Bear Imagery and Ritual in Midwest North America

Author(s): Thomas Berres

Year: 2017


The American black bear figured prominently in the visual arts, rituals, ceremonies, and cosmological beliefs of Native peoples inhabiting Midwest North America through antiquity. Bears are almost universally perceived as great Lower World spiritual beings possessing the power to cause or cure illness, maintain life, and change its form where bears become people and vice versa. Their remains and images are often found in mortuary ritual contexts – a powerful means of communicating emotions and central themes of the culture. Drilled bear canines (metonymies of power) and effigy pipes occur in such traditional religious contexts. The importance of the black bear’s head in ceremonies and rituals is documented in the historic and archaeological record, which involved the consumption of brains at feasts, public display of skulls on poles, and use of skull masks at ceremonies. Late Woodland Period (1400–750 B.P.) bear effigy mounds also provide visual aesthetic evidence of group identity and cosmological beliefs, indicating that monumental architecture (like all Native art) cannot be separated from religious practices. This study provides archaeological evidence of religious traditions shared cross-culturally in antiquity regarding the bear, which elicited power over the human imagination and spirit.

Cite this Record

Bear Imagery and Ritual in Midwest North America. Thomas Berres. Presented at The 81st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Vancouver, British Columbia. 2017 ( tDAR id: 431207)


Spatial Coverage

min long: -104.634; min lat: 36.739 ; max long: -80.64; max lat: 49.153 ;

Record Identifiers

Abstract Id(s): 15456