One spring long, long ago, a man dreamt of A Bear. It told him that if he would go to a certain place in the mountains, The Bear would teach him something that would make him and his tribe stronger and wiser.
The man went to the place and saw the Bear standing on its hind legs and clawing the trunk of a large Ponderosa pine tree. When he approached, The Bear turned toward him, and began to move back and forth in a shuffling pattern. As he danced, he sang a song and spoke words of strength and wisdom to the man. The Bear said the man should go back to his people and teach them the dance and the song, and that they should celebrate the dance, and follow it with a feast. It would be a good thing for The People.
If we close our eyes and listen closely, we can perhaps hear the echoes of the first Ute gatherings across time, and perhaps picture runners having gone out through the Four Corners to spread the message announcing the time and place of the spring gathering. The People (Nuche) would have spent the winter isolated from each other in their winter camps, and were ready to gather; to swap stories by the fires at night; to share news and new dreams. The young people would be eager to court members of different bands, perhaps even to marry and mate.
We can see them burdened with their possessions, making their ways over land that was waking from its winter slumber, shoots and new leaves emerging. Meeting with their friends and relations, and eager to hear more about this news from The Bear, they may have hastened to set up their camp, and build their fires to sit beside.
They would have learned The Bear’s dance: two steps forward, three back, the pattern somehow causing them to look like bells, suspended in the air, and ringing back and forth. They might have experimented with drumming that would represent the sound of The Bear waking in his cave in the spring, grumbling and stretching as he did. When someone made the first notched stick and stroked it with another stick over an open drum, were there nods of assent indicating, “Yes; just so; that is the sound of the Bear”? They would honor the strength of the Bear, and pay him respect with their songs.
They would come to do so within a social celebration that served to ensure the propagation and resilience of the Nuche; spiritual endeavors were apart from this.
The men would have cut brush to form a circular arbor for the dance, and woven the branches together to create a safe enclosure. The women would have gossiped while they foraged for greens and dug tasty bulbs from the ground. The young men and women would have put on their finest clothing, and fixed their hair in pleasing styles, the better to attract one another. The children would have played games; the Utes have always loved games and toys and laughter.
They would have shared new songs with each other, perhaps ones learned in the Dream World; songs that would promise great strength or wisdom, or celebrate The People’s place on Manitou’s earth. They would have started refining the forms of the celebration that would one day become traditions…
Men would have paired up to scour the area for game, most likely the rabbits and birds and other small critters that populated the Great Basin of Colorado. They would have chosen a site for the dance near water, and larger game might come to the river to drink, so hunters would have watched for them; maybe even a Bighorn sheep…
Who knows how many days they might have danced, or how soon they would have packed their belongings to travel to their summer grounds? Perhaps new family alliances had been forged through marriage, and they would choose their destinations with care. Groups traveled in bands of five to ten families, and probably had favorite summer grounds around the Four Corners.
They would have disassembled their wickiups and packed the skin coverings away with their other possessions in preparation to leave, maybe loading things onto hand-drawn travois to pull behind them. Could any of them have imagined how radically their lives would change once they had horses a hundred years later? Legends tell of the Dreamers among the different tribes, men who had prophetic dreams of handsome four-legged beasts whose backs they would ride upon, traveling great distances to herds of game that could feed their people for days or weeks on end. Large game whose skins they could use for tipis or clothing; plentiful meat they could dry and store for winter. Their recounted night visions must have sounded like pipe dreams, indeed.
The Weminuche, Pino Nuche, and White Mesa Utes all still hold Bear Dance in Southern Colorado and Southeastern Utah. It’s usually held the first week of June for three days.
The distant past and the present bump against each other and blend in wondrous harmony. The celebrations gladden the most hard-hearted; petty bickering is suspended, and the focus is celebratory goodwill and laughter, feasting and dancing.
The dusty dance grounds and arbor fill with color: clothing and cars and pickups and food-stands and umbrellas to ward off the hot sun; a pandemonium of hues, a veritable kaleidoscope of color, and with the CHUKKA-chukka sounds the singers pound out, the first moments can be dizzying until you stand or sit and acclimate.
