These passages come from The biophilia hypothesis edited by Stephen Kellert and Edward Wilson. (Island

Press, 1993).  If you like this writing, I encourage you to order a copy of this excellent collection of writings.



Searching for the Lost Arrow: Physical and

 Spiritual Ecology in the Hunter’s World

           Richard Nelson


   Just below the Arctic Circle in the boreal forest of interior Alaska; an amber afternoon in mid-November;

the temperature minus twenty de­grees; the air adrift with frost crystals, presaging the onset of deeper cold.

Five men—Koyukon Indians—are leaning over the carcass of an excep­tionally large black bear. For two

days they have traversed a sprawling tract of the Koynkuk River valley, searching for bears that have recently

entered hibernation dens. The animals are in prime condition at this season, but ex­tremely difficult to find. Den

entrances, hidden beneath eighteen inches of powdery snow, are betrayed only by the subtlest of clues—patches

 where no grass protrudes above the surface because it has been clawed away for in­sulation; faint

concavities hinting of footprint depressions in the moss be­low.


   Earlier this morning the hunters made their first kill, a yearling. It was discovered by the group’s leader,

Moses Sam, who has trapped in this ter­ritory since childhood, following trails established long before by

his fa­ther. Moses is in his early sixties. He is known for his detailed knowledge of the land and his

extraordinary skill and success as a bear hunter. “No one else has that kind of luck with bear,” I am told.

“Some people are born with it. And he always takes good care of his animals—respects them. That’s

how he keeps his luck.”


A few minutes later, Moses pulls a small knife from his pocket, kneels be­side the bear’s head, and

carefully slits the clear domes of its eyes. Vitreous fluid glistens on his fingers. “Now the bear won’t

see,” he explains softly, “if one of us makes a mistake or does something wrong.”


   In Koyukon tradition, there are hundreds of rules for proper treatment of killed animals. A bear’s feet

should be removed first, for example, to keep its spirit from wandering. And certain parts are eaten away

from the village at a kind of funeral feast attended by men and boys. Koyukon hunters know that an animal’s

life ebbs slowly, that it remains aware and sensitive to how people treat its body. This is especially true for

the potent and demanding spirit of the bear.


   Speaking of the black bear’s larger relative, a Koyukon elder once told me: “Every hair on a brown bear’s

 hide has a life of its own…so it can’t keep still; it can’t keep its temper. It takes a few years for all that

 life to be gone from a brown bear’s hide. That’s the kind of power it has.”


   Perhaps the most important observation to be made about this episode is that contemporary Euro-Americans

are likely to find it exotic. Yet over the long run of history, stories like this have been utterly commonplace,

the es­sence of our interactions with the natural world, the very crux of human ex­perience. For 99 percent of

our history, as anthropologists Richard Lee and liven DeVore have pointed out, human beings lived exclu­sively

as hunter-gatherers. On a relative time scale, agriculture has existed only for a moment and urban societies

scarcely more than a blink.


   From this perspective, much of the human lifeway over the past several million years lies beyond the grasp

of urbanized Western peoples. And if we hope to understand what is fundamental to that lifeway, we must

look to traditions far different from our own.


   I can imagine nothing for which this is more true than the human rela­tionship to life-forms other than

ourselves. Probably no society has been so deeply alienated as ours from the community of nature, has

viewed the nat­ural world from a greater distance of mind, has lapsed to a murkier com­prehension of its

connections with the sustaining environment. Because of this, we are greatly disadvantaged in our efforts

to understand the basic hu­man affinity for nonhuman life.


   Here again, I believe it’s essential that we learn from traditional societ­ies, especially those in which most

people experience daily and intimate contact with the land—above all, those who harvest a livelihood from

the wild environment: the hunters, fishers, trappers, and gatherers. In such communities, we find knowledge

similar to that achieved by our own sci­entific disciplines. And we are given important insights about how

humans engage themselves with the living process, insights founded on a wisdom that we had long forgotten

and are now beginning to rediscover…


   Moreover, it’s difficult to find words that summarize the intricate inter­play between hunter-gatherers and

the natural communities in which they hold membership. Our books and essays reduce to a few pages the

 nearly infinite complexities of a human lifeway. We might best hope to create a metaphor, an image that

hints of something much larger and deeper than we’ve been able to penetrate.


   Here is an example. A Navajo elder named Claus Chee Sonny recited texts from the Deer Huntingway

religious tradition which were recorded by ethnographer Karl Luckert. Among the instructions given to

hunters is this statement attributed to the divine Deer-people: “Animals are our food. They are our thoughts.”


