Guardians of the glacial past

How ‘maas ol, the spirit bear, connects us to the last glacial maximum of the Pacific Northwest 

A spirit bear walks the intertidal zone of Princess Royal Island, occasionally stopping to flip rocks in search of food underneath.
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I was about five when I first first encountered ‘maas ol (white bear). I was in our community van on my way to nursery school when the driver pulled over on the side of the road and pointed out a white bear with a white cub. I was amazed to see this enigmatic being walking along the roadside foraging on huk (our word for cow parsnip, a plant the Gitxsan people enjoy as food and medicine). I was enthralled with this first encounter: little was known to the western world about these bears, so we never learned much about them in public schools. Typically, the stories, films and books revolved around black-coloured bears, brown bears and polar bears.

Spirit bears consume as much salmon as possible before hibernation.
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As a teenager, I heard stories about the white bear that showed me the importance of ‘maas ol to our cultures in the Pacific Northwest. This being was our connection to our lands before the last glacial maximum carved out the landscapes we know today. Many of the observations that coastal peoples made about the existence of ‘mass ol shaped the stories that, until recently, were deemed to be myths by the newcomers to these lands. 

The white bear, which has now become an eco-tourism opportunity for First Nations in the area, is an excellent link to the period the western world refers to as the last phase of the Pleistocene epoch. Roughly 30,000 years ago, the ocean levels began to drop significantly as the world started to change. The Gitxsan people describe this as the “time we lived under the ice” — it appeared that the ice grew from the sky down from the mountain tops, covering the world below. The gal’tsap (villages) and miin gal’tsap (cities) established through the mountain ranges now had to move westward to the coast or south to the remaining open lands. The flora and fauna also began to migrate, and this migration is what the people followed. 

Fresh water flowing down new or established tributaries along the coast became highly attractive to the Pacific salmon. This habitat change influenced this beloved food source’s life cycle and brought the species that relied on the salmon for food into the same smaller ranges. These species included sim smax, the black bear, and in the stories told by the people of the Pacific Northwest, we can identify that this foraging bear then had a less open range to move around in. The black bears that followed the salmon became much more dependent on salmon than they typically had been. Around this period, the coastal nations also started seeing more black bears with light-coloured cubs. This alteration to the bear’s behaviour and appearance was a visual reminder to all the people of the significant climactic change the world was going through. 

Map data: Dalton, AS; Margold, M; Stokes, CR; Et Al. An updated Radiocarbon-based ice margin chronology for the last deglaciation of the North American ice sheet complex, quaternary science reviews, March 9, 2020: Gitxsan territory: Nativeland.ca, 2023; Kitasoo Xai-xais territory; Kitasoo/Xai’xais territory map: Klemtu.com/stewardship/planning/protocol-agreements/; spirit bear range: Distribution area of spirit bear in British Columbia map, Bearconservation.org.uk/Kermode-bear-or-spirit-bear/ (Map: Chris Brackley)
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‘Maas ol has been referred to by settler researchers as the Kermode bear. These researchers initially theorized that this bear was either albino or a separate bear species. But the Indigenous Peoples’ observations of the black bears on the coast becoming more dependent on the salmon run during the glacial maximum align well with the new prevailing theory: that this white fur is an adaptation to camouflage the bear, allowing it to blend in against the turbulent waters and contrasting skies the spawning salmon see above them. Indeed, research has shown that the white bears tend to be more successful at catching salmon from tributaries. 

In Gitxsan epistemology, there is energy in all things, which means that all things have life, even the inanimate. To better disseminate this concept, the Gitxsan people personified many beings to ensure all people respect the world as they each respect one another. As this was a significant change for all beings, the people along the coast told the story of how We’gyet, the personification of creation energy, made some black bears white to remind us of the land before the Ice Age.

