Sundance on Sleeping Ute Mountain; a vignette

(a reprise from 2013)

Far in the southwest corner of Colorado rests the Sleeping Ute.  His head is to the north, his feet to the south, his toes a volcanic outcropping.  Legend has it that when he is angry, puffs of cloud come out his pockets; and that one day he will rise up and help the Ute Mountain Utes (Weeminuche) smite their enemies.  (That might have been useful a hundred and fifty years ago…now, not so much.)
Before the late 1800’s, the Utes roamed the entire Rocky Mountain West.  They were nomadic warriors, and were enemies to plenty of tribes; their horseback and raiding skills were legendary.   Once they got their asses kicked fully and completely by the US Army, they gave up their fight in the face of promises of land dedicated to them by the Federal Government.  As the story so often went with government broken promises, they were moved to one scrap of desert land in the Four Corners area, and required to stay there.  It was rough, still is rough, being relocated to such hostile land.  The one redeeming geographical plus to their reservation is the Sleeping Ute.   It is forested, and provides some cooler climate in summer and space for their Sundance, Bear Dance, and other gatherings.

Over the years, much of their traditional religious culture faded away in much the same way that their language did.  Poverty was and is widespread, and the average Ute male has a life expectancy of maybe thirty-two years.  Alcoholism is rampant, as is diabetes, its twin nemesis for Native Americans.  There is some biological trait that makes them both overly sensitive to sugar and to alcohol, which of course is made with sugar.

A few decades ago, some new religious leaders percolated up through the tribe who wanted to return to the Old Ways, so borrowed the Sundance from the Lakota, and adapted it to their own use.

Rather than piercing their chests with peeled sticks, and tying the attached thongs to a center post,  leaning back until the stick tears away…for the Utes it is a ritual of thirst and fasting: four nights and days without food or water.  This may seem almost impossible for anyone.  But for the Utes, many of whom are ill or alcoholic to go through the ceremony is simply astounding.   They do it in hope and belief that it will help their lives, the lives of their families, and the tribe.  They seek power medicine through suffering and prayer, and the Sundancers gain support from the presence of their families and other tribal members.

We have a Ute daughter.  One spring day I got a call from the head of social services at Towaoc, the main Ute town; she asked (begged, really) for us to take an abused baby who was due to be released from the hospital, could not return to her family, and for whom they couldn’t find care, neither foster nor familial.  Resistance was futile.  It was crazy; it may have been one of the most complicated and over-scheduled times in my life, but there I was in the end, saying ‘bring her over.’

She arrived in a diaper and a hospital towel, with spikey, stand-up hair and huge eyes, stoned on phenobarbital…and named of all things, Princess Dancing Sky.  We called her the Boo (I don’t know why; it seemed to fit her…); and we eventually adopted her.

We did our best to keep her in touch with her family and Ute culture, even the borrowed stuff: pow-wows, Bear Dance…and eventually Sundance.

It was no great secret that many Utes don’t care much for white people (who could blame them?) and…uh…we’re pretty white.  Some didn’t care for white people adopting their kids; federal law doesn’t either.  But if no Native people can be found, whites can adopt, though we are at the extreme end of the ‘desirable’ continuum.

For years we stood outside the Sundance lodge and watched.  The men would build a large circle or corral of upright posts and connect them with smaller poles; they would weave aspen branches between the uprights; the resulting smells were clean and earthy.  A hefty forked tree would be peeled and planted in the center, and streamers of the four directions would fly from the forks.  It was called the Tree of Life, and it carried  prayers to the Great Spirit; beneath it individual healings, sage or sweetgrass smudgings and fannings with eagle feathers would take place.

The first night the dancers had their final water and went into the lodge, it was simple and unadorned.  Over successive days, more would be added: more small poles to make and inner circle, creating separate stalls for each dancer; boughs overhead for a little shade or protection should it rain; and on the third day, armloads of freshly cut willow or mint were brought to provide a hint of moisture to the parched dancers.

One July day the Sundance chief showed up at our house; we had gotten to know him and his family over the years, and become fairly good friends.

“This year you’ll come and live on the mountain for Sundance,” Terry announced. (He could tend to be a bit bossy, when he was being his Chief self.) “It’s time.  Supawaya-mamuch is old enough now.”  We had asked for a traditional naming ceremony to be performed for her; White Clay Woman was her Ute name now.  The ceremony was lovely, and the feast we were obliged to host was fantastic: they chose the foods, and they weren’t shy about their requests.

“You can help work in the Chief’s camp.  There are always lots of visitors from as far away as the Canadian border, and we’ll feed them all, and keep fires burning.  You should come.”