   Reading this statement is like walking through a doorway into a wild and illimitable terrain: it opens in all

directions. For me, these few words epitomize the pervasiveness of animals—and the natural world as a

whole—in the lives and minds and cultures of hunting-gathering peoples like those who inhabited much of

North America before the first Europe­ans arrived…


   When I first went to live with Eskimo people, I often doubted things they told me or had difficulty taking

them seriously. Somehow I had learned that Western knowledge, embedded in our own scientific tradition,

carried a more substantial weight of truth than what was often termed “folk knowl­edge.” But the longer I

stayed, the more I trusted their assertions, because experience so frequently showed them right.

   For example, hunters say the behavior of ringed seals surfacing in open leads is a reliable way to forecast

the weather. And because a sudden gale can set people adrift on the pack ice, accurate prediction can be a

matter of life and death. When seals raise chest-high in the water, snout pointed sky­ward, acting as if they’re

in no hurry to go anywhere, it indicates stable weather conditions. But if they surface briefly, head low, snout

parallel to the water, and tend to show themselves only once, a storm may be ap­proaching. These indicators

are most important when combined with oth­ers, such as frequent howling by the sled dogs, stars twinkling

erratically, and current running from the south. My own experiences with seals and storms through the course

of winter affirmed what the Eskimos had said.

   Many times I found that the seemingly mystical abilities of Inupiaq

hunters rested on the keen edge of intimate knowledge. Like a young Inu­piaq in training, I grew less skeptical

and began consistently applying what I was told. Had I ever been rushed by a polar bear, for example, I would

have jumped away to the animal’s right side. Inupiaq elders say polar bears are left-handed, so you have a slightly

better chance to avoid their right paw, which is slower and less accurate. I’m pleased to say that I never had the

chance for a field test. But when we’re judging assertions like this, we should remember that Eskimos have had

close contact with polar bears over a period of several thousand years.


   A hunter named Migalik recalled spotting a polar bear that was waiting beside a seal’s breathing hole in a

large area of flat ice. He couldn’t hope to approach it undetected, so he watched from the concealment of a

nearby ice ridge. As the hours passed, the animal took turns lifting first one foot, keep­ing it up for awhile,

easing it quietly down, and then lifting another. From this, Migalik concluded that the soles of a polar bear’s

feet are sensitive to the moist, salty, frigid surface of young sea ice. When at last the bear gave up and headed

for rough ice, Migalik predicted its direction, circled out ahead, and waited until it came within easy hunting



  During the winter, ringed and bearded seals maintain tunnel-like breathing holes in ice many feet thick.

These holes are often capped with an igloo-shaped dome created by water sloshing onto the surface when

the an­imal enters from below. Inupiaq elders told me that polar bears are clever enough to excavate around

this dome, leaving it perfectly intact but thin enough so a hard swat will shatter the ice and smash the seal’s

skull. I couldn’t help wondering if this were true; but then a younger man de­scribed tracking a bear for many

miles, and along the way it had excavated one seal hole after another, waiting unsuccessfully at each before

moving on to try again.


   When I lived in the village of Wainwright, the most respected hunter was Igruk, a man in his seventies. He

had a remarkable sense for animals—a genius for understanding and predicting their behavior—as if he

could penetrate their minds. Although he was no longer quick and strong, he joined a crew hunting bowhead

whales during the spring migration, his main role being that of advisor. Igruk had hunted bowheads since

child­hood and probably knew them better than anyone else. Yet each time he spotted a whale coming from

the south, he counted the number of blows, timed how long it stayed down, and noted the distance it traveled

along the open lead, until it vanished toward the north. He never tired of studying whales and passing along

what he had learned to the other hunters.


Knowledgeable elders like Igruk are held in great respect; they are the masters of vital skills, the learned

intellectuals in their communities, the liv­ing libraries of tradition. These stories illustrate the way hunters

accumulate knowledge through patient observation and close interaction with their surroundings…


   I’ll risk carrying the interchange between Eskimos and animals a step fur­ther to suggest that people have

not only learned about animals, but also from them. We’ve already seen how polar bears hunt seals by waiting

at their winter breathing holes, although I omitted details about keeping si­lent, staying downwind from the

hole, and knowing when a seal comes up for air.


   Polar bears use a completely different method to hunt seals in the spring, when they crawl upon the ice to

bask in the sun. This tactic involves stalking over the ice until they’re close enough to catch the seal before

it can slip into a hole or crack. Here again, the bear’s success depends on keeping silent, avoiding detection

of its scent, moving at appropriate times, using con­cealment, and being still whenever the seal looks around.

