Nanuq — Polar Bear

Nanuq, the polar bear is the king of the iqsinaqtuit, “those who make one frightened”. “The ever-wandering one”, “the one who walks on ice”, “the great white one”… in poetic and sacred language, the Inuit have many names for the great white bear of the North. As the greatest predator of the Arctic, the one animal that is at home both on land and in the water, and the one whose hunting habits most closely resemble those of humans, nanuq is a powerfully respected animal. Inuit sculptures often show the close relationship between people and bears – depicting shamans transforming into bears, bears dancing, or special “shamanic bears”, with only their short necks similar to the human form (Seidelman and Turner 1993). Interest in the habits of polar bears goes beyond the details needed for the Inuit to hunt them and avoid being preyed upon. Their immense power, both in the natural and spirit worlds, and their uncanny resemblance to humans, breed curiosity in how these great white bears live (Randa 1994).

Like powerful shamans, polar bears are assigned powers of transformation. In the days when animals and people lived more closely together, bears could turn into humans and even use weapons, although they always appeared to be much sturdier than regular people. Many Inuit believe that once a bear enters its “home” or den in the winter, it removes its bearskin and acquires a human appearance. Even nowadays, bears that do not wish to be hunted are said to be capable of turning themselves into birds, foxes, or blocks of ice. A hunter recalls one such experience: “She said, ‘Is that a polar bear?’ I said yes… I just stood on the sled to shoot it from there. When I stood up, suddenly it looked very small, and a bird flew away from where the bear had been, and it was so – it was a snowy owl, but just before that it looked just like a large male bear” (IOHP 323).

As for all animals, the Inuit have great respect for the polar bear, and do not like to see bears suffer indignities. They express great disapproval of southern researchers who come up north to do research on polar bears.

The bears are put to sleep by anaesthetics, are tagged and a collar is put on them. This is not very good, it is dangerous for them because they are hunters and it would prevent them from hunting. They should not put collars on them, especially the ones with cubs because it is also dangerous for them and their cubs, for their survival. They should not be given something that will prevent them from their normal hunting abilities; if they cannot survive themselves their cubs will not survive either. Some Inuit have found bears dying because they have tags or collars that prevent their normal hunting abilities (IOHP 323).

When not hindered by human activities, however, the polar bear is a masterful hunter. Nanuq has been observed catching almost every marine mammal, including ringed seals, bearded seals, small belugas, and even young walruses. In the case of walrus, bears have to be careful, for an adult walrus in the water could easily harm or kill a bear. When hunting walrus, a bear usually attacks smaller individuals, and Inuit note that it may use a chunk of ice to help stun its victim. Whatever the tactics, they are invariably well suited to the chosen prey.

They know their techniques and they use their teeth to catch it … when they are approaching an animal they are aiming to catch, they will exercise their jaws so they will bite on them. … they are very smart. They think of plans how to kill, they could be compared to human thoughts in that way. Some might be even wiser than some men when they are hunting… (IOHP 323).

The polar bear’s methods of hunting seals on ice are very similar to those of humans (explained under nattiq, ringed seal). First the bear sniffs out an aglu (seal breathing hole). Depending on the depth of snow covering the hole, the bear now adopts one of various strategies. It may scratch partway through the ice dome of the aglu, cover the opening with its body, and then settle down to wait until the seal arrives in the hole. Then it plunges its head through the thinned ice roof, and grabs the seal. By leaving the roof partially intact and blocking the light, the bear prevents the seal from becoming alarmed at the light streaming into its aglu. At other times, when the snow and ice covering is thinner, the bear does not dig directly through the dome of the aglu, but off to the side. This serves the same purpose, of allowing the bear access to the seal while not warning it that something is wrong. Once the bear has caught the seal, often by pinning it to the ice with its claws and biting it, it pulls its prey up through the hole in the ice and snow. Although they may lack weight and strength, young bears rapidly learn these techniques by watching their mothers (IOHP 323, 050).

