the original coloradans and ute bear dance images

Mine is a bit different as far as the legend goes, but: ‘Ute Bear Dance Images’:

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 Two Spirits people hang out.  Trans-sexual or gay men (and perhaps women, although I can’t honestly remember having differentiated them) 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.


And just so that you can hear the singers stroking their notched sticks over the hollow metal barrels, this is from this year’s Northern Ute Bear Dance, smaller than the Ute Mountain Utes’, but wonderful.  Note the fringes on the women’s (and girls’) shawls.

17 responses to “the original coloradans and ute bear dance images

  1. Much recommended, wendy, even before I have done more than glance through, which I most certainly will as the rains refresh the parched land here and enter our aquifers.

    Here as well is a lengthy but worthy piece entitled “On Revolution” by Russell Brand, whose interview at the BBC was shown to me by my elder son – a connection to the future I presently cherish (and the rain keeps on coming). Do do read, dear people. I know it is long but it is so very worth it.

  2. Re-gather the tribes; let the foals prance, again; and the DAFFODILS bloom early and often.

  3. yes to all three, bruce, and gather the daffadowndillies as we may. (and also always carry a bit of rope, never know when it might come in handy: hobbit rules).

    our daughter is ute, so we spent a lot of time inside the ute culture, as well as with other area tribes. opening lines are from a longtime past friend, terry knight. his ex-wife is linda grove (southern ute), speaking of the importance of resurrecting ute language in their community. tough gig, as it was spoken, not written, and folks have labored to create phonetics for their language.

    the genesis of this post was due to a bodywork client i had yesterday, and our discussions about the utes, sparked because his wife is the sole mental health worker on the rez, and he spoke of her love for them (not so much the bureaucracies, though). i’d told him that we’d run into this episode from a recent pbs series last week, and i told him i’d try to dig it up. i sent the diary to him so he and his wife might watch it, and…love it.

    i almost included my vignette on the ute mountain sundance, since terry was the sundance chief for a long time, and was the author of our family being allowed to camp on the sleeping ute for one year’s ceremonials. extraordinary experience, of course…not all social positives, but spiritual: boy, howdy, yes.

  4. thanks for the good link, juliania. i haven’t finished it yet (bread and other chores day), but he nailed me straightaway: when i saw his name, i thought: ‘the dude who was married to katy perry?’ but of course, revolution of consciousness is the key. and yes, it’s started…plenty of heavy lifting ahead, as well.

  5. beautiful writing!

    better for describing communicating the experience than a picture or a movie.

    going to read that one at least twice.

    In Manitoba, there is no problem with the native languages, there are many people who for instance have Cree as their first language. Ojibway is the other main language. Many from the North (of Manitoba, which is all North to you southerners) speak no English.

    off topic, a day ago, we watched a tv show about the scablands, the American scientists, geologists, were describing the glaciers…. and several of them said the glaciers “came down from Canada”


  6. gotta say, both you and Julianna sure can write. wow.

  7. how kind of you, mafr. but the richness, the depth of an experience, is often hard to capture on film, isn’t it? ‘you southerners’: i love it!

    goofy of me that i can’t remember, but were fewer canadian first nations children kidnapped and sent to boarding schools that punished them for using their own languages and spiritual ceremonies? those are some of the most heart-breaking and enraging stories i’ve ever heard told, among so very many others.

    ah, the purdiest large-antlered buck just came through, so i threw some apples out for him so he’d stay to get his picture taken (mercenary that i am). a rolling thunder storm is on its way, and the golden maple leaves are falling in sheets and swirls. ah, i love and loather autumn!

    this just came on the nanci griffith playlist i have on, appropriately enough. (with rodney crowell, sweet harmonies)

  8. juliannia, brand’s piece is indeed long, and as you say, worth it. first, i am so glad that he experienced his epiphanies in nairobi, and to a lesser extent, in the ‘take back the streets’ ‘riots’, as he called them. The Real touched him somehow; the bubble he’s lived in so long causes him to still see a few things wrong, one being that most folks have their basic needs met. no, no, not in england,not in the us, no.

