An essay by guest blogger Barry Babcock

“The Cherokees….put bears in a special category. To the Cherokees, the bear represented the division between people and animals, and bears were descended from people. Long ago, according to a Cherokee legend, all the Cherokees in a certain town decided to live in the forest with the animals, so that they would always have enough to eat. Other Cherokees sent messengers to the forest to try to persuade them to come back, but when the messengers arrived they saw that the people already had long black hair like bears. The bear-people refused to return.  ‘Hereafter we shall be called bears and when you yourselves are hungry, come into the woods and call us and we shall come and give you our flesh,’ one of the bear-people said. ‘You shall not be afraid of us, for we shall live always.’

“As the messengers were leaving they looked back, and saw a group of black bears going into the forest.

“This legend illustrates the Cherokees’ belief that a bear did not really die when it was apparently killed. It simply returned to its home in the forest or swamp, and resumed its life. This belief, which was shared by most Native American Indians, explains how these people were able to kill an animal they regarded as almost human or god-like. Nevertheless, holding this animal in such high regard required that the hunting of it and other actions connected with its death be carried out in a certain way. If these rules were not followed, the bear’s ghost would take revenge on the killer.” [“Black Bear –The Spirit of the Wilderness” Barbara Ford, pg 43-44]

Where I live in northern Minnesota and where many of my friends live in northern Wisconsin, bears have made a remarkable come-back since the 1970’s when bear populations had been decimated. In Minnesota, bears were classified by our DNR as “vermin” and could be killed day or night, year round. It was legal to shine them at night or kill them in their dens. Bear sightings were a rare event. But since protections were implemented and bears recovered, an economic take-over of hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits has affected these endeavors like a creeping malady. I call this economic disorder; the recreation/industrial complex. Our public lands and plant and animal communities have become market places for a vast network of corporations aimed at redefining what is hunting and turned hunting into more about consumption than a real experience in nature. We have lost what respect we had for game species and now see them appeasements to our insatiable appetite for ego aggrandizement and a plethora of contraptions. Little respect is left for the quarry.

I do not wish to get into a blame game or that my state is better than other states but perhaps the most deplorable treatment of bears is in Wisconsin where hounding is permitted by law. The disregard for both bear and dog is nothing short of barbaric. And now the wolf too is found in the vortex of this debate. The debate and struggle in Wisconsin has made all of us take a deeper look at bear hunting and the impacts of baiting, hounding, harassment, ethics and the role of mega predators like the bear and the wolf in our natural ecosystems. None of this is to say, Minnesota has it right, as it doesn’t. There are licensed bear guide services in Minnesota that have up to one hundred bait stations that cater to the bear hunter with the hopes of killing a huge bear yet the average bear killed is more likely to be a 130 to 150 pound three year old that hasn’t been on its own for three years. The trails servicing these baits are hammered by ATVs and are all on public lands yet the public has little to say about the ethics of this. The special interests and dollars of groups like the Sportsman Caucus have the ear of legislators.

The debate and struggle in Wisconsin has made all of us take a deeper look at bear hunting and the impacts of baiting, hounding, harassment, ethics and the role of mega predators like the bear and the wolf in our natural ecosystems.

The whole notion of baiting is for humans who are either too stupid to figure out the habits of bears and think they can bring a bear to them. A good hunter would understand the status of the forest plant community and that would put him where the bears should be without the use of baits. I have witnessed hunters bringing in pickup truck loads of bait and dumping it in the woods. The success rate should dictate that this method doesn’t work but most hunters just don’t get it. Sure, a few hunters get lucky and take a larger and more mature bear but not the greater majority. It’s young, immature bears who haven’t learned to ignore baits till well after dark that are mostly killed.
I have been a hunter for over fifty years but now find my hunting restricted to deer and ruffed grouse. As I age, I find my desire to take a life harder to do. I let more deer pass by me and come up with excuses to not take the animal such as; there is a fawn with the doe, or the buck is too young, or it’s too early in the season and I don’t want to use my tag now and have such an early end to my hunting season. Concerning bears, I applied for a license in 1996 and was drawn but the spirit and desire to kill a bear wasn’t there and I went out once and that was enough. I live on a bear travel corridor and see and photograph many bears and I could never find myself taking the life of a bear. I see them as neighbors and acquaintances. I am in their home.

