JEREMY WADE SHOCKLEY/The Southern Ute Drum
More than three centuries ago, as the spring berries began to blossom from the bushes and the great black bears emerged from winter hibernation, so did the Ute people rise from the toils of winter’s snow-driven mountain hardships to celebrate survival and the season of renewal.
With spring’s first crack of thunder to announce it was time, the Bear Dance festivities would begin.
Though today’s Utes live in a dramatically different world, many components of the highly symbolic Bear Dance, which will take place this weekend on the Southern Ute reservation, remain unchanged.
“Everything is waking up,” said Southern Ute tribal member Lynda Grove-D’Wolf, who leads cultural workshops about the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s Bear Dance and tribal rites of passage. “It’s a time of welcoming spring, rejoicing and celebrating our connection to Mother Earth.”
Bear Dance Basics
Celebrated on Ute reservations across two states, Ute tribes west of Colorado’s borders host the first Bear Dances of the season. The events move each weekend thereafter, through seven bands of the Ute Nation, until the last dances take place on the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Indian reservations in late May and early June.
The Utes and other Native American tribes attend each others’ celebrations. In fact, the spring Bear Dances historically marked the only time each year that all of the seven roaming Ute Indian bands could be found together.
The Bear Dance celebrations of days past were used to pray, heal the sick and marry off young tribal members to one another.
And each Ute tribe’s celebration was, and is, slightly different from the others, with tradition leading the way through generations of family storytelling and musical compositions unique to the hosting tribe’s families.
The instrumental component of the songs is consistent, designed to mimic the sounds of the mythical bear that is the main character in most Bear Dance stories.
In most versions of the tale, brothers on the hunt find a female bear scratching at and dancing around a tree with a rhythmic, musical quality to her growls, scratches and movements. The bear ultimately teaches one of the brothers the dance and song, sending him off with instructions to teach what he learned to his people as a sign of respect for, and to draw upon, the bear’s spirit of strength.
It led to the annual Bear Dance, which is known among tribal members for the strength and endurance required for the days-long event.
On the last day of the celebration, everyone turns out to see the dancers, dressed in their most colorful cultural clothing, and dances for hours in a specially designed corral “until the last person falls,” Grove-D’Wolf said.
The women choose their dance partners with a flick of the shawl, and the men cannot refuse, said 18-year-old tribal member Nicole Birch in an educational video posted on YouTube.com.
After the dancing has begun, no couple wants to be the first to falter, Grove-D’Wolf said. Many tribal dancers begin training for the ceremonial event with the start of the new year, she said.
There is no prize for the last couple standing as the Bear Dance concludes, tribal members said, simply the honor of completion.
In her video, Birch proudly tells her audience she has never fallen despite attending Bear Dances for more than a decade.
Grove-D’Wolf said, “It’s an honor, and it’s about knowing you can still move, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
When dancing at the spring event no longer is an option because of health or old age, “it’s a sad moment,” she said.
Public attendance encouraged
The social nature of the Bear Dance isn’t limited to tribal members, said Pearl Casias, chairwoman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
Non-native residents in the community are encouraged to attend the three days of events and all of the reservation’s amenities, including the new museum, casino and the tribe’s first artisan show and sale.
Attendees should be warned, though, that cameras are strictly prohibited on the Bear Dance grounds, and equipment could be confiscated. Also, visiting men should avoid standing too close to the Bear Dance corral opening or risk being chosen as a dance partner, an invitation that cannot be refused under ceremonial rules, said Andrea Taylor, tribal information services.
The Bear Dance is an opportunity to bridge the region’s cultural divide through education and entertainment, a gap Casias and many other tribal members believe is important to close.
“With spring’s arrival, as the bears and plants are waking up, it’s a great time for people to come and awaken their own awareness of community,” said tribal member Elise Redd. “This is a great way to become more aware of the Ute people and our cultures, dancing, traditions and art.”