    i read it several times, partially to see what jumped out at me besides the above, and one was his conflicted notions that ‘sadly, socialists are atheists, thus the godless path can’t serve, but then he fetes the pagan socialists, and socialism in that it is deeply spiritual. maybe back to obey’s contention that if we subscribe to the point of view that with directed consciousness…somehow affect the energy/spirits/the noosphere positively (or at all), then we are assigning them agency, thus the status of deities. dunno, and i mostly don’t give a fig, which is why i call myself an apathiest, lol.

    but there’s the myth theme again, eh? it baffles me a bit, as far as how to create new ones, but i do have this sense that part of it is why it’s so important to keep telling our own stories, and others’ stories, in order for them to eventually permeate the very air people breathe, as with your st. john’s teachers speech: advocating the idea of ‘recollection’ of what had been passed down from the wisest philosophers and most egalitarian far-seeing prophets and ordinary people, all the way to the Light Horizon. or something. it’s already out there, is what i’m trying to say, and russell knows that, but understandably sees the definitions of reality that have been thrust upon us.

    i love that he referenced buckminster fuller; what an enlightened genius of a man; we used to pour over the whole earth catalog, imagining, imagining…following suggestions as we were able.

    meditate and be careful of making judgments, yes, and i’d add: make or enjoy music, create art, and make true community with those we can.

    anyhoo, thanks for leaving the link, we never know where a thread might go, eh? i’m tempted to put up his bbc interview video here, but i kinda want to not get too far astray from the first coloradans, know what i mean? (after writing a short book myownself). ;)

    added: i’d forgotten to mention that brand will reach a whole audience of young, pop culture people, and may lead more to ‘seeing the Light’. i loved what he said about billy connolly’s desire ‘to be a nuisance’, lol. yes, let’s hear it for Inconvenient People! eddie izzard a politician? zounds! (although there’s nothing wrong with believing in ‘democracy’, as long as it’s a true one, is there?

    never having voted. hmmmmm.

  9. Apatheist (GRATE Reframe)! NOW, you’ve converted me!

  10. ;~) love converts.

    but think: some atheists make a *religion* out if it. i reckon that: since i like to pray, formerly in sweat lodge, now before i sleep and offer prayers of thanks upward and outward (even when it’s tough to imagine something to be grateful about), why do i really need to sweat it, given that it try (and often fail) at leading life the best i can, *and* that a often as i can remember to, remember that Death always lives just over my left shoulder (carlos castenada), as long as i reckon that my coyote angel is there, as well, and can touch the crown of my head with…grace.


    but i heard a song recently that i love, and speaks to a widening reaching-out; perhaps only a metaphor, but… died too early.

    love to you, and all here; srsly. don’t forget it, please.

  11. Also, too dogmatic (e.g., AHA choosing a slogan of “No god; no problem” over mine, “Single-Payer [with the r slashed between the P and a, otherwise as in prayer], proffered them at the time of the Baucus [single-payer $HUTOUT] hearings, to galvanize temporal support for an actual secular humanist, beneficial cause.)! Thus far, I never forget, nor close my eyes to the light of dawn, nor refrain from joining in reaching out across the seas which conspire to separate US all. Soothing and thoughtfull song.

  12. if you do so, i reckon that you are an exemplary human being, and understand that we are all related, as in: ‘Mitakuye Oyasin’. even the navajo and ute sweats we did would use that lakota reminding prayer as they (blessedly) flung open the canvas door of the sweat lodge.

    yes, a very good song, another metaphor for platonic love that reaches out in generosity of spirit.

  13. Wendye, you are a generous soul. I loved the Russell Brand piece for the same reason as I loved this one from you – an expression of joyous spirit that is infectious in melodious prose. It’s what we so much need when we are getting too serious for our own good – and I’m so glad it didn’t detract from our enjoyment of your essay.