So many of The People look so beautiful! Women in colorful dresses, their full skirts mid-calf length, leather high moccasins, silver jewelry, and beaded hair ornaments, and shawls! Beautiful shawls in all colors, with foot-long or longer silky fringes in complementary colors, draped over shoulders, tied in front, or tucked into sashes or belts. The shawls are key to Bear Dance, for this is a women’s choice dance.
The singers wail the old Bear Dance songs, and hold notched sticks, or rasps, one end resting on corrugated metal suspended over a wooden frame maybe two feet high. As they stroke the rasp with wooden sticks, the vibration on the metal says ‘CHUKKA-chukka, CHUKKA-chukka…’ It’s loud and almost bawdy, and as the official Whipper gives a signal, the women and girls approach the line of waiting males, whose faces display a wide variety of expressions, all the spectrum from eager eye contact to eyes-averted seeming terror.
Once a female makes her choice, she takes hold of a corner of her shawl, and flicks the fringe at her chosen man or boy. He dutifully follows her out into the center of the arbor (or gets a tap from the Whipper, and catcalls and jeers from the crowd), which is still juniper trees and brush woven together to make a large circle. There they wait until the other couples join them in a long line, males facing females.
The men wear ribbon shirts, beaded belt buckles, often in the traditional Ute rose design; moccasins, vests (often beaded), and often cowboy hats with eagle or other feathers adorning them. Some of the older Ute men might wear leather gloves with beaded high cuffs. It’s altogether pleasing to see their displays of finery, and somehow even more so with the kids. Their pride in their fancy duds seems to make them fairly quiver with glee, and they can hardly stand still until the dancing starts.
It begins with the two-step forward, three-backward shuffle, the entire line moving in unison, back and forth, back and forth. The singers wail to the CHUKKA-chukka; the rhythm chukka-chukkas through everyone’s bodies…a contagious metallic shuck-and-jive boogie sound that must make it hard for the male dancers to maintain their stoic stares. The lines tilt back and forth like they’re on rockers; it’s a learned motion, one I’ve never learned (but yes, maybe it’s just not meant for White Women).
Back and forth…until the Whipper taps the male of a couple on the shoulder with his whip; then they peel off from the line and dance! Couple by couple he taps, and the line becomes couples, high stepping, prancing even, in jubilant abandon: kids, oldsters, the middle-aged, and yes, the young adults looking for mates.
The couples can travel all around the arbor, almost as if they’re floating, and it’s hard to tell how the dance step can lend itself to so much movement. And by now smiles are everywhere: on the dancers’ faces, the singers, the crowd. And it’s all so beautiful, so fine, that it’s easy to tear up with almost sublime joy.
There will be three days of dancing, with breaks for meals, and rest to change singing groups, or to go to get in on some hand games. There is always a large tent for hand-game gambling, but the arcane rules are hard to grasp for outsiders. I love watching, partly for the funny expressions of the players; it’s all based on sleight-of-hand trickery, so it makes for absurd facial poses.
But I also love it because this is where the Twin-hearts hang out. Trans-sexual or gay men in gorgeous threads: primo beadwork and feather-work, killer hats, flamboyant ribbon shirts and vests. They are accorded a special place in the tribe, and likely the visiting tribes. People watch them with extra attention, and they seem to preen under the gazes, and maybe amplify their actions a bit, like many actors do. They are a riot, and always of good humor and countenance; consummate showmen.
Traditionally, Bear Dance went on until a couple collapsed onto the ground, having expended the last bit of their energy; it’s probably not so today, but it is a satisfying sort of image. Would they be lying in the dust giggling and chortling at their totally spent energy? How fun would that be?
And then: the feast! And the modern-day cool-off treat: a snow cone (seventeen flavors)! Frybread and mutton and green chile and maybe some early corn brought in for the occasion.
And memories and images and recollections of sounds and colors and fringes and beadwork all washing like waves through your body and your mind and your dreams.