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The Inuit Legend of Nanuk

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When polar bears walk, their back paws end up where their front paws had just been, making it look like they are walking on just two feet, like humans.  Fittingly, some Inuit legends depict a link between polar bears and us – in one tale, polar bears were men in disguise, and in another, polar bears lived in igloos and had man-like abilities, like walking upright and talking. The polar bear is seen as wise, powerful, and similar to humans.

In Inuit mythology, Nanuk (which means polar bear in Inuktitut) was the master of the bears.  Inuit hunters worshiped the great bear, believing that he decided which hunters deserved success.  Legend says that if a dead polar bear was treated properly by the hunter, it would share the news with other bears, and they would be willing to be killed by him. All of the meat – save for the liver – was to be eaten, the skin used for clothing (one bear can make three pairs of trousers and a pair of mukluks). Hunters were meant to pay respect to bear’s soul by hanging the skin in a special place in his house for several days, and the spirit was offered tokens – if it was male, it was offered weapons and hunting tools, and if it was female, needle cases and skin scrapers.

If, however, a hunter violated these rules and mistreated a bear or its spirit, other bears would avoid him and he would not be successful in his hunts.

Now, polar bears are still hunted by members of some Inuit communities.  Hunters uphold these long-held cultural traditions, and meat from the animals is a regular part of the winter diet in areas where the bears are plentiful.

Canada is the only country that allows sport hunting of polar bears by non-natives and non-citizens, and about 500 to 600 bears are legally killed here annually by humans.  Quotas are divided among native subsistence hunters and sport hunters, and while Inuit populations are generally able to kill all the polar bears they are permitted to take, sport hunters usually only have about a 50 per cent success rate.

Footprints2Fur dressed Inuit hunter checks Polar bear tracks on sea ice in Melville Bay. N. Greenland.

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