Set where land and glaciers meet in subarctic North America at least 10,000 years ago, when mammoths roamed our continent-"Brother Bear" makes clear this was a time when "one thing always changes into another" and where "spirits make all changes." We also get a specific hint about location: Kenai, the name of the film's star, is also the name of an early-known native village on the east side of Cook Inlet in southwestern Alaska. Life in this cold climate was extremely difficult, and it behooved everyone to have some form of medicine power. The film revolves around relationships between humans and their spirit helpers, and the beneficial magical powers derived from such relationships.
American Indian medicine powers are badly understood by those who conquered Indian country. One of the great American myths about native shamans is that they were rare. This fact applies only to more recent times. My reading of the historical records is that at least half of the people had spirit helpers. Yes, powerful shamans who could cure were rare, but the use of medicine powers was not. Most people had at least one small power.
"Brother Bear" reflects this reality of real-life American Indian shamanism. The wizened elder Tahana is the tribe's leading medicine person, but the other characters also wield a particular medicine power through an animal spirit helper. The spirits call upon Tahana to reveal to each member of her tribe their totem spirit power. (This is a linguistic score for Disney--the Kenai people belong to the Tanaina tribe, and her name symbolizes that Tahana is the essence of her people.) When a person has come of age and the spirits are ready, Tahana calls for a ceremony in which she reveals the totem to the recipient, who in turn must "catch" the spirit power of it, as most natives now say. In that sense, every person in the tribe is a shaman in his or her own right.
As we meet Kenai, his two elder brothers have already received their totem spirit helpers from Tahana. When Tahana calls for him, Kenai's childish dream is to get a power stronger than either of them. Tahana reveals that his spirit helper is the bear. In nearly every American Indian culture, the bear is right up there with the eagle, the buffalo and other creatures as the most powerful of animal spirit helpers. Bear shamans are renowned for their healing abilities, especially from bullet wounds. So Kenai is given a great power. Bear shamans are also well known for the ability to transform into a bear. In this form they can wreck havoc with their enemies and have additional skills at hunting as well.
Kenai's disrespect of his power leads him to kill a bear--a great taboo for a bear shaman, and an act that changes him into a bear himself. Instead of "catching" this spirit power, he is transformed into it. His being is caught betwixt and between: he is a bear with a stupid human mind. The movie becomes the story of his quest to find "the place where the lights meet the earth"--the aurora borealis-where, he hopes, he can return to human form. A lost cub bear, named Koda (taken perhaps from the Kodiak Eskimos, the enemy of the Tanaina) plays the role of a Zen koan becoming the key to Kenai's realization process. Koda begins by teaching him humility. All American Indian medicine ceremonies are also preceded by a purification ritual, the purpose of which is to invoke humbleness. So here Kenai takes the first prerequisite step to succeeding.
Be sure to watch for how many times along Kenai's way a prayer is given in a time of need or danger, and help is instantly there. That's exactly the way it works in the reality where humans and animal spirits walk through life in unison. And, believe me, that reality still lives hidden away out there among our American Indians. So another star for Disney's realistic portrayal of that seldom seen realm of American Indian medicine powers.
"Brother Bear" is only the beginning of a soon-to-be growing revival of our interest in American Indians. Last century they dubbed themselves the "forgotten minority." They received little positive attention, and I don't ever recall seeing an American Indian sit-com on television. However, by this time next year they will be well on the way to becoming a main attraction for visitors to Washington, D.C.. Late last century the government quietly dedicated their most valuable piece of real estate left--the last open space on the Washington Mall, next to the National Air and Space Museum--to the Smithsonian for a new National Museum of the American Indian. Next fall their doors will open to the public, and since the Air and Space Museum is the Smithsonian's most-visited museum, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what will instantly become the second most visited site on the mall. Look for much more on American Indian medicine powers to come. Disney has gotten off us to a good start.