Why I continue to keep the bear harvesting tradition alive in my community
A look at the history and significance of the black bear in Eeyou Istchee
This First Person article is the experience of Jamie Moses, Cree language commissioner of the Eeyou Istchee Cree. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
The Eeyouch (Cree) of Eeyou Istchee (Eastern James Bay Cree) have always had great respect toward all living things on Earth. Today, I will share a little about the respect shown toward the black bear.
In our James Bay Cree dialect I am aware of three words we use to refer to the bear. In my dialect, we call the bear Chishaayaakw, the name resonates some form of respect as chis is used in referring to something great/big/wise. Chisasibi means big river, for example. The other two words from the inland communities for bear are Kaakuush and Maskw.
Some of our people still practise a bear feast. Our people harvested bear in every season; the only time we avoid harvesting bear is during the hottest period of summer, when we wait until they fatten after feasting on berries.
We have a legend when a child was abducted by a bear, I will summarize the story. When the boy was abducted, the bear revealed its behaviour and why it did things in a certain way, where they roamed, and how they hibernate. When the bear enters the den, he blocks the opening with branches. The bear would have an idea how much winter has passed by the amount of snow around the branches.
The bear shared this knowledge to the little boy, and he also shared which pieces women should not consume and what they are allowed to eat from the bear. The pieces that women are not allowed to consume are the head, the front paws and muscles. The bear told the boy that you can locate me from hilltops. On cold winter days, you can see smoke from far away — that's where you can find my den.
The little boy's father never gave up searching for his son, and he managed to eventually locate the den. The father rescued his son and harvested the bear; the boy was reunited with his family.
The boy grew up being a gifted bear harvester, he married and they lived out on the land. One day, he harvested a bear and he had a leftover arm/hand that he cooked and he told his wife not to touch his leftovers. His wife wondered why she wasn't allowed to have that specific part of the bear, so she had some and to her surprise her husband did not come home. The husband was found dead, with his arm and hands missing. The legend goes that if the wife never ate that piece of the bear harvest, Cree hunters would have continued to easily locate the bear den in the winter months.
Today, some communities continue the traditional bear feast, where men sit around one table and women have their own table. On the table, the bear is cooked in various ways and enjoyed with only bannock and tea. The feasts are great social gatherings; teachings are shared along with the delicious meal, and it is an honour and privilege to be part of one.
The bear is the most respected animal within the Cree; the bear grease is an important medicine used for many purposes and is also a great substitute of fat for low-fat meals like hare, ptarmigan, grouse, etc. The bearskin is a great source of warmth during the colder months of the year; people still use it to this day. The leg bone can be used for making scrapers for skinning fur-bearing animals. It is typically used for skinning beavers.
Some people are known to be gifted bear harvesters, some specialize in trapping, some are gifted in seeing them often, some gifted in locating them in the den during the winter months. Young hunters usually are advised not to harvest bears until they have matured. It's encouraged to harvest a small or medium one until the hunter matures enough for a bigger harvest.
I only started harvesting bear in recent years. Before that, I started to learn how to butcher a bear and the stories relating to the bear. My grandfather advised me to wait until I get older to harvest big game such as moose and bear. With guidance from family, I soon began learning how to butcher the bear. It is a lot of hard work and takes a few tries to master it. On my first harvest, I was with my twin daughters.
My instructor is an expert bear trapper; he offered to teach me and continue the tradition of trapping and he says I will only improve as years go by. It's exciting when you gain new skills such as this. Not very many people practice that tradition anymore — so many of us still enjoy the bear feast but not many are willing to put up the hard work. In my teenage years, I witnessed checking bear dens in the winter with my grandfather, but never got to experience actually finding an occupied den.
The bears I have harvested have been enjoyed by many. I continued the practice of the traditional bear feast by hosting it at my home, at the camp or at the community teepee. In our community we don't freeze the bear head out of respect. This part is usually boiled or roasted in the oven, the prized part is the meat behind the head and the neck, which is especially delicious if the bear is fat. Certain pieces are better boiled because the meat can be hard, some can be oven roasted but the best is what is cooked over the fire.
We hang our cooking around the fire in our cooking teepees, it is cooked for a few hours and that's the favourite for many. In James Bay coastal communities you will see many teepees in our backyards, these are used for cooking, walking out ceremonies or feasts and some use modern style teepees with plywood and doors. Our feasts are great social gatherings, typically everyone is invited until we finish everything. Plates are delivered to the elderly that cannot attend the feast.
When a big bear is harvested in the fall or winter, the bear fat is a prized piece. This can be cut into layers, you can make bear grease with it or can be saved in the freezer for later on. The bear grease is made from frying the bear fat, the fat shrinks into a crispy tasty meal; it accumulates as you fry the fat in a big pot. The fat has medicinal purposes, from treating skin rash, as cough medicine and many others.
The lessons I have obtained over the years about the bear, I have managed to share with others and have helped other harvesters with their work. I still have a lot to learn and master, but I am proud of the level of knowledge I have gained and I hope I will have many more successful harvests.
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