Indigenous People and Polar Bears

Pipaluk Hammeken and Sara Lyberth in traditional Inuit fur clothing - Uummannaq, Greenland. Details...
© Sébastien Tixier

Of all the animals that indigenous people traditionally hunted, Nanuq, the polar bear, was the most prized. Hunters considered Nanuq to be wise, powerful, and almost a man

In parts of the Arctic, indigenous people still hunt the polar bear as part of a subsistence lifestyle and long-held cultural traditions; these hunts are now carefully regulated by various management systems.

Indigenous communities eat polar bear meat and use the fur to make warm trousers for men and kamiks (soft boots) for women. The liver is the only part of the bear that is traditionally discarded. It can make even sled dogs violently ill due to its toxic levels of Vitamin A.

In the past, hunters paid respect to Nanuq's spirit by hanging the skin in an honored place in their home for several days. If the bear was male, the hunter offered its spirit tools such as knives and bow-drills; if female, the hunter offered knives, skin-scrapers, and needle cases.

Legend says that if a dead polar bear was treated properly by the hunter, it would share the good news with other bears so they would be eager to be killed by him. Bears would stay away from hunters who failed to pay respect.

Other legends told of strange polar-bear men that lived in igloos, walked upright, and were able to talk. In these legends, the bears shed their skins in the privacy of their homes.

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