I wrote last autumn about a little black bear who got hit by a semi-trailer. I took him home and put him in my freezer. Here is what happened next.
I could never kill a bear; bears to me are the physical form of a sacred guardian who has loved me and kept a watchful eye over me my whole life, keeping me strong and encouraging me (or scaring me!) into living in a good way. When I found that little bear, I knew in my heart that he came to me with a purpose, and I was going to make that purpose count with as much Love as I could muster.
I had an idea for a ‘bear harvest’, where youth learn about the fur, food, medicine and other gifts that our ancestors receive from the bear, in a hands-on workshop. For me, this event would be an expression of my love for the Spirit of the Bear – a way to show my gratitude for the strength and courage that Bear has given me, time and time again. We would say prayers for the Bear and have a feast in his honor. We would gather together to experience our traditions, gathering up the loose ends of our culture and weaving them whole again.
I started by telling my story to everyone I thought might be able to help! That’s the way to start any project when you don’t know how to start, in my opinion. While this method of problem solving usually works for me, I had a hard time tracking down an elder who could teach about traditional methods for harvesting bears. They didn’t know at the Metis Nation office, or at the Metis Local, nor among my friends in indigenous circles.
I knew from historical accounts that Metis hunted bear for fur, food and medicine. But in Southern Alberta, on the prairie where bears are seldom seen – and in the days where city people rarely hunt – it seems it’s not easy to find a teacher with bear knowledge. Finally I had a message from a friend at the Friendship Centre, who put me in touch with Elder Patrick. Patrick is a Cree elder, and was willing to bring us out to his land to teach us what to do with this little black bear. My excitement over finding Patrick was difficult to describe. With an elder to teach us, I knew we would make it happen!
We set up a date, and I started saving food and gathering supplies. We gathered firewood, food, knives, gloves, tarps, plastic bins, cording, large pots and kettles, fuel, and gifts. We fit it all in the back of our pick-up truck, with a space for Mr. Bear to ride alongside the supplies.
I wanted to present the elder with a blanket, cloth, tobacco and medicines. I put so much care into that blanket, choosing the patterned fabric and finishing the edges with blanket stitch in contrasting color. It was always in my mind that everything should be just right.
Metis Local 87 from Calgary gave a generous donation after hearing our story, paying for the necessary honorarium. (A great big Maarsi to Calgary Local 87! Check them out on Facebook if you can and show them some love.)
Little Mr. Bear came out of the freezer 4 days before the harvest. It was cold outside, but there was nowhere else to thaw him so my husband built a little wooden box to keep him safe in the yard. He was still quite frozen the day before the harvest, I spent the day anxiously cooking stew and adjusting a space-heater near the box, hoping that we wouldn’t have a bear-sicle on our hands in the morning.
There were 8 youth and 4 adult helpers at the harvest. The enthusiasm of the youth was like a small warm fire in my heart. Their expressions of gratitude and wonderment mirrored my own and made me so happy. Every single youth was in there ‘like a dirty shirt’ as the saying goes, getting their hands bloody despite the cold and the powerful bear-smell. I am so proud of these young adults, that they wanted to experience this traditional knowledge for themselves. We connected at that spot in our hearts that only our culture can fill.
Elder Patrick directed me to prepare a special plate just for the bear spirit, with salmon and berries, stew and bannock. He lead me through a prayer in front of the fire, I repeating the words after him like a small child.
He told me, ‘now put the plate on the fire,’. I reached forward, but the fire was blistering hot – it was a four-foot high blaze and I couldn’t get my hands closer than a couple of feet because of the intense heat! “Go ahead,”, he looked at me expectantly.
I got as close as a could, and sort of lobbed the plate into the flames. The elder wore a bemused expression, presumably confused at my choice to throw the offering. “Oh,” was all he said.
I blushed from embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” I stammered by way of explanation. ” it’s so hot! Was that rude of me?”
“No…” he said and gave a half-shrug. We didn’t say anything more about it. I hope the bear didn’t mind too much!
Together, we ate a traditional feast of stew, bannock and berry pudding. Everyone took home a claw, and some took home bear meat to eat.
I was pleased that Elder Patrick invited us back to tan the bear hide in the spring! The little bear skin is back in the freezer now, taking up a lot less space. When, exactly, we’ll be able to get together for hide tanning depends on COVID-19.
If you are interested in helping us with the hide tanning or bear harvest events, we are grateful for donations of money or gifts for the elder, food and helping hands. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Maarsi for listening to my story. Ni nanaskomon!