed my wife and nearly all my family. I warned him that if I found him hunting again, I would tear him apart. And this I shall do now, piece by piece. The rest of you can go. I'll not harm you because you have not harmed me."

Hurriedly, as fast as possible, the six men fled. The white- faced bear turned to the bear-hunter.

"I had you in my power once and I let you go on your promise not to hunt bear again. Now you are back at it and brought more bear- hunters along. This time I will do to you as you have done to mine."

The hunter pleaded to be allowed to live one more night so he could go home. At first the bear refused outright. The white- faced bear then relented, and would even spare his life entirely, if the hunter would tell him who had transformed him from a man into a beast. The hunter agreed to meet him the next night and go to the home of the shaman.

When the bear-hunter reached home and found his six companions talking excitedly about the day's experience, they were surprised to see the hunter-leader alive.

The hunter told them his plan to meet the white-faced bear at the home of the shaman next evening and asked the six to go with him. They refused and tried to dissuade their leader. But the bear- hunter kept his word and met the white-faced bear at the appointed place. A light shone from every hut except that of the shaman.

"This is the place," said the man.

"I will remain here," ordered the bear. "You go inside and tell him there is a man outside wishing to speak with him."

The man advanced and found the skin-door tied, so he reported to the bear that the shaman must be out. The bear ordered him back to cut the door, then walk in. Upon entering, the man heard someone call, "Who dares come into my lodge?"

"It is I," said the bear-hunter.

"What do you wish?"

"There is a man outside who wishes to speak to you."

Had the shaman not been so sleepy, he might have been suspicious. Under the circumstances, his mind was not clear and he fell into the trap.

When the shaman came near the white-faced bear, the old man became frightened and was ready to run away. But the bear blocked his way and said, "For years you have tortured me and made my life a burden in this condition. I demand you give me back my human form immediately, otherwise I shall tear you to pieces."

The shaman promised to do so if the bear would follow him into his hut. Before going in, the bear said to the hunter, "Meet me here when I come out."

All night the shaman worked hard with the bear, and by next morning succeeded in pulling off the bear-skin, and a human form appeared. The shaman asked to keep the white-faced bear's skin, but the man kept the white-face and the white claws, which he cut off at once, giving the rest of the skin to the shaman.

"If you ever again try to transform a man into a beast, I will be back and kill you dead, dead, dead," said the man.

The next day when the bear-man met the bear-hunter he said, "I caution you against ever going out to hunt bear. You may even hear people say I've become a bear again, and they will hunt me. Don't you join them. If I find you in their company, I will kill you dead, dead, dead."

For about four weeks the hunter remained at home with every intention of keeping his promise to the transformed man. But one day two young men from the neighbouring tribal village came to beg his assistance. They asked his help to kill a ferocious bear with a white face and four white feet.

Of course the hunter knew the bear they feared, but decided to disguise himself and go help them. They gathered all of the village warriors and set out to find the white-faced bear. The bear saw them coming. He rose and shook himself three times, giving the impression of great anger, which frightened the warriors. Their chief said, "We are in great danger, so we must stand and fight."

Madly, the white-faced bear jumped, landed in front of the hunter and tore him to pieces. Then it pawed a hole in the ground and covered up the parts. The terrified warriors tried to escape, but the white-faced bear chased them back to their village, tearing them apart, killing all of them, including the old shaman. Finished, the white-faced bear turned back into the woods to rest undisturbed forever.

Print and Color your own White Faced Bear


Polar Bears

Myths and Misconceptions

  • One of the most persistent myths about the polar bear is that a hunting bear will cover its black nose while lying in wait for a seal. The legend is widespread among native hunters. Canadian biologist Ian Stirling has spent several thousand hours watching polar bears hunt. He has never seen one hide its nose, nor have other scientists.
  • Another recurrent myth is that the great white bears are left-pawed. Scientists observing the animals haven't noticed a preference. In fact, polar bears seem to use their right and left paws equally.
  • Yet another myth maintains that polar bears use tools, including blocks of ice to kill their prey. Scientist Ian Stirling believes that this assertion can be traced to unsuccessful hunts. After failing to catch a seal, a frustrated and angry polar bear may kick the snow, slap the ground--or hurl chunks of ice.
  • A more recent myth claims that the polar bear has a symbiotic relationship with the arctic fox, sharing its food in exchange for the fox's warning system. Zoologists discredit the association. While it is true that the arctic fox travels behind the polar bear and feeds on the predator's scraps, it does not serve as a "guard fox."
  • Not only is the bear-fox relationship not symbiotic, the little foxes often annoy the bears. An arctic fox will sometimes tease a bear by darting in to nip at its heels. For its part, a polar bear will occasionally lunge at or slap a fox.
  • Yet another myth concerns orca whales preying on polar bears. Scientist Ian Stirling concedes that while an orca might have an opportunity to attack a bear stranded on a remnant of ice, such an encounter is extremely unlikely. To his knowledge, it has never been observed. Polar bear biologist Scott Schliebe has never heard of this either.
  • One final misconception is that polar bears live at both poles. The belief is common among school children, who grow up seeing illustrations of penguins and polar bears together. Polar bears, of course, live only in the circumpolar North. They never encounter penguins, which live only in the Antarctic.

Bare Bear Facts:

Polar bears are the largest land carnivore. Male polar bears or boars can weigh around 350 to 650 kg (772-1,433 lb.) and are about 2.5 to 3 m (8.2-9.8 ft.) long. Females or sows weigh about 150 to 250 kg (331-551 lb.) and are about 2 to 2.5 m (6.6-8.2 ft.) long. Both males and females have small tails that are about 7 to 12 cm (2.8-4.7 in.) long.