“What will the other Utes make of it?  Will we be welcome, as madigachio (whites)?”

“I’ll let them know you’re there at my invitation; your daughter is Ute; you all belong there.”  (From his mouth to all the other Utes’ ears, I pleaded silently.)

He said he would bring a big truck later in the week to collect our tipi and poles and take them onto The Mountain, as they called it.  He was as good as his word, and we met him there one day, pitched our tipi, and got to work.

Our kids ran wild on the mountain; the Ute kids weren’t supervised, so we tried to check in with them here and there, but it all worked out pretty well in the end.

After hauling wood and cutting firewood, starting dough for fry bread, the next big project was:  The Making of Drumsticks.  Drumming groups from all over the west would be coming.  Drums were perhaps five feet in diameter, the metallic bases covered with soaked rawhide which was then fasted down with laced thongs, then left to dry and tighten.  The base was left uncovered so that the sound could go through the earth below.

Extra drumsticks would be needed, they explained, to replace the ones that would break under Extreme Drumming conditions when things really got wild.  We peeled sticks, cut up inner tubes into strips, then wound and tied the strips onto a stick-end, and Voila!  A drumstick!

The first night at the Lodge was sober and silent as the Dancers entered; there was a half moon, and the air was heavy with mist, a rarity in desert country, even on the mountain.  They would soon sleep; so would we.

All day Saturday people arrived; by evening there were camps everywhere, and cook fires smoked the air.  Lots of tipis sprang up; they are such graceful structures with their poles reaching toward the magnificent clear blue sky, the Creator…toward the Furthest Reaches of our prayers and imaginations.  Their wide-open smoke-flaps welcomed one like open arms….ahhhhh….the four direction streamers at the tips of the poles, wafted in any light breeze, paying homage to the four directions and the four races: red, white, yellow and black. Yes; the camp was alive.  The grounds were in a wide valley below the protective shoulders of the Sleeping Ute; here the people could gather together in common purpose, and maybe forget for a few days their lives that lay below; down The Mountain.

As drum groups arrived and began to perform, the mountain took on a heartbeat: the hoom, booms were sent deep into the earth and spread out until the sound seemed to come from the earth itself.  The drumming and singing would go on long after we had climbed into our sleeping bags to sleep, and the vibrations from the ground below would sneak into my dreams.

One Sundance Song:

The first day went well; the twenty-eight Dancers seemed energetic and focused.  Terry’s camp was busy with visitors and cooking and children’s games.  After dinner, as we sat around the campfire, five new Utes arrived, the men tall and broad with the familiar triangular torso and dark brown skin.  Two women and three men from Fort Duchene, home to a northern branch of Utes in Utah.  They settled in, received coffee, and began to speak in Ute.  Tension grew in the others’ bodies; what was going on?  One of the new guests was a Pinnecoose, and was a leader in the northern band.  Ute murmurings continued until he finally spoke.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he said to us.  “This ceremony isn’t for white people.”

I glanced around; I looked at Steve; uh-oh.  The others glanced away, and it was hard to read the group vibe.

“We’re Terry’s guests; our daughter is Ute, and he wanted us here.  This is Aurora, and this is our son Jordan.”  Silence, then this:

“He made a mistake; you should not be seeing this sacred dance.  Your presence could harm the dancers.”

Good grief; now we were off to the races:  Whitey as Blessing-killers!  Medicine Marauders!  Jaysus.  Where was Terry’s wife Linda?  She would speak for us.  Not here?

I was at least a bit ready for this subject, so I volunteered, “It’s understandable that you hold bad feelings toward whites; we would too.  Actually, we do, on your behalf; we know a lot of the history of the conquests of the tribes.”

“They were your ancestors.”

“Maybe so, but we are not our ancestors.  And here we all are now.  And this Ute daughter of ours needs to be part of her tribe, and we mean to help her stay connected.”

Buzz, buzz; Ute-speak murmurings went on behind hands-over-mouths for a bit.

Mr. Pinnecoose asked how we were able to adopt Aurora.  (We’d come up with Aurora, since the word sort of implied Dancing Skies; she became Aurora Dancing Sky Davis.

I gave him the short version of the story.  More murmurings, maybe a little less tension?

“Okay.” He said.  A sharp nod, then the one word.  Okay.  It was over.  Just like that; they left soon afterward.

It ends up being pretty instructive to be the Dog Meat of a group’s social continuum; we’d been so before in Truchas, New Mexico, among the Spanish land grant gentry who ran things.  We might have still been Dog Meat to these folks, but it looked like they could at least live with our being there.  Whew.

