Sokaogon Chippewa Community News

The Northwoods: A Perfect Home for Black Bear

By: Richard D. Ackley, Jr.

Photo by the Wisconsin DNR

“The black bear is viewed as both a symbol of Wisconsin’s wildness and as choice prey. Seeing a black bear in the wild is an exciting experience for many and an equal thrill for those who prize the black bear as a big game species.” – from the Wisconsin DNR website.

The Woodland Indians, especially the Ojibwe (Chippewa) people indigenous to Wisconsin’s north woods, also highly regard the black bear, not only as game, but as a key figure in its culture. The black bear is called “Makwa” in the Ojibwe language and is one of the seven clans. The bear remains an important part of tradition for ceremonial and religious purposes with strong ties to the Anishinaabe (original man) mythology.

According to the 1885 publication The History of the Ojibways by William Warren, by Ojibwe tradition there were originally six human beings that came out of the sea to live among Ojibwe. The six beings were Wawaazisii (Bullhead), Ajejauk (Crane), Makwa (Bear), Moosance (Little Moose), Waabizheshi (Marten), and Bineshii (Thunderbird), and created the original grand families, called dodem or clans. In addition, clan symbols appear in ancient birch bark scrolls and treaty documents of centuries ago.

The clan system operated as a form of government, a method of organizing work, and a way of defining the responsibilities of each community member. Working together, the clans attended to the physical, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual needs of the community. Each was known by its totem (animal emblem). While each clan differs, all are considered equal.

The largest grand family group was the Bear (Makwa). Bear Clan members were war chiefs and warriors and were known for their thick black hair that never whitened even in old age. Long ago, warriors fought to defend their village or hunting territory with the tenacity of the black bear. They became known as master strategists in planning the defense of their people, and as healers.

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