evolving ecological media culture(s)

The cosmopolitics of Herzog’s bears

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One of the films that gets a lengthy treatment in my book Ecologies of the Moving Image is Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, about the death of Timothy Treadwell at the hands of a brown bear in Alaska. I characterized it there as a complex and nuanced film that provides a series of somewhat contradictory — but cognitively and affectively compelling — approaches to the human-animal boundary.

What I neglected to examine in any depth was Herzog’s nod to the Alutiiq Native population to help make his own case about that boundary. I should have done that. A film about relations between humans and bears in a part of the world where such relations have existed for centuries requires delving into what Latour and Stengers would call their “cosmopolitics” — the ways in which they have been shaped and continue to affect divergent forms of “naturecultural” coexistence beyond the “modern constitution” of Euro-American modes of thought and practice. 

Filmmaker (and UVM graduate student) Finn Yarbrough took up this issue in a short paper for the course I’ve just finished teaching. The paper ranges insightfully from the film’s queerish gender subtext to Alutiiq shamanism. I’m sharing that paper as a guest post below, with Finn’s permission.   — A.I.


The White-Faced Bear

Guest post by Finn Yarbrough

What interests me most about the Timothy Treadwell story is the controversy surrounding the morality of his life and death. Discussion seems to center around whether or not he was right to live as he did, from a social, personal, or ecological perspective, whether or not he “got what he deserved,” and seems to universally acknowledge that the real tragedy is the death of his girlfriend, whom the film portrays as a sort of reluctant ghost, drawn into Treadwell’s fantasy world and tragically slain by it. Much in the way that Treadwell seemed to fight an inner battle for his own identity, I think that these debates ultimately say more about our society and the tensions that we feel with our environments than they say about him.

One lens that caught my attention is the lens of archetypal (white) American masculinity. I read into the vitriol expressed by the helicopter pilot, which is the kind of response I can imagine being fairly typical amongst men who have formed identities around their proximity to the wilderness and its perceived savagery. In that response, I saw the triumph of a kind of machismo: the wilderness is for real men, men who must prove themselves against it (rather than “become one with it”), and a liberal, frou-frou, former actor with a page-boy haircut who still sleeps with a teddy bear has no place in this fraternity.

Even Werner Herzog nods to this homophobia, or queer-phobia, by his inclusion of Treadwell’s comical (and somehow incompletely convincing) “I’m not gay” diatribe. Treadwell sins against this order by being so completely vulnerable, and yet somehow surviving for 13 years. He calls into question the past 100 years of mythmaking of the Alaskan male identity. His uncomfortable “I beat you, motherfuckers” rant seems foolish, but when viewed in this light, takes on a kind of truth and calls out the men like the helicopter pilot, who may not actually want to kill him as Treadwell suspects, but are nevertheless happy to see him dead.

But what I think Treadwell unwittingly goes looking for, and ultimately falls victim to, is essentially Alutiiq shamanism. I was intrigued by the Alutiiq museum curator’s terse assessment that Treadwell “showed disrespect” to the bears, and so I looked into what kind of folklore there might be surrounding bears in that culture. A dissertation by Alutiiq scholar Alisha Susana Drabek gives some interesting context:

“Within ancestral Alutiiq traditions, animal transformation or shapeshifting is a common practice and symbol for the interrelationship of all life. The relationship between humans and animals is familial and deeply valued, with a thin veil between their world and ours. Living in close relationship to the land and animals, the Alutiiq value a kinship that once enabled direct communication and travel between these worlds as they engaged in their traditional subsistence lifeways… Specifically significant within this story [The Woman Who Became a Bear] is the wife’s transformation into a bear, which is a common theme and vehicle for escape among other Alutiiq stories. The Alutiiq relationship to bear is comparative in nature, as the bear resembles humans in the way it walks, moves through the world, and raises its young. This story has also been used to explain proper respect for bears, as the Alutiiq have had to share their lands with their cousins the Kodiak Brown Bear, the world’s largest brown bears.” (Drabek 182-3)

