In normal, non-pandemic times, this is the season when the thrumming notes of a ceremonial song, the rasping of metal sticks rubbed on notched wood and the swinging and flicking of colorful fringed shawls would be kicking off the annual Bear Dances on Colorado’s American Indian reservations.
Groups of dancers would sway back and forth, shoulder-to-shoulder, with the lines of men and women closely facing each other before they split off into pairs. In a rite of spring for Ute Indians since at least the 1500s, hundreds of tribal members would gather for days of celebrations around the dances.
But, like so many other public gatherings, the dances won’t happen this spring.
The Ute reservations have opted to remain even more buttoned up than the rest of Colorado. The dances and the attendant gambling and feasting festivities have been canceled. In their place, the Utes are using social media to display videos and photos of past Bear Dances. Bear Dance singers are also performing Bear Dance songs in otherwise empty arenas so tribal members can drive by and hear the traditional chants.
For now, the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in Southwest Colorado are continuing to keep their reservations under tight coronavirus lockdowns.
Casinos, hotels and restaurants remain shuttered. Roadblock checkpoints limit comings and goings from the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. Food is being distributed to tribal members to lessen the need for shopping trips. Tribal publications and social media are filled with coronavirus information for members. And tribes are stressing the protection of elders who are most susceptible to the virus: they are considered the tribes’ most valuable members because of their cultural and linguistic knowledge.
All these measures have allowed the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and, to a lesser degree, the Southern Ute Tribe, to hold down COVID-19 infections and to avoid the virus spread that has made the adjoining Navajo Nation one of the coronavirus hotspots in the nation. The number of COVID-19 cases on some other reservations is higher than average because of a lack of resources, underfunded medical facilities and an absence of running water in homes.
Geography, discipline minimize s virus’s spreadAs the remainder of Colorado loosens restrictions on orders from Gov. Jared Polis, the tribal councils on the autonomous reservations have voted to go their own way and maintain strict protective measures.
“We have put the brakes on everything,” said John Trocheck, the public safety director and acting executive director of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. “I have no idea when things will open up. The Tribal Council is looking at it every day.”
The Southern Ute Tribal Council issued a recent statement declining to go along with the State of Colorado safer-at-home recommendations and calling the statewide relaxation of standards “premature.”
The Ute Mountain Utes have reported no positive cases of the coronavirus on the reservation after the administration of nearly 1,200 tests. A report that a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent was sickened on the reservation and later died is not true, according to Trocheck. He said that agent lived out of state and contracted the virus and died there. The BIA did not respond to a request for comment.
The Southern Ute Tribe has reported 10 positive cases. Lindsay Box, the tribal spokeswoman, would not give any further information about cases or deaths.
The Colorado Department of Public Health’s breakdown of COVID-19 cases by race show just 0.48% of cases in Colorado have been American Indians or Alaska Natives. The breakdown shows they make up just 0.57% of all Colorado deaths.
Lauren Enrrico, a spokeswoman for the health department, said it is possible that is an undercount because the information has been difficult to collect.
Wendy Forbes, a spokeswoman for Centura – Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango said the hospital has been closely watching for COVID-19 linked to the Southern Ute reservation but “we haven’t seen much impact.”
Lindsay Yeager with Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez would not say if Ute Mountain Ute tribal members have been seen there for treatment of the coronavirus. “We take care of whoever shows up on our doorstep,” she said.
Geography has helped Colorado’s reservations avoid out-of-control coronavirus infections. Both reservations are off the beaten path, unlike the Navajo lands that sprawl across more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and Mexico and are crisscrossed heavily by travelers.