Polar bear legs are large and stocky, and compared to other bears; polar bears have long bodies and slender necks. The head is long and relatively small with a long muzzle and a slightly arched snout, which ends in a broad, black nose. Polar bear's have dark brown eyes that are set relatively close together, and have small rounded ears. The hind limbs are longer than the forelimbs, giving the polar bear their formidable stance.

Polar bears have large paws, which act like snowshoes, spreading out the bear's weight as it moves over ice and snow. Each foot has five-toes, and each toe ends in a thick, curved, nonretractible claw. They use their claws for grasping prey and for traction when running or climbing on ice.

With thick, black pads on their feet that are covered with small, soft bumps, and long hairs growing between the pads and toes help to create friction between the foot and ice to prevent slipping.

A polar bear's skin is black and has a dense and woolly coat that is 2.5 to 5 cm (1.2 in.) thick. The fur has an insulating layer of under hair, which is covered by a relatively thin layer of stiff, shiny, clear hairs. The hairs reflect light, giving the polar bear its white coloration. Oxidation from the sun, or staining, can make the hairs look yellow or brown.

The fur is oily and water repellent and does not mat when wet, allowing the polar bears to easily shake free of water and any ice that may form after swimming.

Polar bears completely shed and replace their fur annually, in May or June. The molt can last several weeks.

Polar bears have a layer of blubber up to 11 cm (4.3 in.) thick, which helps to keep them warm in the cold weather and while swimming. Since they are so well insulated they tend to overheat, in order to avoid this they move slowly and rest often.

Polar bears are strong swimmers. They can swim for several hours at a time over long distances and reach speeds of 10 kph (6.2 mph). Polar bears swim using the famous doggy-paddle style. The front paws are used to propel them and their hind feet and legs are used for steering. The average walking speed of a polar bear is 5.5 kph (3.4 mph) and they can run as fast as 40 kph (25 mph) but only for short distances.

Adult polar bears have no natural predators. But cubs are susceptible to other predators, such as wolves and as well as male polar bears. Polar bears can live 20 to 30 years, but only usually only live to be 15 to 18 years, due to such things as hunting, disease, starvation, and pollution. Another reason is that polar bears home ranges overlap with those of humans. These put both the bears and humans at risk.

It is estimated that there are between 21,000 and 28,000 polar bears left in the wild. In order to protect the polar bear, zoological parks have been established. These provide people the opportunity to learn about the polar bear. Also in order to better study the polar bear in the wild scientists use radio collars to track their movements.

Polar bears are distributed throughout the Arctic, and are mainly found in Greenland, Norway, Asia and North America. They inhabit Arctic sea ice, water, islands, and continental coastlines and prefer to be near landmasses around the edge of the polar basin.

Polar bears travel throughout the year within their own individual home ranges, which vary in size depending upon access to food, mates, and dens. They tend to be larger than other mammals around 50,000 to 350,000 square km. Polar bears don't mark or defend their home ranges.

They have excellent sense of smell, which helps them to detect food. Polar bears are mainly carnivores, eating seals, walrus, whale, fish, small rodents, seabirds, and reindeer, as well as berries and various plants in the summer. Polar bears need an average of 2 kg (4.4 lb.) of fat per day to survive.

Polar bears use several methods when hunting. One common way of hunting for the polar bear is known as still-hunting. This is where the Polar bear remains motionless beside a breathing hole or lead edge waiting for a seal to surface. When a seal surfaces, the polar bear bites onto the head or upper body, then flips the entire seal onto the ice. Still-hunting usually takes less than one hour.

Another method is called stalking; this is most commonly used in the summer. The polar bear spots a seal and slowly stalks them. When the bear gets close enough it will charge the seal and kill it.
Also used in summer is the aquatic stalk, this is where the polar bear swims toward a landed seal. Once the polar bear reaches the ice edge, the bear quickly emerges from the water and grabs the seal with its claws or teeth.

Polar bears also stalk birth lairs of seals; mother bears with growing cubs most commonly use this method.

Polar bears are solitary animals. Basically only coming together to mate, share a large food source such as a dead whale or when a female has young. They are most active for the first part of the day and least active at the end of the day. They spend most of their time hunting, swimming, sleeping or resting. Polar bears don't enter deep hibernation (that's they go into a dormant or sleepy state during winter). Only pregnant female polar bears hibernate.

Polar bears use hissing, growling, champing of teeth, and soft chuffing when troubled and threatened. Cubs vocalize by using hissing, squalling, whimpering, lip smacking, and throaty rumblings. And mothers warn cubs with a chuffing or braying sound.

Mating occurs every two to three years during April and May. When a female is ready to mate she may have several male suitors. The males will fight fiercely until the strongest or largest male succeeds in chasing the others away. Once paired, the male and female stay together for a week or more. Gestation lasts eight to nine months. Pregnant females dig dens in the snow, where they will stay dormant until the birth of their young.

They give birth to anywhere from one to four cubs. The cubs are born weighing 454 to 680 g (16-24 oz.) and are about 30 cm (12 in.) long. Their eyes are closed and their fur is very fine at birth, making the cubs look hairless. The cubs stay with their mothers for about 1 to 2 years. Female polar bears reach sexual maturity at about 4 years, and males at about 6 years. However, most males don't successfully mate until 8 to 10 years and older.

The Bear Den

The Polar Bear

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