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The Ute Bear Dance is performed every Spring, around late May or June by the Ute Indians of Colorado.  It is the oldest dance that the tribe performs and dates back further than the 15th Century when Spanish explorers witnessed it.  And, it is the only dance that the Utes originated. The area of Colorado where this is most observed is in Towaoe and Ignacio. The purpose of this dance is for mating and courtship. The second purpose is to celebrate the arrival of spring, as well as an opportunity to get together and celebrate. 

The dance originates from an Indian legend about two brothers who went hunting one day and came across a bear, who was standing up on his hind legs, shuffling back and forth while clawing a tree.  Another version claims that the bear was scratching his back against the tree.  The first brother went to hunt. The second brother stayed and watched the bear's strange movements.  So, as a favor to the one brother for not killing him, the bear taught him to perform this dance he was doing and the mysterious song that goes along with it.  The bear told the brother that he should teach this dance to his people so that they could show their respect for the bear, as well as draw strength from the bear's spirit.

Today the Bear Dance usually takes place in an open field or corral surrounded by a fence made of brush or woven branches.  Women, traditionally, dress for the dance wearing tall, white buckskin moccasins and brightly colored shawls.  However, today it's not uncommon to see the dancers wearing shorts and sneakers or cowboy boots and jeans.

Spectators line up against the fence.  Two lines of dancers (one male, one female) face each other and start shuffling toward each other and then back to the accompaniment of a small group of singers. There is also the sound of the morache or rasp as their musical instrument played.

The women then select partners by flicking the fringe of their shawl at them.  The dance continues with the two lines divided into couples.  One of the singers plays the role of "the Cat" by using a willow switch to urge the shy or slower dances to move faster.  The dancing continues for four or five days, and ends when one of the couples falls down from exhaustion or the singers get tired.  There is a huge feast afterward, that has been organized by the Bear Dance Chiefs.

Scholars believe that the Bear Dance was mainly a fertility dance, being performed in the Spring because this is when the bears emerged from hibernation and start looking for mates.  This idea is supported by the fact that the dance remains a "ladies choice" and that the women select their partners for the dance much the same way that female bears awake first and then chase the males.

Originally, the Bear Dance was held at the end of February or in early March; and, lasted a week (or longer). Today, it is more of a late Spring ritual.  The Southern Utes hold their Bear Dance over Memorial Day weekend in Ignacio, Colorado.  The Ute Mountain tribe holds it's Bear Dance during the first week in June in Towaoc, Colorado.  Presently, there are a little more than 3,000 Utes, who primarily live on reservations.  Visitors to the reservation are allowed to watch the Bear Dance, which in the past was closed to the public, except for Native Americans.

The legend states that the bear was created to teach strength, wisdom and survival skills to the Ute people.  The bear still remains today the tribe's symbol of strength; and, a reminder of it's former superiority in war.  

The bear is also believed to posses healing powers and to have the ability to communicate directly with the spirit world.

The morache was originally made from the jawbone of a bear  Today, it is usually made from two notched sticks (or a notched stick and a piece of bone) which are then rubbed against one another over a wooden or tin box (the resonator!). The sound made by the morache imitates both the noise made by the bear and the springs first thunder, which is believed to awaken the bears from their winter hibernation. The sticks are sometimes also referred to "growl sticks."

When the dancers enter the corral, they wear plumes. These feathers represent worries and tensions that have built up over the long, hard winter.  So, one of the purposes of the Bear Dance is to help give the dancers an opportunity to get rid of these worries and tensions.  At the end of the dance, they hang these plumes on the branch of a cedar tree located at the eastern entrance of the corral. By doing this, it symbolizes the shedding of their psychological burdens.

Return to our May Holidays Page for more celebrations.

Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs  3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. © 2003

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