The Importance of Reindeer and Bears in Siberian Tradition

The reindeer, (also called caribou) is a very sacred animal. First, let me tell you how they came to be.

There was an old couple who had only one, small, young, daughter. The man was too old to hunt and they were very poor. One day, the girl was in the forest when she came upon a great bear. The bear said to her “Your family is poor. Kill me and I will help them.”

The girl said that she was only a small girl and how could she kill him? But the bear insisted.

The girl summoned up her strength and was able to perform the task. She brought the slain bear back to her family and they began to divide up the different parts of the meat for storage. It was late, so they had to wait for the next day to cook the meat.

In the morning a remarkable thing happened. Every part of the bear had turned into something else. From the intestines came ropes and harnesses. From the liver came a sled, and from the body came reindeer. Now the family had everything they needed and they were no longer poor.

This story shows how so many peoples in Siberia and Mongolia rely upon the reindeer. It provides food, it provides clothing. Its hide covers tents; its antlers are used for tools. The soles of its feet make footwear bottoms. Reindeer pull sleds and people ride on their backs. The reindeer are vital because so many peoples’ ways of life are dependent upon them.

I thank the Bear for giving the great gift of reindeer.

Indigenous Reindeer Herders Under Seige by Oil Industry

The Bear Ceremony

All over Siberia, aboriginal peoples have variations of the bear ceremony. Bears have been revered back since the time of the cave bear. Bears are considered sacred because they are the shamans of the animal kingdom. When a bear dies, especially for ceremony, it’s bones are not buried, but placed up in an aranga (platform). This is called a wind burial and it is how shamans are laid to rest.

Among the Amur peoples, bears are considered the Lords of the Earth. Bear feasts are held to insure good hunting and health. Bear feasts are also to honour ancestors, join two families into one, or adopt someone into a group.

All Amur peoples capture bear cubs and raise them. When they are full grown they are led through the village and the men prove their bravery by getting close to them. Then the bear is killed, cooked, and eaten.

In Western Siberia, the Khant also have a bear ceremony. When a bear is ceremonially killed, there is a communal feast. Stories, games, and songs accompany the feast. Hundreds of bear songs can be sung. A bear feast will last 4 days for a female bear and 5 days for a male. The head of the bear is placed in a place of honour in the home of the person who killed it. The bones are given a wind burial on a platform.