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Bridging worlds: Navigating human-bear relationships through Indigenous wisdom

Written by: Ireland Moro, Marine Affairs Program, Graduate Student

“All I know is respect for bear.” Champagne and Aishihik First Nations Elder, July 19th, 2004.


Respect for Grizzly Bears: an Aboriginal approach for co-existence and resilience was written by Clark and Slocombe in 2009, and the paper investigated the concept of respect for grizzly bears from an Indigenous perspective, and the themes of respect from this work included stories, terminology, reciprocity, and ritual. The authors recognized that there are endless possible interpretations of respect for grizzly bears, and that their own interpretation may not be fully accurate; through this recognition, the authors acknowledged their positionally as non-Indigenous individuals conducting the research. 


As a non-Indigenous individual who is working to interpret Indigenous knowledge in this blog, it is important for me to acknowledge my own positionality and its potential influence on this process. I am a master’s student from Alberta. In Alberta, grizzly bears are viewed as a keystone species but unfortunately I often came across stories in the news about bear attacks which often lead to the animal being put down. After finding this paper, I was drawn to summarize it, and share my thoughts. By synthesizing this paper, I am reflecting on how humans are able to co-exist with these powerful animals. 


From 2003 to 2005, Clark and Slocombe conducted semi-structured interviews with Indigenous community members in the Yukon, Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Northwest Territories, Baker Lake in Nunavut, and west-central Alberta. These interviews included community members who were involved or affected by grizzly bear management programs. The researchers also held focus groups in southwest Yukon to further examine bear management involving Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, and between 2005-2007 preliminary findings were shared with the community members to validate and interpret results. 

Practices of respect for bears

The practice of storytelling involved formalized myths and true stories about bear encounters. These stories enhanced listeners' ability to handle bear interactions, especially in conflicts. Terminology practices involved either indirect references to bears to avoid implying human superiority or the use of honorific terms like "big grandpa" and "our brother" to signify kinship with bears. Reciprocity was at the core of relationships with the natural world, emphasizing mutual respect and coexistence. Participants commonly expressed the principle of "he don't bother me, I don't bother him." One notable ritual discussed was the removal of the bear's hyoid bone, referred to as the "arrowhead," by Inuvialuit and Alaskan Inupiat communities. This practice aimed to maintain harmony and peace between humans and bears by addressing past disruptions in the mythological narrative.

These four respect practices could enhance resilience and provide support to the bear-human system linkages. Since grizzly bears and humans were originally dependent on the same resources, there is a heightened expectation of conflict.  Reciprocity was viewed as the practice that would have the greatest influence on the linkages in this system. Ideally, the practice of leaving each other alone would result in fewer instances of direct competition, reduced injuries, and less fatalities.

It is important to recognize that bear management involves a complex combination of regulatory and technological efforts. These efforts are used to prevent and mitigate potential and already existent conflicts between bears and humans. A lot of these management efforts, such as capture and relocation practices, involve techniques that are deemed disrespectful by Indigenous communities. However, these techniques are often justified by management groups due to their benefits, such as bear conservation and human safety. During the interview process, an interviewee from southwest Yukon was quoted saying “…you-coexist with grizzly bears. You don’t try and manage them…” . This statement is a perfect example of the disconnect between scientific worldviews and Indigenous worldviews on appropriate human behaviour towards bears. This disconnect may be due to a language barrier or cultural differences.

A significant issue in Northern Canada’s wildlife management is that it primarily occurs in English. This limits Indigenous knowledge, perspectives, and practices. The researchers pointed out that this approach assumes a shared understanding of terms such as ‘respect’. The way that scientists and managers approach and handle bears is deemed disrespectful to Indigenous communities. However, three of the interviewees from this project who were territorial or federal government wildlife managers expressed that they felt Indigenous People’s interactions with bears to be far from respectful. This misinterpretation could worsen the disconnect in co-management groups if not addressed with clear explanations.

There is great importance in understanding bear-human systems and their adaptability for broader applications. Even though introducing these practices would be a positive step towards reconciliation, their effectiveness will vary due to location, individual behaviour, and institutional context.


As of 2009, when this paper was written, it remained uncertain if local Indigenous management systems could be scaled up successfully and today that question is still unanswered. In the context of human-bear interactions, which emphasize place-specific knowledge and personal restraint, implementing Indigenous practices like reciprocity faces challenges. Therefore, adopting respect-based approaches for bear-human coexistence should be approached cautiously, with modest expectations and focus on social and ecological conditions.

As a non-Indigenous individual, I found this paper emphasized the vital role of Indigenous knowledge in coexisting with apex predators like grizzly bears. It highlighted the different interpretations of respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Coexisting with the natural world is crucial, and Indigenous knowledge offers unique insights that science currently lacks.

However, we must be careful in implementing these practices in today’s society as to avoid conflict between both bears and societal groups. After reviewing this paper, I believe a balance can be struck, incorporating both Indigenous and Western knowledge for effective management of bear-human systems. As a 22-year-old master’s student, I am not sure what that looks like. The answer might be in co-management involving the multiple societal groupsand a mutual respect for all parties involved, or it might be something else entirely, but I hope we are able to find the solution soon.


Featured article:

Clark, D. A., and D. S. Slocombe. 2009. Respect for grizzly bear: an Aboriginal approach for co-existence and resilience. Ecology and Society 14(1): 42. [online] URL:

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