Above: Two bear fetishes from the bear circle carved by Zuni artist Stewart Quandelacy. The red one is a Mother bear, the green one I call Tree bear.
When I was a little girl my little brother and I played in my grandparents’ woods, dragging boxes behind us that were full of stuffed animals. My little brother loved bears and his box was stuffed to the brim with bears of all sizes and shapes. In contrast, my cardboard box was filled with a variety of creatures and one giant frog that burped!
When I was in my mid thirties I developed a fascination with bears which totally baffled me because I had always associated with them with my brother, who, by that time, had been dead for many years.
This obsession began when I discovered identical life sized stuffed bears in every store I visited in Portland Maine during the holiday season. After seeing so many I had the uncanny feeling that this giant mole brown bear was trying to communicate something important to me. I ended up buying one of these bears in spite of feeling ridiculous. The bear sat in the back seat and stared at me with deep brown glassy eyes all the way home. I named her Cocoa and put her in one of my kitchen chairs where she was always present to greet people! I also made a crown for her out of grape vines and seed pods. My adult children had both moved out by then and when they visited and first saw Cocoa both thought their very unconventional mother had gone over the edge.
The following spring I began a self directed academic study of Native American mythology and I was amazed to learn that bears were very important protectors for many tribes.
By accident or design I also discovered bear fetishes around the same time. A fetish is an image of an animal (usually) carved out of stone that embodies the power and spirit of that creature. These small carvings are worn by their Indigenous owners who believe that the spirit of the animal acts as a personal guide and protected them from harm.
There was a local woman who went to Tucson Arizona to buy fetishes each winter, and when I discovered her collection I was hooked. The first bear fetish I bought had been carved by artist Stewart Quandelacy, a Zuni Indian who believed that the power of the animal would speak directly to the person who bought the stone.
This was how Blue came into my life. She was a small red (2/12 inches high) pipe-stone bear with a little pearl fish in her mouth. I made her a little pouch and took her everywhere with me… There was something about having her with me that felt really good. It was like having a special secret. I never showed her to anyone.
One day I went back to the local shop and the owner let me open the cabinet and sit on the floor examining other Zuni animal fetishes. Eventually, I went home with a frog. Over a period of a couple of years I acquired lizards and a badger, hawks, and a raven, and most importantly, more Quandelacy Medicine Bears.
One night I had a dream that the bears were sitting in a circle and they were healing someone who was ill. All the bears looked just like mine; the only difference was that these bears were alive, speaking in a language that I could understand.
The very next day I began to create a bear circle with my bears and other fetishes. There was always a bear that represented one of the four cardinal directions. I acquired a piece of deerskin and each fetish was carefully wrapped after I finished “working” with the circle by talking to the animals, and moving them around. I don’t know what else to call this but play. I had no idea what I was doing, but I felt like something was happening.
A life threatening personal experience motivated me to set up the bear circle. Inside the circle I wrote a small prayer, and left the circle open to the night. The frightening experience dissipated and I had a powerful sense that this bear circle had somehow shifted something to remove the threat. I began using the bear circle as a focus for prayer, first for myself, and then for others.
A couple of years later I discovered that the Bear Clan of the Lakota Sioux used bear circles for healing. Apparently, I hadn’t made up the bear circle after all! I began to research bears as healers and discovered that these “medicine bears” did lots of healing and were often associated with plant and root medicine, that is they healed most effectively through the use of plants. Most likely I had tapped into this ceremonial healing tradition because of my close relationship with the spirit bears and Nature as a whole.
The most unusual part of this story is that the bear circle helped me to break down walls in my psyche. I had been brought up in the western academic tradition. I was a person who needed to have concrete proof from “experts” that my personal experience was valid. Working with the bear circle, paying attention to my dreams, and celebrating earth based ritual brought me into a new relationship with myself.
Ironically, when I discovered the work of Rupert Sheldrake and became acquainted with field theory I learned how the bear circle probably worked, but over time these academic explanations came to matter much less. Time has shown me that calling on the bears for help simply works. Whatever the bear circle is capable of doing is always in service to Life as a whole, even if it includes death. Needless to say I do not travel anywhere without taking a small circle of bears with me.
I am presently living in Northern New Mexico, a place where the veil between the mundane and sacred world seems thin, probably because we are still surrounded by wilderness. I noticed shortly after my arrival that I experienced the potential power of the bear circle more intimately. That I am living on land that has been sacred to Indigenous Pueblo peoples for a very long time may also be partly responsible for some of this intensity because I also have Native American roots. I am developing a powerful sense of ‘home’ as I wander over the hills listening to a river that sings a song that seems to be “calling” out to me just as urgently as the bears continue to do.
Pay Attention, they say. And I do.