The story of the white bear exemplifies how oral histories preserve a particular historical moment and the teachings that travel with the story. Those stories are attached to a specific name and then bestowed upon different members within each nation. Those individuals are responsible for understanding the story and its teachings, just like today’s academic scholars become experts on observable ideas. Through my work on Indigenous knowledges, I’ve been guided to the story of ‘maas ol. Connecting the dots historically has allowed me to expand on what the story of ‘maas ol means in this era of climate change. 

A key figure in expanding the research about Gitxsan oral histories is Hanamuxw. Hanamuxw is one of my clan brothers (we are both Gisk’ahaast padeek), one of my teachers and one of the Gitxsan Sim’ooget — Sim’ooget means “the life energy of the people” and is now understood as “Chief.” The names the Sim’ooget carry are considered the energy of the land.

Hanamuxw helps to define what our oral histories are — and to condense these histories into a form that can be understood and used for many purposes, including defending Gitxsan culture, sovereignty and land. Among the many knowledges he carries is that of ‘maas ol. I’ve travelled with Hanamuxw to Kitasoo Xai’xais territory to exchange stories of the white bear.

Nestled in a bay on Kitasoo Xai’xais territory in the Pacific Northwest is a vibrant community called Klemtu. This territory has been home to its people since time immemorial. Their stories, names and language connect these cultures and coastal nations to a time long before the last glacial maximum.

Historically, coastal communities would connect during large gatherings at the longhouse. The Gitxsan term for these gatherings is Yukw, where many house groups or nations get together to take care of business, exchange information, conduct coming of age ceremonies, make repayments or apologies, have shame feasts — the list goes on. 

We arrive at Spirit Bear Lodge, a large building with a warm and calming atmosphere that stands tall at the edge of the shoreline, embraced by the Great Bear Rainforest in a pristine cove on Swindle Island. Here, the legacy of ‘maas ol — or mooksgm’ol to the Kitasoo Xai’xais — is preserved and celebrated. The bear, once a symbol of a past untouched world, now embodies resilience, adaptation and the timeless teachings we must heed as we navigate this era of climate change.

The writer, Git’Kon (Roxanne Robinson), Hanamuxw and Troy Robinson share stories and knowledges in the Big House in Klemtu.
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My first introduction to the lodge and the community is through community matriarch Roxanne Robinson, assistant manager at the lodge. I am welcomed by her warm smile and a shared understanding of the weight and grace carried in our stories.

Together, we walk through Klemtu and talk about ‘maas ol. Hanamuxw also shares his memories of the people he’s known along the coast. We walk by the clear waters of an estuary teeming with life from a diverse ecosystem containing freshwater aquatic, terrestrial and marine environments. Our path leads past friendly faces and community meeting spaces. The end of our walk takes us to the Big House. The Gitxsan call this wilp yukw, the big feast house. 

The interior of this gathering space glows in the sunlight shining through the smoke hole on the roof. Large cedar carvings hold the beams overhead. It is a place of law, history and the living traditions of the Kitasoo Xai’xais people. This is where the community connects, entertains one another, teaches and takes care of business. Sharing in this sacred space seems only natural.

At the Big House, we piece together the story shared by our nations: the story of We’gyet, the shapeshifter, who asked the bears which of them would volunteer to remind the people of the lands before the ice carved them. This wasn’t the first time the big ice had shaped these lands; it had happened twice before. This time, We’gyet (in some nations referred to as Raven) wanted to be reminded of the great change to the land. All the nations were now connected to or living in the great city of Temlahamid, and the ice was melting much faster than it had arrived. All the people — as well as all the creatures and plants — were continually moving back and reclaiming the lands they had always called home.

