“The Last Speaker of Bear: My Encounters in the North”
By Lawrence Millman; Trinity University Press, 2022; 192 pages; $18.95.
Lawrence Millman, the author of 18 previous books as well as a frequent contributor to magazines, has spent a lifetime exploring and writing about the North. His latest small book consists of short vignettes or anecdotes chronicling his contacts with northern, largely Indigenous people and the places he visited.
As Millman explains in his preface, he started off trying to write a memoir that looked back on his life but found that what he was creating was not a narrative but remembered episodes that wouldn’t fall into chronology. He’s organized these into sections he labels “Encounters with Northern Natives,” “Encounters with Flora, Fauna, and Food,” “Encounters with Remote Places,” and “Miscellaneous Encounters.” Taken together, the short pieces — usually only a couple of pages long — form the stones of a sort-of mosaic.
Millman traveled widely in the sparsely inhabited — by humans — north, and his vignettes similarly travel across the length of Canada to Iceland and Greenland, Svalbard in northern Norway, Siberia and Russia’s Wrangel Island to Alaska. Much of his travel and inquiry surrounded collecting Indigenous “lore,” while at other times he was engaged in expeditions to historic locations associated with early Western explorers and whaling ships. Sometimes he seemed simply after the joy of getting to the top of a mountain or the lake at the bottom of a crater. Sometimes he traveled alone but more often with guides or friends. He played soccer with boys in Greenland — where they delighted in kicking him — and ate ptarmigan droppings there, faced off with a musk ox in Canada, and took a walk through Iceland’s oldest forest.
Alaska-specific bits include one about losing his boots in an Anchorage hotel and going replacement boot shopping with his friend Ted Mala, the now-retired Alaska Native physician. The point of the story seems to be about survival strategies of northern Indigenous people. Another, titled “A Northern Holocaust,” centers on a visit to Refuge Rock off Kodiak Island, the site of the 1784 massacre of Alutiiq people by Russians and a place he found “ghostly.”
The title story, with its suggestion of bear-speak, promises more than it delivers. It’s mostly about Millman’s weather difficulties getting to a northern Labrador village where, he’d heard, an elder “spoke bear.” When he finally arrived, he learned that the elder had died the day before. He inquired of another man if he could speak some bear “words” and was told instead about the respect hunters paid to bears, calling them “Grandfather” and hanging their skulls in trees for protection. It seems not to have occurred to Millman that “speaking bear” might not literally mean using a language of bear words but having a kinship understanding.
So many of Millman’s vignettes act as teasers — setting forth a situation or circumstance that suggests intriguing cultural or environmental questions but then wraps up all too quickly, often with a stated conclusion that the reader has already glossed from the story itself. Since most of the “encounters” presented here occurred 30 or 40 years ago, he passed up a tremendous opportunity to reflect on them from a distance — as one would in an actual memoir. Instead, with few exceptions, we get moments frozen in time. These offer their own pleasures and relevance, to be sure, but seem “small” compared to what they might have become.
Time, too, has changed how outsiders are expected to interact with and portray Indigenous cultures. While Millman certainly spent a great deal of time with northern peoples and seems to have had good relationships with individuals, his vignettes don’t always express the level of respect we might expect today. In these pieces, he chases after stories, knocking on doors and asking about shamanic practices, and he doesn’t always seem sensitive to or nuanced about cultural differences. He questions supernatural beliefs and cringes at a poor man’s offer of old doughnuts, even though he takes pride in eating other Native foods. He tells of sticking a knife into a burial cairn to turn the skull so that he could see its teeth.
While Millman is clearly a person of many talents, including knowledge of fungi, the subject of his book “Fungipedia,” his formal degrees are in English and he does not appear to be trained in ethnography. His practice of collecting traditional Native stories, included in several of his previous books, seems to have been driven by personal curiosity. Here, a reader may suspect that his informants sometimes made up stories to entertain themselves at his expense. In one vignette, when he’s exploring the use of psychotropic mushrooms in Siberia, his informants tell him that he must follow the tradition of baring his naked butt to the moon before ingesting them. When he does this, the men burst into laughter and admit they were joking.
Millman does mention, a few times, the effects of climate change, which were already apparent in the north decades ago. In one piece, about caribou, he relates that with snow melting earlier in the spring, mosquitoes were hatching before calves were born and female caribou were so busy trying to evade the insects that they left their newborns to starve. In another, he tells of a cruise ship’s path blocked by icebergs being shed in increasing numbers by melting glaciers. He has less to say about weather and climate effects on the lives of northern people.
“The Last Speaker of Bear” will appeal to readers who like short bursts of story, fans of Millman generally, and those who will find encouragement for their own adventures in either physical travel or additional reading about northern places, their histories, and their living cultures. Some readers might prefer to seek out Millman’s earlier, fuller books. His classic “Last Places: A Journey in the North,” from 1990, follows the route of Vikings across the north 10 centuries ago. “At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic,” was reviewed in these pages in 2017.