Home Editorials Why Black Bears and Brown Bears Aren't "Bears"

Why Black Bears and Brown Bears Aren't "Bears"


[Originally posted at Peter’s Publisher.]
UAS recently put up signs for each of its student apartments (which, by the way, are very nice to stay in). The signs give a nature-related name to each building that begins with its already-established letter designator: I, for example, live in building A, which now has a sign saying “Aurora.” The signs look great, and I love that a translation is provided for each word in Lingít (Tlingit), such that “Aurora” has “gisʼóoḵ” beneath it (a new word I’ll remember now).
I have found one problem, however, and it’s the sign in front of building B:

I have a problem with this sign, because “xóots” does not mean “bear” in Tlingit. It means brown bear, grizzly bear, and possibly Kodiak bear, but not “bear.”
In Lingít Aaní, the land of the Tlingit, the two bear species are the black bear (Ursus americanus) and the brown bear (Ursus arctos) of which the grizzly and the Kodiak are subspecies. As any Alaskan can tell you, the black bear and the brown bear are very very different. Just look at this very thorough information from the North American Bear Center. I learned a lot from reading it. The most powerful fact from the article, I think, is that since the year 1900, black bears have killed only 61 people in North America. Wikipedia has a long list of bear attacks in North America going all the way back to the 1870s. While there are a fair number of black bear attacks shown, they are outnumbered by brown bear maulings in most decades on the list, despite the fact that brown bears have a much smaller population and range on the continent.
I think calling a black bear and a brown bear both “bear” is rather like calling a wolf and a coyote both “wolf” or “wild dog”: Brown bears are far more deadly than black bears, and their appearance, behavior, evolutionary trajectory is very different, just as wolves differ markedly from coyotes in the same ways. The analogy also works well because coyotes and black bears have both learned to benefit quite a bit from human presences, while wolves and brown bears typically do not.
In Tlingit, xóots means brown bear and sʼeek means black bear. As far as I know, there is no generic word for “bear,” and I think there’s a good reason for that. I believe Tlingit understood very well that these two species differ greatly, and their relationships with the two species differed greatly as well.
To come to my point, I think UAS needs to change their sign so it says “brown bear.” Not only would it be more accurate—the name would be alliterative to boot.