Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon

Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon

Interview with Michael Engelhard, author of ‘Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon’

UPDATE (February 1, 2017): Michael Engelhard is interviewed on Alaska Public Media’s Polar Bear Science show: 

Polar bear science and culture


UPDATE (February 1, 2017): Michael Engelhard is interviewed on Alaska Public Media’s Polar Bear Science show: 

Polar bear science and culture


Alternatives Journal is honoured to interview author Michael Engelhard, author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, a new look at the complicated lives and deaths of the ‘Lords of the Arctic’.

Author Michael Engelhard (photo credit: Tuti Minondo)

Alternatives Journal (A\J): Why have polar bears captured the human imagination?

Michael Engelhard (ME): For a number of reasons: From their physique to their behavior, they resemble us in many ways. They are big, charismatic top predators living in one of Earth’s most unforgiving environments. They are symbolic of the Arctic, one of the last frontiers of the human imagination and one of the last ecosystems that is still intact. Lastly, we’ve long associated whiteness in animals with certain qualities: the rare, the pure, or the sacred.

What new angle does your book bring out about polar bears?

I am proud to say that Ice Bear is the only book available in any language that focuses entirely on the cultural aspects of polar bears—on 8,000 years of history shared between them and us.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about polar bears?

People think that they’re these really aggressive animals that routinely stalk people. I think these bears are just getting a bad rap, often getting in trouble for what only amounts to curiosity, a trait that, ironically, makes them survivors in a sparse environment. The statistics show that brown bears kill and maul more people per year than polar bears do. Of course their smaller numbers and remoteness also play a role there. Like most creatures, polar bears just want to eat and to procreate, to keep living and to protect their young. Also that they are solitary—but I’ve seen dozens congregate on a whale carcass on Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coast.

You have a background in cultural anthropology and as a wilderness guide—were either of those roles of greater use or value when working on the book?

My work as a wilderness guide in the Arctic predisposed me to write about the North’s most impressive predator, and gave me a hunch that the polar bear’s reputation as a “ruthless killer” is biased and unwarranted. My training as an anthropologist helped me sort through the extensive literature and render complex indigenous concepts regarding the bear—such as those related to shamanism—in language accessible to the layperson. It generally also benefitted the cross-cultural perspective of this animal portrait, and, perhaps most importantly, allowed me to look at our own ideas about the bear through an “outsider’s” lens.

How far back does the common history of polar bears and humans reach? What are the first artifacts testifying the preoccupation of humans with this particular bear?

Although polar bear-human contacts must have occurred before, the earliest archaeological evidence is about 8,000 years old, from a site in northeastern Siberia’s De Long Archipelago. As evidenced by bones from 21 different bears, on Zhokhov Island people hunted the animals, together with reindeer. The earliest artifact that indicates veneration of the bear is a pottery paddle from a female shaman’s grave also in Siberia, dated to the first century CE: it shows a human whose outstretched legs and arms transform into polar bear paws and could depict that shaman’s “spirit helper.”

An important part of your book deals with the mythology of Native peoples and the often-permeable boundaries between humans and bears. Could you please give an example that you find particularly fascinating?

One of my favorite tales of transformation, from Alaska’s Noatak River, tells of a woman who gives birth to twins: one a brown bear, and one a polar bear. They each take off to live in their respective environment, the inland tundra and the sea-ice. To me, this myth not only poetically illustrates the shared heritage of both bear species (polar bears evolved from isolated brown bear populations) but also their closeness to humans—with the implication that we are responsible for their well-being.

Humans respected, but also killed polar bears. To modern ears, this sounds incompatible. How does this go together?

This seeming contradiction to me is just another expression of modern alienation. The killing of food in traditional societies is part of life and unites all beings in a cycle. The difference to our meat-eating society is that the killing was done face-to-face and by every family. Unlike in our slaughterhouses, the killing at least never was casual. In a sparse environment such as the Arctic, you simply cannot pass up a valuable food source. The act of killing is not seen as disrespect as long as it’s done in the proscribed, sanctioned manner. There was also a fear of retribution by the spirit of a slain animal. People believed in a “recycling” of animals, which, if treated respectfully, would reincarnate and seek out the hunter again or tell other wildlife about the way they’d been treated by him. Even some non-Native hunters who hunt for food, not trophies or sport, share a deep understanding about the interconnectedness of all life and of the necessity to take life in order to live.

How do you feel about the frequent anthropomorphizing of bears in popular culture? Isn’t it inevitable?

The anthropomorphizing of any animal that looks, thinks, and behaves like us in many ways is always inevitable. The closeron the mammalian evolutionary scale an animal is to us, the easier it is to identify with it—and in the case of the bear, to project on it some of our “scarier” traits, such as aggression. While I detest the attitude from a wilderness fan’s perspective—we need things that are absolutely notus, not built or engineered by us—as an anthropologist I appreciate the anthropomorphizing attitude as a valuable venue for research regarding beliefs and cultural practices. Tragically, anthropomorphizing taken too far, like the humanoid polar bears in Coca-Cola cartoons, keep people from sympathizing with (or even learning about) the plight of wildlife. A recent study estimates that by 2020 only 67% of Earth’s wild animals will remain. People might not miss them that much if they mostly see them on logos or as merchandise without ever learning what these wildlings are really like.

Your book with its chapters could be seen as a dramatic piece in which the polar bear performs various roles for humans. What’s the bear’s current most important role and how do you wish it to evolve or change?

If it is, it’s a theater of the absurd a la Beckett or Ionesco. We now have the polar bear as a political icon, used as a cartoon by Coca-Cola, which donates to the World Wildlife Fund, despite polluting the environment with energy-wise costly throwaway soda cans. WWF and other “conservation organizations” in the past have received funding from extractive industries. Big Green is in bed with Big Business. Even Polar Bears International—a non-governmental organization with a conservation agenda—speaks of polar bears as a marketing brand, though for a benign cause. In the triage of sacrifices, polar bears have been assigned monetary values to weigh them against other benefits to humans. Beneath the many symbolic layers, we lose sight of the animals, of their right to exist without any human permission or purpose. Anthropocentrism is a much graver sin than anthropomorphizing, though the two are related.  I would like to see the polar bear dethroned from its iconic status. Or at least joined in a democracy of all things living, by the naked mole rat, the aye-aye, and the blobfish, by the “strange,” the small, the obscure. It is just one page in the grand book of life, which we have reduced from a Tolstoy doorstopper to a slim poetry collection.

Is the fate of the polar bear all very grim, or are there some positive things or developments to highlight?

There are documented incidents in which grizzlies and polar bears have mated and produced fertile offspring. But the phenomenon is too rare and localized to give rise to a new species, a “grolar” or “pizzly” that could live in a radically changed, ice-free environment. Sea-ice shaped the polar bear in the first place, and without it, it will cease to exist. Warming of the atmosphere by several degrees already is locked in, even with the levels of carbon dioxide produced until now. And there still is no drastic reduction of output in sight. As much as I’d like to end on a positive note, I fear that the white bear is doomed and that it might merely precede us in extinction. If humans could learn from experience, from history, why haven’t we already? Darwin’s insectivorous, sea-dwellingblack bear was a thought experiment, and while such abear—or a landlubber polar bear—in theory could evolve, it would take millions of years. Neither we, nor the animals have that time, as the drastic environmental changes we witness are playing out within decades.

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

David McConnachie is A\J’s publisher.