At times during the winter, seals come up through their holes and onto the surface of the ice. Here, still hidden under a thick snow covering, they hollow out dens where they can lie protected from the cold winds. A hunting polar bear can easily smell a seal uutuqajaartuq, lying under the snow. If the bear were to break through the roof of the den, however, the seal would quickly escape back down through its aglu. Instead, the bear walks over to the area of the den, locating the exact spot by the smell and the hollow sound under its feet, and then retraces its footsteps to the edge of the ice. From there it swims underwater until it reaches the hole, sticks its head up and grabs the seal from below! (IOHP 323). When the occupant of the den is not an adult seal, but a young pup, the bear takes the more direct approach of simply jumping on the roof of the den with its forelegs, reaching in and grabbing the pup in its teeth. This method of hunting is critical during the period when young bears are growing quickly, and Inuit note that as soon as the seal pups are born, many bears head towards the ice shelves where the seal dens are located, in order to take advantage of the feast (Randa 1994).

In the spring, when seals come out to bask in the sun on top of the ice, they form an ideal target for nanuq. Having spotted a seal, the bear crawls forward across the ice, advancing slowly and silently, often covering its black nose with a paw. The Inuit emphasize that the more patient the bear, the more likely it is to succeed. When it arrives within a few paces of the seal, the bear launches itself forward to grab its prey before it can reach the water (Randa 1994). In order to travel across thin ice, polar bears adopt the same tactics as humans – or perhaps the humans followed the bears’ example. At first, the bear walks with legs spread wide to distribute its weight over the ice, and if this is not enough it crawls along on its belly until it reaches more solid footing. “I remember seeing one that was fleeing away from us, she found that the ice was too thin [so] she went on her stomach and just pulled herself along the ice… Alongside her was her young, running while she crawled along the ice using her [belly] for a slide” (IOHP 162).

In open water where there are no breathing holes, bears find it more difficult to catch a seal, because seals are faster and more maneuverable than bears underwater. However, a bear can still catch seals in these conditions. It waits on the edge of an ice floe until a seal appears at the surface, and immediately pounces on the seal before it can escape. Then, holding on with its teeth, it hauls its prey up onto the ice (IOHP 442). Catching seals right in the water is even more challenging, but occasionally nanuq is successful. In the warm summer weather, sometimes seals sleep on their backs at the surface of the water, absorbing the sunshine. A seal in this position is known as tirliq, “game that is unaware that it is being stalked”. The stalker is once again nanuq, who, having spotted the sleeping seal, slips silently into the water and swims quietly until he can grab the seal between paws and teeth (Randa 1994). The Inuit have great respect for the bear’s abilities to hunt both on land and in the water.

They can be in the water for a long time because it is their habitat. They are different from land animals, they live on the moving ice so they can be in the water for a long time. The water is their hunting ground. When they get to a dry place their fur rids water very quickly. When they shake off the water from their fur it dries very quickly. They are different from land animals because they spend a great deal of time in the water. They can dive in and be submerged for quite some time, that is because that is where they hunt (IOHP 061).

Like many predators, the polar bear prefers to hunt at dawn and dusk, resting during the brightest hours of the day until the light grows less and it can be less conspicuous as it prowls over the ice floes. During the height of summer, bears are seldom seen by Inuit, as they often remain far from the coast amongst the sea ice, where they can continue to hunt for seals (IOHP 442). Polar bears are particularly affected by the reduction in sea ice caused by global warming. As the seasons gradually become warmer, the period before ice breakup becomes shorter and bears have less opportunity to hunt for seals on the ice.

Polar bears mate in the spring time. At this time, males are said to be aggressive and very protective of females. During the comings and goings associated with mating, juvenile bears sometimes get separated from their mothers. Generally, however, young bears stay with their mother for two years, often until they are as big as she is.

