The Symbolism of the Bear in Native American Art

Native American Art and its Historical Symbolism of the Grizzly Bear

You’ve been told to run and hide at the site of them, but did you know that bears are a symbol of strength, family, vitality, courage and health for traditional Native American tribes? Native American art and legends are filled with bear-like influences, and often hold strong symbolism.  Today, the bear has a strong influence in modern contemporary art. 

Among certain tribes, the bear is known as the “protector of the animal kingdom,” because it is the strongest and most powerful coastal mammal. The Haida Native American tribe treats bears like “noble guests” and also provides them an honored burial upon death. When a deceased bear is discovered, it is brought into human headquarters and an eagle is spread upon it to show respect.

The bear is also known for its human like qualities, which accounts for the high reverence Native Americans have for this animal. One ancient legend claims that the daughter of an Indian Chief fell in love with a married bear, which was also the nephew of the Great Bear Chief. Through their union, she gave birth to twin bear cubs, and was heralded as the Bear Mother.

“Grizzly Bear” by John Nieto ©2015 Nieto Fine Art

Another ancient Native American tradition that reverences the bear is the Indian Bear Dance, also know as the Ghost Dance. This dance is believed to bring back the spirits of deceased ancestors while simultaneously leading the bears into winter hibernation. Tradition says that the deceased ancestors join the dance in spirit form, while the bears are lulled to sleep. After that dance is complete, another dance called the Circle of Life Dance, is celebrated. In this dance Native Americans sing and chant to welcome light, warmth and sun during the time of the bear’s hibernation.

In addition to legends and traditions, some Native American tribes attribute god-like attributes to the bear because of its complex nature and characteristics. Native American cultures often noticed the speed and agility bears possessed, despite their large and massive frames. Such grace and magnificence garnered deep respect and awe among the Native American people, which is why the bear is at the center of many Native American legends, rituals, southwest art, and other forms of tradition.

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To learn more about the bear, or to view contemporary art décor which depicts the bear, visit the John Nieto website,  If you’re searching for exciting, valuable, gorgeous limited edition abstract art prints either to give as a gift or to add to your burgeoning collection, please take some time to explore our gallery online, contact us online or call (415) 347-8173 for questions about your options.