First Nations Community Fights to Save the Rare Spirit Bear

Fagjun | Published 2017-11-04 16:21

The spirit bear, also known as the Kermode bear, is traditionally considered to be sacred to First Nations people. One First Nations community is now fighting to keep the bear--and their heritage--alive.

Photo by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic Creative

Deep in the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, you’ll find a rare, beautiful white bear--if you look hard enough. Frank Kermode, who had been the director of the Royal B.C. Museum, definitely looked hard enough, as he was among the first to discover the bear. Or, maybe, the more accurate way to say this is that he was the first to study the bear. After all, First Nations peoples had known about the bear for years.


There have long been stories about this mysterious bear, passed down from generation to generation. One story tells of the origins of the rare, elusive bear. According to the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation, the bear came into existence when the ice sheets in the world began to recede. The creator of all things created the spirit bear to remind him of the color of the ice and snow.

Encountering a Rare, Sacred Bear

Photo by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic Creative



Decades ago, however, the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation had to stop telling these stories. Doug Neasloss, Kitasoo/Xai’Xais chief, recalled that he never heard any stories about the spirit when he was growing up in the 1980s. Apparently, the elders of the community thought that if word about the bear spread, it would fall victim to trophy hunters. Thus, when Neasloss became a park ranger in the late 1990s, he was confused when he was told to look for a white bear. After all, there was no such thing.


Photo by Ian McAllister, National Geographic Creative



Imagine his surprise when, while he was relieving himself on a tree, a white bear ambled into his line of sight, completely unconcerned with his presence. It was Neasloss’s fateful encounter with that one spirit bear that would improve fortunes of the community that stopped telling its stories to keep the bears safe.


These rare white bears are actually a black bear subspecies. Interestingly, these white bears are usually born to two black-furred parents. A rare genetic mutation, which both parents would have to carry, results in much lighter fur. There are only about 400 in the wild, living in a rainforest that stretches from Princess Royal Island to Prince Rupert in British Columbia, Canada. Hunting the bear is illegal.

A Spirit Bear in the Bush

A bear photographed at the Spirit Bear Lodge [Photo by Maximilian Helm]



Perhaps it’s a poetic turn of events, as the existence ghostly white bear was instrumental in saving the community that sought to protect it. In fact, protecting the spirit bears--as well as the other bears in the forests--can greatly benefit Neasloss’s hometown of Klemtu, which at the time had an 80% unemployment rate.


In this case, the bears were infinitely worth more alive than dead and lying in the back of a trophy hunter’s truck. Klemtu can pull itself up by its bootstraps not by sacrificing its natural resources, but by protecting them.


Long story short, ecotourism became Klemtu’s second-largest industry, and unemployment has fallen from 80% to 10%. Bear-watching, instead of bear-hunting, was promoted. Neasloss helped create the Spirit Bear Lodge, which went from a small float house to a luxury lodge. It’s come a long way--just like Klemtu.


And all thanks to the semi-mythical spirit bear.

Hey! Where are you going?? Subscribe!

Get weekly science updates in your inbox!