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Reawakening of the Medicine People, part 6: Return of the Bearwalker

Makwa-giizis (Bear Moon), February 21, 2024


Makwa Bimose Giiwewin ("Return of the Bear Walker") painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
Makwa Bimose Giiwewin ("Return of the Bear Walker") painting by Zhaawano Giizhik

"The Ojibways have great respect for the Bear. According to their legends, in the distant past the Bear had a human form and was in fact an ancestor of the Ojibways. Therefore he understands the Indian language and will never attack or fight any Indian if he is addressed properly." 
- Miskwaabik Animikii (Norval Morrisseau)

To the Anishinaabeg, the bear is the one who can walk between the upper, middle, and lower worlds. Bear is a friend and teacher, and also a guide to help people in their travels between the worlds. Bear is often seen as female. She is the maternal one who brings us dreams and medicine and shows us how we can find peace, safety, and direction in her home in the North. She is the epitome of the concept of mino-bimaadiziwin – a good way of a life.

From of old, makwag, as we call the bears, have been icons of ziigwan, the spring season. Our People have always mirrored themselves in makwa's yearly pattern of hibernation, isolation, and emerging with new life as soon as the winter ends. This is why still today our ceremonies, initiation rituals, puberty rites, and a special women's ceremony called "spirit bear path," follow his cyclic pattern and invoke the bear's power of renewal. Regarding herb medicine, Makwa is considered by our healers as ogimaa (leader) of all animals; if a person dreams of makwa he or she is chosen by the bear to be expert in the use of medicine made from plants and berries for curing illness.


Heya~wya~whe~ H ͤya~whe~yawhe~yaw!
Heya~wya~whe~.H ͤya~whe~yawhe~yaw!
H ͤya~whe~yawhe~yaw! H ͤya~whe~yawhe~yaw!
H ͤya~whe~yawhe~yaw! H ͤya~whe~yawhe~yaw!
Manidoo-makwa, gaa-bi-naagozid
Manidoo-makwa, bi-gizhaawenimishinaan!

(Yes-sey, yes-sey, yes, yes, yes!
Yes-sey, yes-sey, yes, yes, yes!
Yes-yes-yes! Yes-yes-yes!
Yes-yes-yes Yes-yes-yes!
Spirit Bear appears here.
Spirit Bear! Come, have zeal for us!)

- Ojibwe Anishinaabe Ogichidaa (Warrior) Sundance song to the spirit of the Bear - performed by a singer of the  Nakawē (Saulteaux) branch of the Ojibwe Anishinaabe Nation


That the Anishinaabeg chose makwa the bear to be a symbol of guardianship and motherhood stems from the origin story of the first Anishinaabeg, about how a mother bear volunteered to give her life to the twins whom Giizhigookwe (Sky Woman) had created and lowered to the Turtle Island/Earth. When the twins nearly died from malnutrition after Sky Woman’s breasts had dried up, the bear, who took pity on them, saved their lives by offering solid nourishment in the form of her meat. And from the time of her sacrifice, when hunters take the life of a bear, it is customary to pay tribute to its spirit; in the old days, oftentimes its skull would be placed in a tree above the camp or village so that its spirit continued to watch over the Anishinaabeg...

NOOKE is the name of the Ojibwe bear clan. It is no coincidence that the word forms the beginning of NOOKOMIS, which in our language means "grandmother." Grandmother bear is the one who, many strings of lives ago, initiated the manidoo makwa ikwewowin (spirit bear women's ceremony), a very old women's rite of passage that is still being conducted today.*

The ceremony, conducted around the time when girls journey to womanhood and become mako-wii ("bear-woman"), connects young women with their spirit by having them take on the strength of Grandmother Bear. Walking the Spirit Bear Trail gives women, in their roles of ikwe (woman) and weniijaanid (mother), and, among others, of odawemaan (sister), ozigosan (aunt), and odaangoshenyan (cousin), support throughout their lives as it strengthens their place and purpose within their kin and community.


Amanj igo apii waabamad maaba makwa gamiigwechendamomi. Gichinokiitaagna maampii makwa pane.

"Whenever you see the bear, we should give thanks. He works hard for the people."