(According to el­ders, the approaching bear will even use a paw to cover its conspicuous black nose.)


   Eskimo methods for hunting seals, both at breathing holes and atop the spring ice, are essentially identical

to those of the polar bear. Is this a case of independent invention? A kind of convergent evolution? Or is it

possible that ancestral Eskimos learned the techniques by watching polar bears, who had perfected an

adaptation to the sea ice environment long before hu­mans arrived in the arctic?


   The hunter’s genius centers on knowing an animal’s behavior so well he can turn it to his advantage. For

instance, an Inupiaq method of hunting polar bears is to mimic a seal lying atop the ice, enticing the bear to

stalk within shooting range. This may be the only way to take a bear that’s on the far side of an open lead or

in a large flat area where it would see anyone trying to approach.


   Here is another example. A polar bear will occasionally charge some­one, especially if the bear has been

wounded. It’s hard to imagine a situa­tion where the incorrect response would have a more immediate and purely

Darwinian result. Inupiaq elders warn that bullets sometimes glance off a bear’s skull, so you should wait until

 the animal raises its head and then aim for the neck. Failing this, shoot for the bulging hindquarter, because a

bear hit in that spot will turn and bite the wound, exposing its neck for a deadly shot. One man said that when

he was charged by a bear, he stood up and ran straight at the animal, certain that it would stop—as it did—giving

him a clear, unmoving target.


   Earlier I mentioned the great hunter Igruk, who understood animals so well he almost seemed to enter their

minds. In April 1971, I was in a whaling camp several miles off the Wainwright coast. Onshore winds had

closed the lead that whales usually follow in migration; but one large opening re­mained, and here the men

placed their camp. For a couple of days there had been no whales, so everyone stayed inside the warm tent,

talking and relax­ing. The old man rested on a soft bed of caribou skins with his eyes closed.  Then, suddenly,

he interrupted the conversation: “I think a whale is coming, and perhaps it will surface very close.”


   To my amazement, everyone jumped into action, although none had seen or heard anything except Igruk’s

words. Only he stayed behind, while the others rushed for the water’s edge. I was last to leave the tent.

Seconds after I stepped outside, abroad, shining back cleaved up through still water near the opposite side

of the opening, accompanied by the burst of a whale’s blow.


   Later, when I asked how he’d known, Igruk said,”There was a ringing in­side my ears.” I am surely not a

mystic; I have no explanation other than his; and I can only report what I saw. None of the Inupiaq crew

members even commented afterward, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.


   It’s important to say that Eskimos are not strict empiricists; they have a complex religious tradition that

imbues all of nature with spiritual powers. This aspect of Inupiaq life was mostly inaccessible to me, perhaps

because Christian beliefs have supplanted many of the ancestral ways. But elders sometimes talk about animal

abilities that we would call supernatural. Men speak carefully about their hunting plans, for example, because

animals are said to hear and understand, even from afar.


   An Inupiaq hunter is taught never to boast of his skills or say demeaning things about animals, especially

large and dangerous ones like the polar bear, whale, and walrus. Offended animals may take revenge or shun

those who are disrespectful. “When you hunt walrus,” I was advised, “you must not act like a man. Do not

be arrogant; be humble.” Sometimes a few walrus are shot on an ice floe, but others from the herd refuse

to leave, surfacing at the edge, snorting and glaring. The men stand facing them, extend their opened arms,

and beg them to go away.


   One Inupiaq elder recalled the ideals he was taught as an apprentice hunter: “When I was young, the

old-timers always told me to respect all the birds and animals, and don’t ever kill any unless you want it.

That way you can live a long time.”…


   For the Koyukon, an­imals, plants, and elements of the physical world possess qualities that are both natural

and supernatural. The environment is inhabited by watchful and potent beings who feel, who can be offended,

and who should be treated with respect.


   Consider the Koyukon hunters I described earlier having taken a black bear in its den. From the beginning,

they knew a great power had revealed itself to them. No one discovers a bear by skill and cleverness alone—

or purely by accident—because in the Koyukon world animals give or with­hold themselves. A hunter’s “luck”

with a particular species depends on the respect he has shown toward it, which keeps him in a state of

harmony or grace. When Koyukon people talk about luck in hunting, they might say bik’ohnaatltonh,

 “something took care of him.” This “something” is the animal’s spiritual power.