Where I live in Minnesota, I am surrounded by the three largest Indian Reservations in the state and have many native friends. Of these friends, I was lucky to know Chi Ma’iingan (aka, Larry Stillday), the late great Ojibwe spiritual leader of Red Lake. He taught me about the “Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers” which helped me connect some dots in my life that were yet unconnected. He made me realize that by observing all wildlife has teachings and value that will make me a better human being. Wild animals can and will teach us if we take the time to observe with open minds. “When people are balanced and in-harmony with our Earth Mother the animals know that, that’s what the old people used to say is the animals are talking to us, sometimes they use sound, but most of the time they use their behavior, its therefore up to us to be able to read what their acting out.” Chi Ma’iingan

All the earth’s living organisms will do just fine without us but we need these same communities to survive. These teachings; love, respect, humility, courage, wisdom, truth and honesty are incorporated into the teachings of the eagle, buffalo, wolf, bear, beaver, turtle and Masabe (the wilderness man or big foot.)

These are the teachings of Makwa (the bear) as taught by Chi Ma’iingan:

• To have the courage of the bear is to overcome our fears that prevent us from living out our true spirit as human beings.

• To have courage is to have the mental and moral strength to listen to our heart.

• In the natural world the BEAR shows us the spirit of courage.

• By nature it is very gentle, but if you show any sign of approaching a bear cub it will display total fearlessness in defending her cub.

• The bear represents power, industriousness, instinctive healing, gentle strength, introspection, dreams and living of the heart-living spirit.

• The bear is very close to the land and brings many medicines to our people.

• When we have a hard time in our life, whether it be something we’re going through or a decision we have to make and we are afraid, we can call on the spirit of the bear to help us have the courage and strength to do the right thing for our life.

• The bear is the part of self that needs to retreat into its own space, hibernate and heals itself.

• It is comforting and protective and a common animal spirit for Mothers.

The bear and the wolf are the two of the most powerful spirits in the forest. Anyone experiencing the bear will immediately feel its power; both spiritually and physically. Though the bear is by nature a peaceable animal it has incredible strength and speed. They deserve our respect and their right to exist unmolested and peace in their home. To harass with hounds and spread bait over the forest as is happening in Wisconsin is crossing the line of moral decency and only benefits Cabala’s, Gander Mountain, ATV manufacturers, and a long line of corporations that are profiting off miss-guided hunters and the bear himself. The first lesson we need to learn from Makwa is his teaching of “courage” and that also means having the courage to do what is right.

Doing the right thing in regards to living in peace with Mother Earth can start with taking seriously the “seven teachings” of our Anishinaabe neighbors. This is what it means to be a better human being. The bear is not a commodity to bring hunting revenue into a state. The bear is one of the Creators great achievements. The bear has reached the zenith of evolutionary achievements; he is a teacher of medicinal herbs, healing, industriousness, introspection, dreams and living of the heart-living spirit and most importantly “courage”

I would hope that the Cherokee belief, “… holding this animal [the bear] in such high regard required that the hunting of it and other actions connected with its death be carried out in a certain way. If these rules were not followed, the bear’s ghost would take revenge on the killer.” Hopefully our miss-guided social attitudes towards the bear and other life will be altered someday and those who have no respect or ethics towards the bear will be heaped with scorn and learn to walk the good path in a good way and learn to respect Makwa.

“As I penned this essay on my experiences with Makwa, it was early January, in the midst of winter and the bears were asleep in their dens. I do not prefer to write in the winter, but it is the most convenient time to do so. The rest of the year is consumed by chores of gardening, ricing, maple sugaring, putting up firewood, hunting, fishing, and other labors of love. I look forward to winter as my chores are completed, the days are short and the nights are long. Winter has become the time of year for sleeping in the long nights, taking walks in the silence of winter, reflecting on myself and loved ones, and getting my mind right. It is the bear within me, or as Larry said, “The bear is the part of self that needs to retreat into its own space, hibernate and heal itself.” It is now that I remember the bear people who I live with and take healing in the messages they give me. When winter ends and spring comes, and when the first bear comes to see me in late April, I will be most pleased to see them again, my teacher, Makwa, and when I do meet Makwa again, I will think of his courage and know that his teaching means having the courage to do what is right.” [“Teachers in the Forest”] 

Teachers In the Forest
This collection of essays, from one of Minnesota’s prominent voices for the environment, discuss the author’s connection to the wild. He shares his experiences living off-grid, harnessing solar power from the sun, pumping his water well by hand every day, hunting, fishing, and gathering, all as part of the natural world, and not above it.

This is also a philosophical adventure, as Babcock discusses how traditional scientists and native American spiritual leaders have arrived at the same concept of protecting our environment, but by use of completely different methods, theories, and practices of living.

Babcock has been active in defending Minnesota’s environment for more than two decades, and was recently featured in the documentary film: MEDICINE OF THE WOLF. 

About Barry Babcock 

Barry walks the walk. He and his wife Linda own 40 acres living literally “off the grid.” You’ll read stories of that land, about gardening, a hidden lake, three dogs, a gas refrigerator, an outdoor hand pump, with 100% of their electricity generated from solar collectors. The author fishes, hunts with a bow, wild rices, and does sugar bush.