The killing of the bear in Elizabeth George Speare's novel The Sign of the Beaver (1983) marks an important turning point in the story. Before this, the young boys Matt and Attean, though friends, have had a somewhat uneasy relationship. Matt feels the Native American Attean (I'll be using "Indian" as a descriptor for Attean after this, in line with the story's language and eighteenth-century setting) scorns him for his "white-man" ignorance about the ways of the wild, as we can see in the following lines:
Suddenly he felt hot, in spite of the icy water. Why had Attean brought him out here, anyway? Had Attean just wanted to show off his own cleverness, and to make Matt look more clumsy than ever?
Since the story is told from Matt's perspective, we don't have as much insight about Attean's feelings; however, we have enough clues to know that it's not easy to win the respect of proud, capable Attean:
"White man not smart like Indian," he said scornfully. "Indian not need thing from ship. Indian make all thing he need."
It is this respect that Matt has been craving and, in the end, manages to win through his role in killing the bear. When Matt and Attean unexpectedly come across a mother bear in the forest, even the usually sure-footed Attean is caught off-guard:
There was a crashing of bush and a low, snarling growl. An immense paw reached through the thicket and tumbled the cub over and out of sight. In its place loomed a huge brown shape. Bursting through the leaves was a head three times as big as the cub's. No curiosity in those small eyes, only an angry reddish gleam.
The bear is only two bounds away, so there is no chance of the boys outrunning her. At the precarious moment when she is about to charge, Matt instinctively flings a hunted rabbit he has been carrying at the bear's nose, momentarily distracting her:
With a jerk of her head the bear shook it off as though it were a buzzing mosquito. The rabbit flopped useless to the ground.
Brief as it was, Matt's swift, quick-thinking action wins Attean enough time to shoot an arrow straight between the bear's eyes. As the bear reels under the arrow's assault, Attean shoots another arrow and then jumps on the bear with his knife. Matt follows, knife in hand, and together the boys finish off the bear.
However, Attean feels no sense of victory in the kill. As he tells Matt, Indians don't kill female bears or cubs. Matt himself has learnt through his time with Attean that Indians never kill for sport and use everything that they hunt. The killing of the bear has been purely a measure of self-preservation. Had the boys not killed her, she would have hunted them down in minutes. That's why Matt's alacrity in disarming the bear was very critical. More importantly, it finally wins him Attean's admiration:
Attean looked at him, and his solemnness suddenly dissolved in a grin. "You move quick," he said. "Like Indian."
Matt felt his cheeks turn red. "You killed him," he said honestly. Yet he knew that he had had a part. He had given Attean just that instant in which to notch his arrow.
Attean's compliment of Matt behaving "like an Indian" is the ultimate honor he can give the boy. The killing of the bear also earns Matt an invitation, for the first time, to Attean's village and a chance to taste the meat of the bear he helped kill. Even though Matt often disguises his grudging admiration for Indian customs under the mask of suspicion, we know his respect and understanding for Attean's clan of the beaver has only been deepening as the story progresses.
In many respects, he has found them to be more skilled and adept at survival than white men, which upturns several of Matt's preconceived notions about civilization and skill. At the start of the story, Matt has expressed his displeasure about having to teach a "heathen" boy like Attean English. However, very soon, Matt realizes that it is he who needs to learn from Attean. Since the novel is set in 1769, in a time when white people were appropriating Indian lands, Matt's initial attitude was hardly uncommon. Even the literature of the time—such as Matt's favorite book, Robinson Crusoe—positioned white men as superior saviors and anyone who wasn't white as peoples who needed to be "civilized." But Matt's encounter with Attean makes him swiftly question all these assumptions:
He plodded along behind Attean, trying to spot the signs before Attean could point them out. All at once, as a thought struck him, he almost laughed out loud. He remembered Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday. He and Attean had sure enough turned that story right round about. Whenever they went a few steps from the cabin, it was the brown savage who strode ahead, leading the way, knowing just what to do and doing it quickly and skillfully. And Matt, a puny sort of Robinson Crusoe, tagged along behind, grateful for the smallest sign that he could do anything right.
In the killing of the bear, it is Matt (as Crusoe) who has gained civilizing knowledge from Attean (the supposed "savage"). Matt's time spent hunting and exploring with Attean has taught him crucial survival skills and helped hone his instincts. When they encounter the bear, it is these instincts which come into play. The kill also symbolizes Matt and Attean briefly behaving as one—in perfect sync and harmony and shedding all their differences.