   A bear hunter, confronting this power, should carefully follow the many rules for proper behavior toward

the animal. Earlier I mentioned slitting its eves and taking off its feet as the first step in butchering. Fresh

bear meat should also be kept strictly away from women, whose own feminine spiri­tuality could alienate all

bears from the hunter. Although Koyukon women hunt and trap, they are prohibited from taking bears and

certain other spir­itually powerful animals, such as wolves and otters.


   When he comes home, a successful bear hunter should wait a while and then make a cryptic comment like:

“l found something in a hole.” This avoids any semblance of boasting or reveling in the animal’s demise, a

breach of etiquette that could case bad hunting luck, sickness, even death to a hunter or a member of his family.


   Several days or more after a bear is killed, men and boys gather away from the village—exchange stories,

talk about bear hunting, and cook cer­tain parts of the animal over an open fire. Elders say this is done to honor

the bear, protect those who hunt for it, and assure that bears will offer them­selves in the future. Sitting beside

the fire, an old man once told me: “What we eat here is the main part of the bear’s life.”


   According to Koyukon people, each individual animal has its own spirit, but offending one can alienate all

others of the species. Violations against nature can bring every sort of bad luck or personal harm, especially

when the most spiritually potent animals are involved—black bear, brown bear, wolverine, lynx, otter, and

wolf. But mistreating or disrespecting any creature can alienate its spirit. Even a redback vole or a ruby-

crowned kinglet is a power to be recognized. No one is ever alone in the wild: no one is ever outside the

bounds of moral restraint. “There’s always something in the air that watches us,” a village elder said.


   Some animals, like the bear, are surrounded by dozens of rules or ta­boos; for others there are only a few.

But the basic rules of respect apply to everything in nature—animals, plants, earth, water, sky. Here is a

scatter­ing of examples: People should not point at a mountain or at the stars. Ex­plaining this, a woman told

me: “You should never point at something that’s so much greater than you are.” After peeling its bark,

you should bury a birch log under the snow, not leave it naked and exposed to the cold air. It is taboo to scrape

moose hide at night; to wear clothing made from lynx if you are a woman; to eat meat from a loon if you are a

youth or a fertile woman; to in­tentionally trap a porcupine (though it can be hunted); to leave a wolver­ine’s

carcass near children (the emanating power of its spirit can cripple a child); to put fresh bear meat where it

might be eaten by dogs; to discard the bones of game animals with household refuse. A complete list would

include hundreds of rules like these.


   The necessary killing of animals and harvesting of plants is not consid­ered disrespectful. The natural order—

established in a time beyond mem­ory—dictates that humans and other animals must sustain themselves by

taking other lives. But people should do everything possible to prevent un­necessary suffering; they should

never take more than they need or waste what has been given them; and they should treat all remains according

to the traditional rules…


   Before imported foods were available, Koyukon people experienced times of scarcity or starvation when

important food species reached simultane­ous population lows. Some villagers remember spring cold snaps

when stored supplies were gone and people survived by gathering songbirds that froze to death under the trees.


   Given these uncertainties, it’s not surprising that Koyukon tradition in­cludes strong prohibitions against

waste. If an animal is killed it should be carefully butchered, stored where it will not spoil or be defiled by

scaven­gers, and used as fully as possible. To do otherwise will offend its spirit, bringing bad luck or sickness.

Meat is a sacred substance, still permeated with the animal’s spirit. As a matter of respect, one woman advised

that a platter of meat should be covered with a cloth before carrying it outside to a neighbor’s house.


   Hunters should also do everything possible to avoid losing wounded game, lest they be punished for wasting

an animal or causing it to suffer un­necessarily. If someone kills a diseased or starving animal for humane

rea­sons, it should be symbolically butchered and covered with brush to ap­pease the spirit. “Otherwise it

would look like you just killed it for nothing.”


   Avoidance of waste is a pervasive theme in Koyukon environmental eth­ics. Another theme is intentional

limitation of harvests to help maintain plant and animal populations. The underlying principle is essentially

iden­tical to our own concept of sustained yield management. Koyukon people are keenly aware of ecological

processes. During their lifetimes, elders have observed population changes in most of the economically

significant spe­cies. They have felt the weather “growing old,” as winters lose their former intensity. They

have seen the country become drier—lakes changing to meadows, meadows to thickets, thickets to forests.

They have seen floods revitalize sterile lakes with increasing populations of fish. They have watched

successional changes in vegetation and animal communities after fires. And they have observed the effects

of both overharvesting and fal­lowing.


