Rabbitbrush Rambler: Bear Dance

While cranes are making it clear that the seasons are changing, another kind of rebirth is happening, but not so readily seen by most of us. Bears are emerging from their dens after their hibernation, usually in March.

Close your eyes and listen. You may hear a bear growling, thunder rumbling in the distance, or someone drumming on a hollow log. Or maybe it’s a Bear Dance. Listen!

Long before Europeans came here, Ute Indians were doing the Bear Dance, which goes far back in Ute legendry. The story connects the people to the natural world in which they live their lives.

Briefly, in their own words that are based on the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s present version, the story is this:

Two hunters in the mountains had lain down to rest when one of them noticed a bear clawing the bark of a tree and apparently dancing around as it clawed. The hunters saw small people called Anasazi, the cliff dwellers who had witnessed a similar event and told their own elders about it. One of the two Ute hunters now watching the bear learned its dance and song, and the brothers went back and taught them to their Ute people. The song and dance of the bear still are performed to renew their people and to make them strong.  

An earlier Ute fable that I have read tells that the bear chose the hunter to be her mate, so it is not hard to understand why the more modern version has become standard among today’s Ute Indians. Even if the story is a fable, the connection with the natural environment is too valuable to be forgotten.
Another change is that the Bear Dance is not now held in mid-March at the time when bears are leaving their dens. Instead, it takes place during the Memorial Day Weekend, when an annual powwow and fair also occurs at Ignacio. Attending them is well worth the short trip across the Divide.

The Bear Dance itself takes place on four successive days. My brother and I had the privilege of attending one of them.

The Bear Dance was quite different from other Native American dances I have watched. First, partners were chosen by the women and girls, not by the males, and, by the way, it was apparent that a couple of good-looking young men were so popular that they must have been worn out after a while.  

The ladies wore traditional long dresses with shawls and jewelry—no short skirts allowed—while most men were wearing ordinary trousers like jeans usually. Dancers stood in a long line with women and men facing each other.

Then the drumming began. The drummers rhythmically pounded in unison on a long, boxlike piece of equipment that sounded like beating on a hollow log, while the long line of dancers moved slowly back and forth, back and forth. After each set and a pause, the unchanging dance resumed.

This was a mesmerizing performance. No hopping, rocking, rolling, snuggling or giggling. Although it is categorized in textbooks as a social dance, a Bear Dance requires respectful behavior among participants and visitors, so if you’re looking for spectacle and fun, attend some other dance at some other time and place.

Some of our residents in the San Luis Valley are Ute Indians, and many more are descendants of the tribe. They should be remembered as part of the Valley’s culture.