Nighttime was my favorite time to be in the Lodge.  A fire would be built outside the entrance; the firelight would be picked up by the Dancers’ regalia: long slit skirts with sashes or beaded cummerbunds; bare chests, painted or not; feathers or beads or both hanging from long black hair; necklaces…and always, always, a thong from which hung…an eagle bone whistle, from which hung some fluffy eagle down.  It gives a high-pitched whistle that your ears adapt to as the intensity of the prayers school your senses: you can actually start to like the shrill sound.

The dancers might be supine and resting when you enter.  Women traditionally sit on blankets on the left, near the entrance; they often hold tightly-bound bundles of green willow, which they hold upright in one hand, and keep time with the drum, tapping the ends on the ground; the motion of the leaves is hypnotic, even at the edges of your vision.  The men (and the Davises) sat to the right.

As the drummers drum and sing the traditional Sundance songs, Dancers will rise at the moment of their readiness, responding to a call personal to them.  They face the center pole, and approach it in time to the drum; in one-footed or two-footed cadence with their bare feet carving out dusty paths in the dirt.  Eyes focused on the fork and the four colors,  blowing their breaths through the delicate flutes, they become the conduit between earth and sky; they are suffused with song, with drumbeat, with the collective devotion of everyone in the Lodge, and(hopefully) the Great Spirit…

  Their styles are varied, sometimes proscribed by old injuries, others lithe with high-stepping youth and strength… some approach the pole sideways as though wary; firelight glistens off their brown bodies…and their faces tell the stories of their harsh lives and their earnest intent to improve them.

Ahhhhhhh……we reach out to them..….to give them strength… blend our intentions with theirs… get past the pain……the thirst…..past their sickness…….or their families’……or the world’s…..our entreaties pushed……magnified  by the drumbeats…..the high wailing of the chanting songs……wa-yaay-ey-ahaa-haa……wa-yay-a-ha-way-a-aa-ha-ah-hoh…. more Dancers rise to dance…..there’s Arlo…..his first sundance…….bodies attuning to the drumbeat……hey-ya….way-yuh…..whistle-bursts…..shadow forms….. are the ancestors here?……some Dancers retreat……backing away from the Tree…..still facing it……thweet…thweeet……our eyes on dusty feet……their eyes…….eyes that give nothing away….,private eyes……there’s Rod, an alcoholic …oh my……. wa-yay-a-ha-way-a-aa-yum-way-a-yum ….there’s Eddie….an addicted veteran……hey-yaa-haa….way-ey-ya-a-aaa…… they’re luminous by firelight…..then four strong half-time drumbeats…..pum pum pum pumway-ah-ha-a-a-a-a-ha-a-oooooooThe singers voices wind down to bass…the women begin their tremolo version of the last line, then fade to a downhill wa-aooooooohhooh.


The singers quietly pack to leave.  The Dancers lie down to rest; spent.

On Monday morning, the Chief’s wife spreads a colorful Pendleton blanket in the dust below the center pole; tribal members bring their contributions to the give-away: blankets, rugs, cash, towels, foods, anything, really; the blessing is in the giving.  Linda would distribute the goods among the guests.  Helpers hang sheets on the Dancers’ stalls for privacy; it’s almost time for the them to break their thirst and break their fast.  It requires privacy.

Big Jim, the fire-tender, asks  Whiteman Steve  to help him hand out water and watermelon; he follows Jim, and they carry water buckets and melon slices, stopping at each stall.  We pretend not to hear their gagging and retching as the first water hits their stomachs; we edge further away, and imagine what it might be like….and imagine.  Then imagine the crunch of the cool watermelon leaking its juice slowly into them: their first food.

Eventually they emerge, swathed and hooded in blankets and sheets, and are lead away to their respective camps.

We’ll take down our tipi, and head down The Mountain; a storm is coming, and the steep roads are more dirt than gravel.  We’ll leave the reservation; head back to the real world…

(cross-posted at

2 responses to “Sundance on Sleeping Ute Mountain; a vignette

  1. Very fine, wendye; very fine.

    Truchas Peak gleams with snow these days. From far away it towers above the Sangres; closer, it disappears. The same for the Navajo’s cornerpost, Mount Taylor. If there is snow you see it from the Santa Fe escarpment. If not, it blends into the southwest landscape, hard to distinguish from lower volcanic peaks and mesas near Albuquerque.

    There should always be mountains. For some of us, anyway.

    • i do remember the painting you’d done of truchas peak, ww. and mount hesperus out our exterior bedroom door is the northernmost point of dinetah.

      the utes call our la plata mountains ‘the shining mountains’, and yes, mountains are glorious. i reckon you hadn’t seen my earlier question to on
      my #insane war on iran thread, but it scarcely matters by now.

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