   Building on this awareness, Koyukon villagers attempt to manage their uses of animals and plants. For

example, they advise simple, common-sense practices like cutting large trees for firewood and leaving the

smaller ones. People who seine whitefish in the fall prefer wide-meshed nets that allow younger fish to escape,

although all sizes are equally valuable for feeding sled dogs. Trappers regulate their take of furbearers, hoping

for the best long-term yields. Special trap sets are made to catch only large beaver, for instance, and the traps

are usually removed after two are taken. This leaves a nucleus of young beavers in each house. One man

criticized himself for taking too many otters from his trapline in a single year. Another said proudly that he

trapped the same area for most of his life, and the country is as rich today as when he started.


   Hunters try to limit their moose takes according to need. They also avoid local overharvest by hunting in

dispersed areas and foster reproduc­tion by making selective kills. Men from one village decided against

taking black bears in the spring so that more would be available during fall when bears are in peak condition.

For obvious reasons, people follow these prac­tices most strictly when food is readily available and less so

during hard times such as the spring shortages earlier in this century.


   Even before Western technology became available, Koyukon people had the capacity to overexploit certain

species. Traditional snares and deadfalls are highly effective, for example, and I believe their unrestrained use

could have a serious impact on species as large as moose or as small as bea­vers. Today, the same prudent

principles have been applied to firearms, snow machines, steel traps, cable snares, and other modern devices.


   Conservation practices like these are based partly on knowledge of eco­logical dynamics, partly on moral

principles and spiritual beliefs. They emerge from a worldview that strongly opposes unrestrained exploitation

of an environment that is not only finite and changeable but also aware. “The country knows,” an elder told

me. “If you do wrong things to it, the whole country knows. It feels what’s happening to it. I guess

everything is connected to­gether somehow, under the ground.”


   The subject of Native American conservation practices has been contro­versial: some analysts have doubted

the effectiveness of such practices and others have questioned their very existence. l can only speak with

assurance about my experiences and research among the Koyukon, for whom a con­servation ethic and sustained

yield management are indeed basic elements of environmental relationships. Ethnographic accounts strongly

suggest that similar traditions exist (or existed) among other Native American peoples.


   In judging the evidence, it’s important to remember what I mentioned earlier: indigenous communities are

no different from any others; some in­dividuals violate even the strictest laws or moral edicts. Among the

Koyu­kon, there are puritans and sinners, conformists and lawbreakers, and all shades between. Even orthodox

people can recall occasions when they dis­obeyed the code of respect toward an animal, offending its spirit

and bring­ing themselves bad luck. Moreover, whole societies may adhere strictly to some of their own ideals,

less strictly to others; and the degree of adherence can vary from one time to another.


   It would be surprising, indeed, to find that Native Americans had never been guilty of waste, overharvest,

or environmental damage. But it would also be a mistake to conclude that such breaches nullify the entire

existence of conservation ethics and practices in these cultures.  In my opinion, the ethnographic record

supports the existence of a widespread and well-developed tradition of conservation, land steward­ship, and

religiously based environmental ethics among Native Americans…


   I do not mean to idealize traditional peoples or to imply that they live in an elysian world of harmony and

perfection—they do not. But in com­munities like those of the Koyukon, ideological constraints on human

be­havior and uses of technology (both traditional and modern) create a truly sustainable relationship between

humans and environment. In this rela­tionship, people are nourished by what the natural community provides

while the diversity and fecundity of nature are nourished in turn.


   Cases like that of the Koyukon offer little support for the widely held view that humans are by definition a

blight; that we cannot exist without destroying our environment; that we have no rightful place on earth. These

self-accusations may not reflect a human condition so much as a cultural condition brought about by agriculture

and domestication—what anthro­pologist Hugh Brody has called “the neolithic catastrophe.”


   The worldview that has emerged among industrialized agricultural so­cieties has brought us to the edge of

ecological collapse. If we cannot avert a cataclysm, Richard Lee and Irven DeVore suggest that “inter­planetary

archaeologists of the future will classify our planet as one in which a very long and stable period of small-scale

hunting and gathering was followed by an apparently instantaneous efflorescence of technology and society

leading rapidly to extinction.”


   What l am suggesting is that biophilia—a deep, pervasive, ubiquitous, all­ embracing affinity with life—lies

at the very core of traditional hunting­-fishing-gathering cultures. That people like the Koyukon manifest

biophi­lia in virtually every dimension of their existence. That connectedness with nonhuman life infuses the

entire spectrum of their thought, behavior, and belief.


