Years ago, both black bears and grizzly bears made their home in New Mexico. These creatures are a majestic sight in their natural habitat, despite the cartoon images of our childhood. Other attempts to make these animals cuddly and cute have never been able to overcome the sheer strength and dignity which cloaks them in real life. Bears fascinate us, and, if we’re honest, most of us wish we could cuddle them.
Today only the black bear can be found in New Mexico, with a current population between five and six thousand. The modern world took its toll on the grizzlies. Killed for preying on livestock and forced from their habitat to make way for pastures, the last recorded grizzly in New Mexico was killed in 1931. The smaller, more reclusive black bear managed to stay ahead of those who sought to kill them. Black bears are more agile, and therefore better at climbing. These traits help them navigate a world very different from years past.
In folklore and myth, our love for these wild creatures is evident. To the Pueblo people, bears are one of the six directional guardians. They are designated as the guardians of the West. It comes as no surprise that bears represent strength and power, as they are formidable animals to encounter. This strength has led to the image of the bear as the “enforcer”, the one who ensures that both animals and people follow the rules and behave appropriately.
For the Navajo, who believe bears possess great healing power, they are a symbol of insight and deliberate action. Other cultures see them as symbols of strength, courage and family. She-bears in particular are viewed as protectors and nurturers of their offspring, and sometimes of their human counterparts. One folk tale tells of a young boy, trapped by his evil stepfather in an abandoned cave and left to die. A mother bear comes to his rescue, using her great strength to remove the boulder placed in front of the cave’s opening and free the boy.
Bears are not seen as tricksters in most mythology. They are viewed in folk tales more as the “straight man”, the practical, no-nonsense ones who must rein in the trickster. This comes from their image of power and discipline, unlike tricksters who rely on cunning and mischief. These folktales vary greatly from the more modern cartoon images of Yogi and Boo-Boo and from the cuddly cuteness of a teddy bear.
Despite their reputations as predators, bears remain intriguing to humans. We love their majesty, their fierceness and their ability to call to the wildness in all of us.