Bear Tribe Medicine Society was an interracial center founded in 1971 by Sun Bear, an Ojibwe man who had a vision of people of all ethnicities coming together to learn to live in harmony with the Earth. It was controversial among some Native American groups who felt that he was commercializing Native spirituality.
Bear Tribe Medicine Society was founded by Sun Bear (1929-1992), a half-Ojibwe man born as Vincent LaDuke on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. After travelling the country, he landed in California, where he worked as a Hollywood actor. He also was involved with various self-help and fundraising activities for Native communities.
Sun Bear related that he learned the ways of medicine men from his uncles and older brothers on the reservation, and then studied with other tribes around the country. He worked as a medicine man exclusively for Native people until 1971, when he had visions of catastrophic changes to the Earth due to the imbalances created by modern secular society, and a revelation that he should start working with non-Native people. He later stated that his purpose was to look for ways to serve his people and the Earth Mother and clarified that “his people” referred to not only Native people but others seeking a more harmonious way of living. He went on to establish the Bear Tribe Medicine Society, described as an “ecologically oriented cooperative community striving to relearn a harmonious relationship to the Earth Mother, the Great Spirit, and the mineral, plant, animal, and human kingdoms of the earth.”
As of 1988, the Society had a full-time community of fifteen to twenty members who lived on a forty-acre farm on Vision Mountain in Tumtum, near Spokane, Washington, as well as 320 apprentices who lived across the country. The society offered a ten-day screening program in order to select new apprentices. The community valued self-sufficiency. Aside from organizing seminars and workshops, members engaged in various economic activities including publishing a magazine and books and organizing events where Native craftspeople from reservations could earn income. They raised 80-90% of their own food and collected timber left by local loggers for fuel.
Upon Sun Bear’s death in 1992, leadership of the Bear Tribe Medicine Society passed to his assistant Wabun Wind, who led the group for four years until passing the role on to Wind Daughter, a long-time student. She continues to lead the community under the name of Panther Lodge Bear Tribe Medicine Society in Mobile, AL.
Sun Bear encountered criticism from some Native American groups who labelled him as a “plastic medicine man” and claimed that he was commercializing Native American spiritual practices. They felt that he was not a recognized leader in any tribe and that one cannot simply start one’s own tribe. Sun Bear contended that he was not teaching truly Indian spirituality but rather something else, as he took inspiration from the practices of various tribes and added to them with his own ideas. In response to the claim that Sun Bear was profiting from traditional cultural practices, one author commented that Sun Bear drove a beat-up car and lived on a small stipend.
Winona LaDuke, the daughter of Sun Bear and a Jewish-American woman, is an activist who became the first Green Party candidate and the first Native-American woman to receive an electoral college vote for vice president of the United States.