– Odaawaa Anishinaabe saying

Makwa Bimose Giiwewin ("Return of the Bear Walker") detail

Bearwalker: A person powerful and malevolent and believed able to assume the shape of a bear or other animal.

– Meriam Webster dictionary

Although the Bear is a positive symbol in our culture, there is a negative, if not terrifying, side to her as well.  Many Anishinaabeg believe that the makwa bimose or bear walker is a maji-mide (evil sorcerer) who walks at night and uses the Bear Medicine for selfish purposes, often leading to inflicting harm to people in the form of sickness and death. But even if this is true, does that mean bears are the epitome of evil?

No, it doesn't. Everything in life is inspirited by forces that aren’t necessarily good or bad, but are simply there; it is the intent of a Mide (person of the Midewiwin Lodge), the direction of his or her heart, which determines if a force is employed for good or evil purposes. As in so much of life, what Is simply is, and everything that is has two sides. It can be turned to good or evil purpose by the direction of one's heart and intent. Once a Midew (participant of the Midewiwin rites) is of the second degree, they have been endowed with supernatural powers that normally are used for healing purposes. However, there are accounts of maji-mideg, so-called Bad Medicine Persons, who are requested by ill-willing people to destroy an enemy or rival. On such an occasion a maji-mide – sometimes called a maji-aya'aa, or evil being will employ his or her powers and assume the form of an animal (or in some cases a ball of fire), and after having  injured or killed the victim – no matter how remote his whereabouts – , they will resume their human form so as to appear innocent of the crime. This is why in the old times sometimes impressions of the footprints of a bear or another animal were found in the vicinity of wiigiwaaman (lodges) or homes occupied by victims of a crime…this was, allegedly, the work of a maji-mide using his bear powers for selfish purposes...

Walking the bear path, however, hasn't always been associated with doing evil.

Wii-da aangishkaakawen

(“Your footprints will fade
As if deep into the earth.”)

– Ojibwe Midewiwin song to the bear

The origin of of he makwa bimosewiwin, or Bearwalker Society, was taught to me as follows. Originally, before bad medicine people started to misuse their spiritual powers to transform themselves into bears causing harm to individuals, families, and communities, bear walkers showed themselves to the people as symbols of hope, reminding them that there is life after death and that there were benevolent spirits out there who were willing to help the people if called upon.

We are reminded here once more that Makwa is symbolic of the Anishinaabeg themselves: both bear and humans are known to “walk the bear path” both inside and outside the Lodge.

Years ago, when Anishinaabeg still knew how to walk and talk with the animals, they used to believe in bawaaganag/animal spirits that would come to help them in times of famine, sickness, and other misfortune. Of all the animals, Anishinaabeg favored makade-makwa, the black bear. They saw makade-makwa as a protector and healer of humankind. This is why the spirits chose makade-makwa to become an ogimaa bawaagan (important dream visitor) and show themselves as a bear walking on two feet. These bear walkers were once humans who died and crossed over to the spirit world. The jiibayag (soul-spirits) of these deceased Anishinaabeg would show themselves as a black bear standing or walking on two feet to a chosen relative on earth as a sign that the spirits heard their prayers and that help was being sent. So, the spirits of deceased Anishinaabeg were sent to walk a medicine path called makomiikana: The Bear Path. The reason why the spirits did not send ordinary makade-makwag on the mako-miikana is that they figured that ordinary makade-makwag wouldn't be able to get the message through to the people that spirits were being called into action to help them.

So great are the spiritual and curative powers possessed by the bear, that Midewiwin healers traditionally follow makomiikana in proceeding from a lower to a higher degree in their Midewiwin Lodge. We are reminded here once more that Makwa is symbolic of the Anishinaabeg themselves: both bear and humans are known to “walk the bear path” both inside and outside the Lodge.

I think that, especially in this day and age when conflict and negativity overshadow the world, it is time we ask for the gete-mino-bimosewag, the good bearwalkers of long ago, to return and show us the way back to mino-bimaadiziwin – a good and wholesome life.

>To read more about the topic of bearwalkers, see: The Girl Who walked the Bear Path.



*Another name for this ceremony is Manidoo Makwakwewowin : "Spirit Bear Ceremony."


 Image: Makwa Bimose Giiwewin ("Return of the Bear Walker") © 2024 Zhaawano Giizhik

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