A face-to-face encounter with a white bear as it wanders down a small, winding bear trail along a salmon river.
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We’gyet said: “‘Maas Lik’I’nsxw (polar bear) is already an ambassador for the cold north, but I want you Lik’I’nsxw (grizzly) to help me remind the people of the lands long before the big ice came.” Lik’I’nsxw asked if it would hurt because he remembered how We’gyet used to have white feathers but burned himself black when he stole the sun. We’gyet told him it wouldn’t hurt — and that he would forever be the carrier of this story. But Lik’I’nsxw still did not want to do it as he remembered the pain We’gyet experienced when he carried the sun. Lik’I’nsxw then said, “Why doesn’t Sim Smax (black bear) do it? He ate almost as much salmon as I did when the ice came. I think he changed as much as the land did.” We’gyet then turned to Sim Smax, and asked the black bear the same question. Black bear reluctantly volunteered, so We’gyet made one in every 10 black bears white to remind the people of the immense change caused by the time we “lived under the ice.” (This is a condensed and non-exhaustive version of the story.)

For Hanamuxw, this exchange of knowledge validates all the things he knew about what our ancestors were doing during the Ice Age. “People were living under the ice, travelling under the ice, and they actually tell exactly how they were moving around and what they were doing,” he says. “So the ice-free zones are part of this whole area here, and I was excited to come back here to return and hear and see where we’re taking the work we’ve done on oral histories.”

Watching how the younger generation is taking on this work is so exciting, says Hanamuxw. “Despite all the issues we have with climate change and so forth, we don’t worry about that as much as the western culture because we have lived through climate change, not just once or twice, but three times.”

A camera trap provides a glimpse into the daily life of ‘maas ol.
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One of these youths is Troy Robinson, who has found reconnection while working at Spirit Bear Lodge. “Keeping the culture alive and moving forward generation after generation instead of being lost — even though it is a small part, the lodge still plays a big role in teaching the younger people the stories that hold the history and the morals,” he says.

While in Kitasoo Xai’xais, I saw people developing new stories to add to their adawak, or histories. A story key to their recent history is the development of the Spirit Bear Lodge. The Elders in the community were one of the driving forces behind accomplishing this goal. Doug Neasloss is the director of stewardship at Kitasoo Band and one of the leaders who helped turn the Spirit Bear Lodge into reality. He reflects on why the Elders made the tough choice to bring strangers into the community and how this decision may help preserve the nation’s culture and way of life. 

“In tourism, people get paid to be themselves. They can go out there and interpret who they are and where they’re from,” says Neasloss. “We have watchmen programs, we have language programs, we have people doing a number of different science programs.”

“Seeing what the lodge does within the community and the pride that it brings to the people — it’s beautiful,” says Troy Robinson. “It’s a way for them to connect to their roots. I want people to come to my community to learn about the people, to learn about the culture — and getting to see the spirit bear is an extra.”

In the Big House, the wisdom Roxanne Robinson imparts is profound, touching not only on history but also on the future.

“When my daughter was months old, a spirit bear swam onto the island and was in the community,” she says. “My 99-year-old Nan came out of her house and walked with us to see the bear. She spoke our language and welcomed the bear as family. It showed how important all life is to our people. Getting to walk amongst and co-exist with the wildlife out there is so important. It is a part of our culture.”

A spirit bear scans the water for salmon from atop a fallen tree in a log jam on the river.
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In this time of climate upheaval, the teachings of the Gitxsan and coastal nations serve as historical artifacts and living guideposts. Once neglected by the western world, the Peoples of the coast may carry the necessary knowledge, perspective, understanding and respect for all life’s energy that can become vital pathways toward healing and sustainability.

We can begin this journey with listening, understanding and embracing the wisdom that has existed since time immemorial. Through stories like those surrounding ‘maas ol, both past and present, we find direction, strength and a way to forge a path forward for all to travel.

My time in Klemtu has left me humbled, enlightened and more determined to pursue Indigenous wisdom from other nations. The story of ‘maas ol, in all its layers and nuances, speaks to a universal truth: that our connection to the Earth and each other is sacred and enduring. Lessons we can weave together with our truths as, like ‘maas ol, we face the uncertainties of tomorrow.


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