Although much of the moralism surrounding Treadwell’s death focuses on the untraversable gulf between humans and animals, Alutiiq cosmology has somewhat of a different perspective. Not only is the boundary between human and animal more porous than ours (European-American), but the Alutiiq creation story positions humans and animals more closely than does the Judeo-Christian:

“According to a legend recorded by an anthropologist, our animals came from the body of a young woman. One day she lay down and gave birth to all the creatures of the sea and land. As she delivered, her two uncles threw the animals into the water or onto the land—wherever they were meant to go. The woman was married to a star, a spirit man from the sky world, who told her that they would have to kill some of their animal children to feed themselves. (Manosa, 2005)”

In a paper about Kodiak bear management strategy, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has this to say:

“Myths and traditional stories about bears are common in all Alaska Native traditions, and those recorded from the Alutiit are similar to stories told by Yup’ik elders in western Alaska and by Alutiiq elders. The main themes of the myths revolve around the similarity between bears and humans, including the ability of bears to change into people and vice versa, and the mystical nature of bears because of their proximity to the spirit world.”

This summary is anecdotally reinforced by a passage in Drabek’s dissertation:

“Elder Phyllis Peterson reminds us, that wherever the animals came from, bears (taquka’aq) are very different. They were once people. [She says,] ‘…My grandpa used to tell me…people run away a long time ago. They wanted to be bears…The bears, talk to the bears, they’ll understand you’” (Manosa, 2005).”

Is Timothy Treadwell one of these bear-people? My thought is that he is, but that he may not have been prepared for what becoming a bear really entails. He saw the bear people for who they are: he talked to them, and they understood. But people can be dangerous too. He repeatedly voices his willingness to die for the bears, but in that battle cry the implication is that he expects to die at the hands of humans, not the bears themselves. In his obsessive, even deranged, flight from human society and pursuit of the bears, Treadwell steps into an Alutiiq skin-walking narrative he doesn’t fully understand.

The White-Faced Bear is an Alutiiq legend that features a man tricked by a shaman into donning a bear’s skin and becoming one. Once in this form, the white-faced bear roams the countryside revenging himself on unfastidious hunters who take more than their fair share of bear meat, or who hunt without the proper respect. In this way, the white-faced bear becomes a guardian of the bear people, much in the way that Treadwell sees himself. There is a sublime beauty in Treadwell’s horrifying death. Transformation is painful. In the end, he wore the bear’s skin. And once in bear form, the imagined enemies of his paranoid fantasy were finally able to gun him down.

What “invisible border” did Treadwell cross that, after 13 years with the bears, would have him eaten? Did his outsider’s intrusion anger an Alutiiq shaman, one with the power to cast a bearskin upon him? Maybe, but I tend to think that he finally won the battle with himself, the battle for an identity that fit within a narrative of his own choosing, even if the specifics of that narrative were unknown to him. The killer-bear’s dramatic death in fire and smoke may be of little consequence to the stability of this narrative, if the Alutiiq Museum’s summary is a clue:

“Although everything in the Alutiiq universe is believed to have a sua—a person inside that gives it consciousness—only humans and animals are thought to have souls. When an animal dies, its sua dies as well. However, if the animal is properly treated, its soul survives and can be reincarnated in another animal. As such, respectful human action is critical to regeneration of game. The Chugach Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound believed that an animal’s soul rested in a particular part of its body and hunters had to be careful to release this part to the environment. Honoring the animal’s inner person, or sua, was also an important part of regeneration. Many of the masked dances performed at winter festivals were dedicated to this task.”

The coroners bagged Timothy’s body up and left the bear to rot. Did the gunmen perform an Alutiiq masked dance to honor the bear’s sua? If not, then Treadwell’s imagined “motherfuckers” may have ended him after all.





This article is cross-posted at Immanence.


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