There was a time in North Santa Barbara County when a simple morning walk to the creek for a drink of water could bring you face to face with a nine-foot tall, 2000-pound monster equipped with 9-inch claws on great paws with an angry glint in its eye. One cannot overstate the profound effect this beast had on the indigenous people of California. The grizzly, unlike other animals, had no fear of humans. The Chumash Indians of North Santa Barbara County lived with the knowledge that a deadly encounter with this monster could happen at any time. Ten thousand grizzly bears roamed California by the time the first Europeans arrived; many of them inhabited the Central Coast where they enjoyed its beneficial climate and plentiful food supply.
Ursus Arctos Californicus had no natural enemy. The grizzly was more than a match for humans until man’s cleverness and advanced technology evened the scales. It took a burgeoning population brought by the Gold Rush together with the invention of the repeating rifle to finally drive this fearsome bear into extinction (the last known physical specimen of the California Grizzly was shot and killed in Fresno County in 1922).
Tracy Irwin Storer, in her book “California Grizzly” wrote, “Before the coming of the Europeans, the big bears rather than man dominated the scene because the natives lacked adequate weapons and were afraid of grizzlies, whereas the bears had little to fear from any living creature.”
What was life like when the grizzly roamed North Santa Barbara County? For the Chumash and their predecessors, it was a matter of avoidance. “Indians kept on the hills and other high ground, very carefully avoiding the favorite resorts of this animal.” wrote Dr. Pickering, while traveling with the United States Exploring Expedition. The bear was fierce and deadly when provoked. Fray Pedro Font, traveling with the Anza Expedition in 1776, wrote in his diary that there were many grizzlies abroad and “they often attack and do damage to the Indians when they go to hunt, of which I saw horrible examples”.
The natives feared the grizzly, but they respected it, even revered it. And they did hunt it. According to oral histories, their methods were crude and risky. One technique called for five men to line a path at intervals with their spears, hidden away. The man in front injured the bear to provoke it into chasing him. As the man ran by the first of his hidden comrades, that hunter jumped out and injured the bear as well and ran to where the next man was hidden. One by one each hunter would attempt to hurt the bear as it came to him and then run until the last man made his attempt. If by then the bear was not severely injured or dead, chances were good that the hunters themselves would be.
When successful, however, the rewards were well worth it. The bear meat and fat would serve the village for months and the bear’s hide supplied warm blankets and clothing and could be used in a myriad of other ways. The Chumash made the bear pelt into a little cape like a doublet reaching to the waist, worn only by the master of a fishing launch. Archaeologists found long sharp daggers fashioned from the femurs of the bears in the mounds left by Chumash predecessors along the coast, suggesting they, too, made use of this resource.
Many Native Americans believed the spirit of a human dwelt in the animal. The Chumash believed all who died in the “valley of the bears” (Los Osos Valley, an area where bears were plentiful) were destined to become grizzlies
California Native Americans held a common belief in a mystic power they attributed to shamans, particularly those known to be Grizzly Bear Shamans. In general, they recognized three classes of shamans: the Bear Shamans, the Rattlesnake Shamans, and the Rain Shamans. The most powerful of all were the Grizzly Bear Shamans. These men of magic could turn themselves into grizzly bears at will and avenge themselves upon their enemies. This ability reportedly backfired on one occasion, when a Grizzly Bear Shaman in animal form was roped by a Spanish vaquero and made to fight a bull at Mission San Luis Obispo