About the time of the first big snowfalls in early winter, the pregnant female bear digs a den in the snow where she can give birth to her small cubs. In order to dig a new den, she leaves her previous, “teenaged” cub outside, and they become known as avinnaajuk, “one separated from its mother”. While the mother is in her den, these young bears remain in the area, returning frequently to the den site (IOHP 061). When the new cubs are born, the female bear nurses them for several weeks before they grow big enough to come out into the open. An Igloolik hunter describes what happens next:

When the spring arrives, the mother polar bear will take her cubs out of their den, as the bear cubs are now able to move around and are active on their own. This is usually about the time seal pups are being born. The mother bear will start to go around taking her cubs along. At first they will not cover a large area. As the cubs get bigger she will take them for longer distances, hunting for seal pups on which they will depend on for food. As they start to roam around the mother bear would go at a slow pace, while the cubs would follow, usually at a run. As the cubs grow they will start to go on the same stride as their mother. When the seals start to bask on the ice the cubs will start to go on long distances. When a bear is fully grown they are intelligent. As far as the hunting habits are concerned they equal that of a human intelligence. This is on account of their subsistence hunting. However, polar bears have a tendency of walking with the wind (IOHP 146).

A newborn cub is known as atiqtalaaq. When it grows old enough to leave the den, its name changes:

An atiqtaq is a cub that has just come out of a den. They would be made to exercise near the den by getting them to play around, and made to walk to some distance from the den, but they would continue to return to the den. Once the cubs become more able they would be taken away from the den towards the floe edge. These mother polar bears are called atiqtalik when they have just taken their cubs out of the den. The mother bears with their atiqtaq would hunt seals through the breathing holes at the time when the seal pups are just being born. These are the bears that had given birth later than the first. The bears give birth to their cubs not all at once but one after the other (IOHP 061).

Inuit occasionally kept polar bear cubs as pets, and found that they quickly grew accustomed to living with people, joining in games, playing in puddles and romping about. Only when they became bigger did they become a problem (IOHP 061).

Not only female bears dig dens. Many male bears, particularly the older ones, also burrow out shelters under the snow, in which they sleep for most of the dark period of winter. Dens require a good snow roof over the top, and a layer of snow on top of the earth underneath, so they can only be 1ocated in areas with lots of snow. Most bears place their dens on hillsides in the lee of the wind, or in other places where deep snow accumulates. Because suitable areas are not common, bears return year after year to the same locations for the winter. Some bears enter their dens at the beginning of the dark period and stay hidden under the snow, almost hibernating, until the light returns. Others, particularly younger bears, stay active for most of the winter, hunting seals at the floe edge and only sleeping in a den for a short period of time. In this case, their temporary den, which has an opening through which they can go in and out, is called a tisi. The den of a sleeping bear which remains hidden for several months is called an apitiq, and has no exit hole until the bear wakes up in early spring and digs out through the snow (Randa 1994). Bears with dens are called apitiliit, “those that have snow to cover them”. The whole process of selecting a site, building a den, and then living inside it parallels the construction of an igloo, and is one more sign to the Inuit of the similarities between themselves and their big neighbours, nanuq.

As they prepare to enter their dens for the winter, bears eat a large quantity of plants and various grasses. These compact together in the bear’s digestive tract and eventually form a plug, which appears to block the bear from defecating while asleep. Inuit also suggest that this plug acts like the knot in the neck of a balloon, keeping some air inside the digestive tract and preventing the stomach from collapsing completely in the absence of food. Once the bear wakes up in the spring, the plug is defecated and its digestive system returns to normal. A hunter explains what happens to the bear’s stomach while it is inside the den, unable to hunt for food:

When the female bears are in their den, they will not have anything to eat so their stomach shrinks from lack of food, except there is an area that had a bubble to keep the stomach from complete contraction. The parts of the stomach that shrink will harden, but the area that had a bubble will be able to hold food when she starts to eat again. When she gets her first food she will eat only a small amount, enough to fill the area where the bubble had been. As she starts to feed, the rest of her stomach will slowly expand. Soon after she will start to eat her full share” (IOHP 146).