    I and my family once went early on a January morning to San Ildefonso for their Deer Dance, when you could still go without being a cruise ship passenger descending on a tiny island. Oh, I treasure that memory. The pueblo is amazingly beautiful – as it has always been – and the dance commences as the dancers come slowly down from the hills at dawn, and as yours goes all day. Many animals are represented in it, and I so remember the buffalo as the embodiment of that animal’s spirit.

    In an adjoining plaza ongoing were Comanche dances, which in a spirit of merriment only dimly perceived by us outsiders, poked fun at those raiders from the past. On the Russell Brand comments thread at commondreams, one commenter quoted Emma Goldman to the effect that if she couldn’t dance she wouldn’t be part of any revolution. And I can’t resist adding that one of the Easter hymns I love begins a verse:

    David, the ancestor of Christ God
    Danced for joy before the Ark…

    His saving grace being that he danced.

    And in your piece you remind me that as a toddler my oldest son danced exactly that way: two steps forward, three back…

  14. that comment of emma goldman may be her most oft-quoted one, but i still use it often, and brand used john cleese to illustrate rather subtly.

    i’ve loved the hell out of the religious dances at the pueblos, but the social ones are such bright ones, often of thanksgiving, as i assume the deer dance is? somehow it’s watching the young folks dancing, with their expressions of muted joy and pride, so carefully stepping to the drums and rattles, adorned with the prescribed clothing, headdresses and other accoutrements that moves my heart and brings tears. knowing that in the background lurks all of the government chicanery aimed to divide their societies to further conquer them, as well.

    i love the image of your son, rocking back and forth like the bells that the bear dancers become, as if their heads were held by invisible strings tethered to the heavens. good son! remarkable boy! ;)

    i’d almost mentioned to you recently that yves smith had a thread up in which she was taking after banger and a few others for their ‘idiocy’ about a coming revolution, etc. and crazily enough, i’ve spent far too long reading her more recent thread in which she quotes her piece on sensing ‘a disruption in the force’, remember? anyhoo, she feels vindicated now by none other than the bbc’s interview with…russell brand, lol. it’s also fun that someone finally teased her that she’s becoming a socialist pinko, given that the nature of capitalism itself is under scrutiny, but no one dares to say it straight out: it must be replaced. i’ve only finished 3/4 of the 199 comments so far, but i will go read ian welsh’s pieces later. his notions got some pushback, but one issue he brought up was: even in an egalitarian society, it would take er…an army to defend it. interesting discussion, even if a lot of those commenters are way too brilliant for me.

    and i love david dancing before the ark…

    but had i been truly generous, juliania, i would have embedded the bbc interview. ;)

  15. i just realized that the northern ute video i put up was dancing *after* the tappers had freed couples from the line, so no swinging bells. this is the only one i could find *pre-tap*, and isn’t quite demonstrative of that, especially since some of the men seem not to get the steps. it’s surprisingly hard to pick up.

  16. Just a bit more on my toddler son. Firstborn, he was isolated for a while from other babies and I think that might have been why he was very slow to crawl and walk – he’d just sit mesmerized by nature. Then one day a little girl came visiting, and presto – up on his feet he was in a flash. I always thought his little dance was just ‘hey, here I am, a biped like you big guys! See what I can do!’ Utah born, too – Valley of the Great Salt Lake, so he must have picked up what that earth remembered, don’t you think? ;)

  17. my take is that babies’ neural connections and hemispheric cross-communication can be impeded by early walking. perhaps you spent plenty of time with him *at his level*, so he didn’t see the crucial need to walk. crawling…yes, it’s a bit different. our son was loth to crawl, so slid around on the floor on his back, knees bent. we started cross-crawl exercises with him, but i’ve always feared that it was my fault, not catching a spiking fever soon enough. ah, well, we do our best, even if it’s not good enough, eh?

    but yes: the salt in the valley must have been a great communications conduit enhancer for…Deep Messages. ;)

    talking’s like that, eh? zero to sentences in nothin’ flat, sometimes. ah, the educational trend now is abysmal: homework in first grade, gotta get those little chirren ready for The Tests! make em into good little productive wage slaves fast! makes me soooo sad.

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