Jonathan Smith's recent interpretation of the classic "bear festival" among northern hunters is examined, together with his more general theory of ritual. Smith's interpretation of the bear festival is shown to be unfounded. The paper also investigates the well-documented bear rituals of the Koyukon of Alaska in light of Smith's general theory of ritual. Viewed in the context of other theories of ritual as symbolic action (those of Geertz, Douglas, Valeri, Turner, Eliade), Smith's theory is found to be unsuited to the task of understanding the meaning and significance of Koyukon bear rituals. The paper argues that the interpretation of ritual requires the investigator to attend to the ritualist's notion of reality and to grasp how his beliefs and actions are fitted to it. The investigator should be concerned with questions of meaning not empirical validity, as the problem of understanding ritual is a semantic and semiotic one, analogous to understanding the cognitive and performative uses of a language. The magical or instrumental aspect of the Koyukon bear rituals is also dealt with as an instance of performative language.