Colo. It may be spring in the Rocky Mountains but for Ute
tribal members in Colorado and Utah it's "Indian New Year," as one
home of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, is the site of a huge family
and community renewal, the Bear Dance, with some 5,000 attendees
expected on the last of four days of the event that opens the circle
of the seasons each spring.
year, after the long hard winter, you dance to go on',
the bear told us. Ever since, we do that," said Antonio Kanip,
Northern Ute, Fort Duchesne, Utah, at 34 one of the youngest Bear
Dance chiefs. "The Bear Dance has been around long before the
Spaniards, long before the first Pilgrims stepped foot on Plymouth
Rock, decades and decades back."
Bear Dance marks the end of hibernation for the bear and sharing
of the bear's spring celebratory song and dance with the Ute
people, according to an account that varies from band to band. Originally
observed earlier, it generally now takes place in May.
the Bear Dance first started, the Ute people had a spring solstice
ceremony for the new year," Terry Knight, Ute Mountain Ute Bear
Dance chief, said. "About that time you would hear the first thunder
and then you knew that spring was coming." The bear is the guardian
spirit of the Ute people, who are mountain people, he said.
condensed history is that a Ute man hunting in spring in the mountains
saw a bear from afar who was singing and dancing toward and then
away from a tree. The bear taught the song and dance to the hunter
to take back to his people for their benefit. Over time, Ute families
and bands developed variations and songs about the event, and in
the dance use instruments called "bear growlers" to simulate the
bear's clawing at the tree.
Dances and accompanying events such as pow wows and hand games are
held at Towaoc, Fort Duchesne, Ignacio, Colo., home of the Southern
Ute Tribe, where 2,000 people attend the annual celebration, and
at other locations.
the Bear Dance, a ladies'-choice social dance, men and shawl-wearing
women form separate lines and move in a back-and-forth pattern,
later dancing as couples and, on the last day, in an endurance round
that continues until a dancer drops or the drum tires out. A "cat
man" keeps order using a long willow stick, if necessary, to
line up the dancers.
like the circle," Kanip said of the Bear Dance, explaining
it is part of the spring celebration beginning the cycle of the
year. "It opens up the new year all activities, whatever
takes place the Sun Dance, a good hunting season, then later
to make it through the winter." He said he has seen the dance
help people who are sick, and older people are happy at the continuity
of life represented by the young dancers.
began the duties of Bear Dance chief at about age 20 at the insistence
of his elders after he helped his grandfathers with the celebration
and despite his own misgivings. "I was just a young guy and
I wasn't supposed to be standing up and doing that as a leader
of some ceremony." Now more comfortable with it, "I do
have familiarity with how people are going to benefit from it."
Box, Southern Ute tribal chairman and Bear Dance chief, described
the ceremony in a presentation prepared with the Colorado Historical
Society, noting there is a lesson in the Bear Dance of how to survive,
but it is also a "way of rejuvenating the spirit which is different
than just surviving."
explained that during part of the year Ute bands might be separated
while hunting, gathering herbs, or following other pursuits, but
they would come together at Bear Dance time and "be unified
again as a people."
large social gathering at the Bear Dance requires a lot of preparation,
said Andrea Taylor, Southern Ute director of information.
hardwood stick is grooved so it makes the rasping sound of the "growler"
and 12 extra grooved ax handles were kept this year for visitors
who wanted to participate but didn't bring their own instruments,
also described plans for the last-day feast, when some 2,000 participants
and attendees will eat beef stew, frybread, watermelon and desserts.
said cooking fires and a cooking arbor had to be set up; the large
dancers' arbor and a corral prepared; seven separate departments
of the Southern Ute Tribe coordinated; and 150 staff and volunteers,
some of them from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., supervised.
Similar preparations are underway for the Northern Ute celebration
and at Towaoc, where artists create elaborate paintings of bears
for the Ute Mountain Ute dance.
the Bear Dances was the Chipeta Walk to Remember May 2 at the Ute
Indian Museum, Montrose, Colo., where attendees walked in the rain
to honor Chipeta, well-known wife of Ute Chief Ouray. She was a
member of the Uncompahgre Band, removed from Colorado to Utah in