Stoney Nakoda Nation elders and knowledge keepers share traditional ways of respecting bears

Many hikers in southern Alberta head to the trails in the spring equipped with bear spray, chanting or saying hey bear, whoa bear, to warn the animal that they are around the corner.

The Elders and Knowledge Keepers of the Stoney Nakoda Nations have their own unique approach and lessons to share when it comes to coexistence.

Over the weekend, a panel of speakers shared traditional knowledge passed down through generations and explained to an audience in Canmore, Alberta how important it is to respect bears in their habitat as human and animal conflict continues to be a problem in the Bow Valley. .

Growing conflicts trouble Elder Jackson Wesley. The bears, he says, are being evicted from their territory.

Due to human encroachment on the landscape, there is not enough room for the bears to feed and hunt, so they go to towns and eat garbage.

“I don’t know what will happen to my great-great-grandchildren,” Wesley said. “So let’s work together and make things better.”

A connection to the land

The people of Stoney believe they have a role as stewards of the land to protect the mountains and landscapes of the Bow Valley. They also share a deep bond with bears, whom they consider siblings or grandparents.

Elder Henry Holloway said bears are the ears of Mother Earth and protectors of nature. Their territory is where they forage for food and raise their young.

Knowledge Keeper Barry Wesley, left, Elder Henry Holloway and Elder Jackson Wesley speak during a Bear Day panel at the Canmore Nordic Centre. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Bears get to know the land, Holloway said — and bears are always listening.

“Bears know more about us than we know about them,” Holloway said. “Whenever you talk about a bear, wherever you are, they’ll hear you, they’ll know you.”

That’s why, said lore-keeper Barry Wesley, the elders warned him never to speak ill of bears or make fun of them.

Because, he says, when they come out of the den in the spring, they have spent the winter listening to you, their ears glued to the ground, and will recognize you.

Traditional knowledge, better understanding

Before a hike, Barry Wesley always pauses for the ceremony. He said he offers tobacco to the mountain and all creatures that live in the landscape and also warns bears that he will cross.

Lore Keeper Ollie Benjamin said there were places in the Bow Valley the Stoneys learned to avoid.

In one case this winter, a den bear woke up a month early. Benjamin thinks traditional knowledge could help people better understand bears and better coexist with them.

“There’s a reason this was happening,” Benjamin said. “I couldn’t just walk into your room and start bullshitting. It’s a similar situation.”

This opportunity to speak to the public, he said, is a good start.

A holistic perspective for the public and decision makers

Bill Snow, acting director of consulting for the Stoney Tribal Administration, said it’s important for people living in and visiting the Bow Valley to better understand traditional knowledge of wildlife and vegetation.

“We come from a very different holistic knowledge base than Western science,” Snow said.

“When we talk and think about how we deal with grizzly bears or bears in general, it comes from a Western scientific view of today. And so we hope that will change.”

The Stoney Nakoda Nations have worked to put this traditional knowledge into practice with cultural monitoring reports and studies that follow the Stoney Cultural Monitoring methodology.

Two men look towards the camera seated.
Bill Snow, left, and Stoney Knowledge Keeper Ollie Benjamin say bears are not malicious animals, but should be respected. (Helen Pike/CBC)

It all started in 2016 with a grizzly bear study titled Improving Grizzly Bear Management Programs through the Inclusion of Cultural Monitoring and Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

More of these reports are in the works, including a new grizzly bear report that will cover different terrain in the Kananaskis Country and include more fieldwork, Snow said.

“It’s an important way of looking and thinking about wildlife, rather than an aggressive species that is always threatening out there and trying to hurt us all,” he said.

Snow added that this is not how they view wildlife, but there are many misconceptions they have to contend with. says Snow.

“So bringing that holistic perspective to researchers, to the general public, to students, to government, I think is important,” he said.

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