The Inuit and Polar Bears

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

Of all the animals the Inuit hunt, Nanuk, the polar bear, is the most prized. Native hunters consider Nanuk to be wise, powerful, and almost a man. Some call the polar bear the great lonely roamer.

In parts of the Arctic, the Inuit still hunt the polar bear as part of a subsidence lifestyle and long-held cultural traditions; these hunts are now carefully regulated by a quota system.

Inuit 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.

Hunters paid respect to Nanuk's soul (tatkok) by hanging the skin in an honored place in his igloo 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 needlecases.

Native people believed that polar bears allowed themselves to be killed in order to obtain the souls of the tools (tatkoit), which they would take with them into the hereafter.

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. Natives believed they shed their skins in the privacy of their homes.

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