When the world was newly green, the Creator – Whe-get the Raven – decided to leave a reminder of when the land was covered with ice and snow. To do this, he went among the black bear people and turned every tenth one white, decreeing that Moksgm’ol would live in peace and harmony forever. And for centuries it did, with only the Tsimshian people knowing of the rare bear until the late 1800s.
As change began to invade the untouched rainforests of the Tsimshian’s traditional territory at the turn of the 20th Century, rumors of Moksgm’ol’s existence slowly began to spread.
Most settlers that inhabited Canada’s west coast laughed at the idea of a “spirit” bear and although a white pelt would show up occasionally, it was commonly believed to be a misplaced polar bear.
To one, however, the thought of a polar bear being thousands of kilometres away from its known range was too far of a stretch. W.T. Hornaday, a naturalist from the New York Zoological Society, launched an investigation to discover the secrets of Moksgm’ol.
Hornaday spent several years in the backwoods of British Columbia’s north coast in search of the elusive white bear, an animal he believed was a new species awaiting discovery.
Hornaday once wrote…it may be truthfully said that in northern British Columbia, zoological explorations have only begun. There are vast regions, containing new animal life which we know not, which have been mostly untouched by the zoologist… British Columbia is to scientific collectors and students, a land almost unknown.
When Hornaday announced the discovery of a new species of bear in 1905, his claim was met with criticism due to a lack of scientific rigor in the research he produced. Undeterred, Hornaday set out to prove that BC’s white bear was the first large mammal discovered in centuries on the continent of North America and believed the scientific community would agree if only he was able to acquire a living specimen for additional research.
To aid the process of capturing a white bear, Hornaday enlisted the help of Francis Kermode, the then-director of the BC Museum of Natural History. But with a live specimen still not materializing, Hornaday decided he needed to give Kermode an added incentive to help his quest: Moksgm’ol would be named in the director’s honour – the Kermode bear.
By 1924, Francis Kermode was able to provide Hornaday with a white bear to research, placing a cub in captivity in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park. But by 1928, modern science determined what traditional knowledge already knew. The Kermode bear wasn’t an albino or a new species, but a subspecies of black bear that evolved around 10,000 BC when the coastal population was cut off from those in the interior of the region.
Despite Hornaday’s false claims of a new species, the name he gave the bear stuck, with the subspecies’ taxonomy listed as Ursus Americanus Kermodei. Yet the Tsimshian word was always better. Moksgm’ol – or spirit of the rainforest – would be the genesis of the name the world would come to call the ghost bear of Canada’s west coast.