I obviously don’t get out enough. This past weekend, I discovered a number of painted ‘spirit bear’ statues around downtown Vancouver. They are part of a fundraising effort called Spirit Bears in the City designed to raise money for Easter Seals and Canucks for Kids. It is patterned after similar urban art projects in Chicago (Cows on Parade), Toronto (Moose in the City), and Vancouver and Victoria (Orcas in the City).The spirit bear is a white bear, sometimes known as a Kermode, which is resident of the British Columbia Central Coast. It is deemed by some First Nations to have spiritual or mythological attributes. It has come to prominence in recent years as enivronmentalists sought protection for large expanses of coastal rainforest they dubbed ‘The Great Bear Rainforest.’ In the past few months, much of that coastal forest has been protected (or here).
What caught my eye were several bears painted in aboriginal regalia around Canada Place on Vancouver Harbour. They got me thinking about the semiotics discussions we have had in class this past week too. The bears are clearly icons of the spirit bears. In fact, without the paint, they are entirely white and, as signs, look much like the actual bears themselves. Once painted, the ‘clothes’ they wear are icons of aboriginal regalia in some cases and simply symbolic of it in other cases.
The bears certainly depend on symbols of aboriginality for their effectiveness. They employ the symbols of different native groups. I suspect that many tourists seeing these bears as they disembark from cruise ships will know enough about British Columbia to see these bears standing for native people. The regionally or culturally specific symbols will be less important. (The Haida Manga bear stands out from this group. It mixes symbols of the physical and cultural environments.)
The question of indexes is always interesting. By employing symbols of aboriginality and environmentalism, these bears point to things like eco and cultural tourism. They suggest that native symbols can be performed in places far removed from their traditional lands and still be linked to the ideas visitors bring about Vancouver, BC, and Canada. They index new and novel ways in which symbols of aboriginality and icons of environmentalism are put in urban settings.