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BEARing Gifts

Ned Archuleta Pink Alabaster Medicine Bear Fetish Left Side

This weekend presents an odd juxtaposition for the dominant culture: the bad-luck associations that accompany today’s calendar, followed immediately by tomorrow’s celebration of romantic love. It’s almost a perfect expression of the sort of duality enshrined in the literary philosophy of the Romantic Period, a European-American style and school of thought that is inextricably intertwined with colonial, appropriative, and paternalistic expression. It fits well with modern sensibilities, too: a bracing dose of fear followed by a prescribed remedy of commercialism and capitalism. It’s a modern “medicine show”: “How to Spend Your Way to Serenity!”

In our cultures, we regard such concepts a bit differently. “Bad luck” isn’t really a question of luck at all, but one of harmony, or rather, the lack thereof. It’s what happens when one becomes too consumed with material things or worldly pleasures, with wealth and acquisitiveness, with power and authority over others. The prescription is not more acquisition, more spending; the prescription is medicine, healing, to return one’s life to balance and harmony. So, too, with gifts as expressions of love, more blessing than bling.

Perhaps nowhere are such concepts and symbols more thoroughly embodied than in the image of the medicine bear.

We’ve talked about such spirits before: bears; medicine beings; medicine bears specifically. For many of our peoples, Bear itself is a medicine symbol, as well as a protective one, its powerful paws a sign of healing as well as security and strength. For many indigenous Southwestern cultures, that characteristic is amplified by attaching a medicine bundle (sometimes called an offering bundle), which we’ve also covered here before. Tiny objects of value, both intrinsic and symbolic, are bundled together and tied onto the spirit beings back, typically with sinew, to enhance the object’s power.  It is, in part, a way of tapping into those traits that a particular being is said to possess — which, in Bear’s case, may be safety, healing, or both. It’s hard to envision a more complete manifestation of love, romantic, platonic, familial, or spiritual.

And so, to kick off this Valentine’s weekend, it seemed appropriate to feature a pair of these healing, protective beings — each done in a very different style, but both by the same carver, and both finding form in a color associated with the love and romance the weekend symbolizes: pale, delicate pink.

The first bear is small enough to qualify as a fetish, and is rendered in the classic hump-backed style that has become an iconic form of Southwest Native art. From its description in the Other Artists: Fetishes gallery here on the site:

Ned Archuleta Pink Alabaster Medicine Bear Fetish Right Side

This classic little Southwestern-style hump-backed bear is rendered in pink alabaster by Ned Archuleta (Taos Pueblo). The bear’s clean, spare lines allow the cool beauty of the stone’s matrix to take center stage. His only accent is a tiny offering bundle of colorful parakeet feathers, tied on with sinew. Three inches long, he stands 1-7/8″ high (dimensions approximate). [Another view is shown at the top of this post.]

Pink alabaster; feathers; sinew
$75 + shipping, handling, and insurance

The stone itself embodies all the delicate fragility, literal and metaphorical alike, of the human heart: inconsistent in shade and tone, with darker mottling in some places, a tracery of frail lines in others, wisps and whorls that resemble cracks long since healed and made stronger with the tempering of time. He carries in his medicine bundle a gift of brightly-hued parakeet feathers: gifts given to him as an offering to Spirit, gifts that he in turns gives to his holder in the form of sharing his inherent power.

The second bear, however, is slightly larger — not by much; just enough to put him the class of small sculptures rather than fetishes. He’s also less stylized, more realistic: He exhibits virtually none of the hump-backed style, instead showing the world a realistic long snout, heavy shoulders, clearly-delineated fur, and a pair of brilliant turquoise inlaid eyes. From its description in the Other Artists: Sculpture gallery:

Furry Bear 1

Taos Pueblo master carver Ned Archuleta has coaxed a little “furry” medicine bear from this chunk of stone:  The hair of his coat is carved right into his body. This little guy is  This piece really shows the variability of pink alabaster:  All of one small block of stone, his face is nearly white, but from the ears back his body shows varying shades of rose, almost purple, in the stone’s matrix.  Inlaid bits of turquoise serve as his eyes, and his medicine bundle, tied on with the traditional sinew, is of turquoise and coral beads.  At a little under 4″ long, this piece is almost — but not quite — small enough to be considered a fetish; he fits comfortably in your hand, or on a desktop or mantel. Another angle shown below.

Pink alabaster; Sleeping Beauty turquoise; coral; sinew
$125 + shipping, handling, and insurance

Furry Bear 2

Like his clansman above, he’s been called forth from a smooth chunk of pale pink stone, but in this incarnation, he appears stronger, bolder, more solid and substantial and assertive. The matrix in this piece of stone is likewise more substantial, large mottled swatches in a deep brickish color, one closer to what one would expect of a heart. He, too, carries the bundle, but instead of feathers, his is composed of tiny gemstone beads, turquoise and coral, hardened rain and life’s blood bound together. Where his cousin perhaps evokes the ethereal and ephemeral of the romantic ideal, this version of Bear is an earthier, more passionate type.

Whether one prefers love as the ideal or the real, these Bear relations between them symbolize the best of love’s gifts in all their forms.

~ Aji

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