The Bear Symbol – Native Art Symbols and Meanings

In American Native cultures, bears are a symbol of courage, strength, resourcefulness, wisdom and intuition. Native origin stories often describe bears as teachers and healers and many Native American tribes believed that bears were able to heal their own wounds. As such they are closely tied to healing and medicine. Because of their strength and fierceness, they are also the protectors, guardians and helping spirits of warriors. A bear claw was often worn on a necklace to protect the warrior and offer strength.

Bears are a common motif in Native American art. They appear as carvings on totem poles, on jewellery, as masks and in paintings or limited edition prints.

In Northwest coast Indigenous art, the bear has distinguishing features: a wide mouth, claw like hands and feet, large flaring nostrils, conspicuous teeth and a downward protruding tongue. Grizzlies are often depicted with fangs, whereas black bears are not.

Bears are also important crest figures and they are featured in many Native legends. They are believed to be closely related to humans going back to a time when humans and bears transformed back and forth. Due to their human like qualities, West coast people have even referred to them as elder kinsmen. When a bear is killed during a hunt it is taken to the chief’s house, sprinkled with eagle down (a symbol of friendship) and treated as a high ranking guest.

For some amazing facts about Canada’s bear species, please click here.

Native art print of a mother bear and its cub
Bear Mother and Cub
by Joe Wilson