Hunters state that although a mother bear will defend her offspring, she is less dangerous than a male because once she has attacked the marauder, she will immediately return to her cubs. A fully grown male [an angujjuaq], on the other hand, “must be feared”, because once he attacks he will not move away. Younger males are faster than older ones, but the large, mature bears are more experienced fighters. Hunters speak in surprisingly nonchalant terms about being attacked by bears. One man explained that when attacking, a bear always has one forepaw extended, and one must jump to the opposite side as the bear cannot pivot easily in that direction. However, he also added that although he was “just following the instructions that were taught to me… You feel like you’re in another world the moment the bear attacks and you jump to get out of its way” (IOHP 058).

Different people could be more or less attractive to bears. “It is termed as saatiqttut – easily attracted – and saatingittut – ignored. As for myself I am extremely saatiqttut. … I tend to get attacked by polar bears at all times” (IOHP 442). Some said that this was as a result of being overprotected by one’s parents. One would imagine that this was not a desirable quality in hunters!

Bears occasionally prowled around Inuit camps, and teams of sled dogs served as important alarm systems. The culprits were usually young bears that had been separated from their mothers, often during the mating season: “Polar bears that are known as avinnajjuit have a habit of getting right to the camp. They are also known to roam around more than other polar bears, so they tend to get right to the places where people make their homes” (IOHP 049, 061). In addition to defending their camps from marauders when necessary, Inuit actively hunted bears whenever they came across one. They were particularly prized for their fur, which is extremely thick and warm. Bears were hunted with specially trained sled dogs. When the team saw a bear, the hunter would encourage them by imitating the sharp “Caw!” of a raven. Ravens frequently follow after polar bears in search of carcasses to scavenge, so this sound is familiar to bears and does not alarm them but may cause them to slow down as they investigate the sound (IOHP 058). Often the bear would stop to defecate as it was being pursued by the dog teams – a characteristic that was noted in one Inuit legend, when a shaman became a bear and was hunted by dogs (IOHP 160).

When they caught up with the bear, the hunter and dogs would attack, taking care to keep out of reach of the powerful paws and jaws. When in trouble, one is advised to lie on the ground motionless: “…when a polar bear attacks a man and the man fails to dodge the attack, he would have to get to the ground and grab his head and stay motionless. As long as the man remains still, the bear will bite the man without repeating it, thereby preventing any serious injuries by mauling” (IOHP 050). Noah Piugaattuk, an experienced bear hunter, goes on to advise that one should try to wound the bear in the hindquarters, as unlike a caribou which would keep running, a bear wounded in the lower legs is unable to move around effectively. “The reason is due to the fact that polar bears use their hind legs much more than other species of animals. They will get up on their hind legs and will in fact take steps like a man would do…” (IOHP 050).

Nanuq, powerful, intelligent, and inspiring both awe and fear, was often implicated in important events in the lives of the Inuit, whether acting through a shaman or becoming directly involved. Many stories tell of Inuit who were saved from starvation thanks to the help of a polar bear, which either caught seals for them, or allowed itself to be killed. Sometimes bear spirits revenged themselves on selfish camps who would not share food with others, while bringing captured prey to the outcasts. In order to make them aggressive in pursuing prey, and to give them tough paws that would not be cut by the sharp spring ice, young dogs were hit with the paw of a polar bear or with the fur from its anal area. Hunters wishing to be fierce in the attack ate cooked bear meat by ripping it from the bone directly with their teeth, not using a knife (IOHP 197).

With all the powers associated with nanuq, it is not surprising that a lot of taboos had to be observed whenever a bear was killed. One such taboo ruled that the hunter bringing in the bear had to remove his outer clothes before coming into an igloo, reminiscent of the way a bear was thought to remove its skin once safely inside its den.

Although it is an important character in the story of the origin of the Pleiades constellation, the origin of the polar bear itself is not clear. Two possibilities are suggested, but in Igloolik there is no certain answer to the question, “Where did nanuq come from”? One possibility is that the polar bear was created, along with seals, bearded seals, and walrus, from the joints of Sedna’s fingers when her father cut them off. Another possibility is that the bear was one of the offspring of the marriage of Sedna to her father’s dog. No one seems to know for sure (Randa 1994). Perhaps, in the end, the “great white one” deserves a little mystery.

polar bear