   Indeed, it might be impossible for such people to stand far enough outside themselves to imagine a generalized

concept of biophilia and give it a name. As a prerequisite, they might need a measure of disaffiliation from

nonhuman life, a remoteness from other organisms that is impossible for those so intimately bound with the

natural world.


Perhaps, like the curved edge of earth, biophilia only becomes visible from a distance.


   Yet an affinity for other life may be as vital to us as water, food, and breath; may be so deep in us that only

by a centuries-old malaise of drifting away have we come to the point of thinking about it. At the conclusion

of Biophiia, Wilson asks: “Is it possible that humanity will love life enough to save it?” Surely there is no

more important question in the latter twentieth century. But it seems nearly certain that throughout most of

his­tory, humans did love life. Every aspect of culture and mind was permeated with biophilia.


   The essential question may not be whether biophilia is an innate and universal human tendency, but why a

very recent branch of human culture has veered away from it. And how long we can survive in its absence. As

we work to resurrect a sustainable human lifeway, I believe we have much to learn from traditional cultures

like the Inupiaq and Koyukon. Even now, we are finding our way back to the same principles that have guided

their long and successful membership in the natural community.


   If we can recover that lost wisdom, the physical and spiritual affinity with life celebrated by the concept of

biophilia might so deeply pervade our worldview that we would no longer apply a name to it.


   Among my strongest memories from the years in Alaskan villages are two offhand comments uttered in very

different contexts. Ending a conversa­tion about the incursions of Euro-American culture into his arctic world,

an old Inupiaq hunter said: “The white man is a genius alright, but…”  His voice trailed off, and in a

thoroughly Eskimo way he let silence carry the message: Western culture lacks something of great importance.


   Years later, I was trekking through the forest with a young Koyukon man. In the midst of our casual banter,

he teased: “Dick, you’re smart but not wise.” Over the following days, his words came back to me again and

again. I had never before thought of the distinction, yet it was clear even to a teenager in this community, where

people recognize that the young can know a great deal but only the elders can be wise. I’ve always suspected his

com­ment was not meant only for me, personally, but for the culture to which I belong.


   I believe people like the Koyukon and Inupiaq have a far better sense than modern Euro-Americans about the

relative importance of knowl­edge and wisdom. In Western society, we emphasize the paramount value of

knowledge: information, facts, that which can be discovered through our empirical disciplines; the palpable,

material truth.


   In traditional societies of my acquaintance, people recognize the vital importance of knowledge; but I suspect

they would judge wisdom to be even more important. My old dictionary defines wisdom as “the power of true

and right discernment; also, conformity to the course of action dic­tated by such discernment.” And the entry

for wise reads: “seeing clearly what is right and just; having sound judgment.., prudent, sensible.., having great

learning.., versed in mysterious things.”


   Is it possible that wisdom has been more important than knowledge as a basis for the long and successful

habitation of North America by its indig­enous people? Could it be wisdom that explains why the first European

travelers found here a vast and untrammeled beauty, an extraordinary wealth and diversity of wild species, an

array of intact natural communi­ties?


   Perhaps our imbalance with the environment and our loss of affinity with life reflect a single-minded pursuit

of knowledge and a diminished re­gard for wisdom. And the greatest promise of Western science may be less

in the knowledge it brings us than in its ability to reveal a wisdom similar to that so pervasive in Native American



   There is a riddle, one of many told by Koyukon people “to help shorten the winter”:


Wait, I see something. I am looking everywhere for a lost arrow.

Answer: The search for a black bear’s den.


   For me, this riddle stands both as an illustration of Koyukon people’s re­lationship to nature and as a

metaphor. The lost arrow represents our aban­doned sense of physical connectedness to the natural world; the

bear sym­bolizes our need to rediscover a deep, perhaps spiritually based, affiliation with life. Scientific

knowledge is our way of finding tracks under the snow, watching for places where the grass is scratched away,

leading us toward the hidden den. But knowledge may not suffice without the balance of har­mony, without

that state of grace through which the animal reveals itself.


   In the end, it is the wisdom of humility and respect that brings a Kovu­kon hunter to the bear.






I am grateful to the people of Wainwright, Ambler, Chalkyitsik, Huslia, and Hughes, Alaska, for sharing their

lives and traditions with me over the years. I know only enough of Inupiaq and Athabaskan Indian traditions to

realize how little I have learned, so I beg my instructors’ understanding for the errors and shortcomings in

my work. Personal names mentioned in the text are pseud­onyms.