Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
June 3, 2000-Issue 11

Celebration of the Bear

The distant Uintah Mountains still wear crowns of snow, but in northeastern Utah's high desert the sun rules, broiling the red-rock plateaus and baking nature's perfume from the sweet sage and cedar.

With its short-lived greenery, spring has arrived on the 4.5 million-acre Uintah and Ouray Reservation. For the 3,159-member Northern Ute Indian Tribe, it is time to celebrate: All too soon, they know, the scattered vegetation will wither to the region's more characteristic gray and brown hues.

It is time for the sacred Bear Dance -- the most significant four days and nights of the Ute year, filled with chanting of the old songs, dusting off the ancient tales while munching fresh, hot fry bread and chili, and dancing in rhythms and patterns handed down from the misty past.

"The bear signifies strength," said Antonio James "A.J." Kanip, the latest in a family of Bear Dance chiefs. "He's the most powerful animal in the country, and he's where we get our strength from. In the old days, though we were a small tribe, no other tribe could beat the Utes in war."

The annual ceremony, Kanip says, came with the tribe when its Colorado bands were forced by white soldiers from their beloved Shining Mountains (the Rockies) into the Uintah Basin reservation more than a century ago. Ever since, tribal members -- who call themselves Noochew -- annually put out the call to welcome spring with the dance.

There are varying legends about the Bear Dance's origins. In one, a warrior was led by his dreams to a mountain hideaway where a bear taught him the sacred dance; another account has a bear, just awakened from hibernation, teaching the dance in return for a Ute hunter sparing his life.

"We've been doing the Bear Dance here for more than 100 years," Kanip said last Sunday. "We loosen our bodies up from the long winter. The dance helps you get ready for what lies ahead. . . . It's our New Year, when things are green and life renews."

By late afternoon, the third day of the celebration, nearly 700 Utes have arrived, some traveling more than 100 miles to participate in the event. Some take seats in lawn chairs or on blankets spread in the sparse shade of the dance arena's cottonwood brush fence.

Others form facing lines of men and women in the center of the circle, kicking up dust in the stylized steps taught to them by their elders. The dances, lasting five to 10 minutes each and with only short breaks between them, will go on from midafternoon well into the early morning of the next day. Most of those who come will have danced at least once by the end of the celebration.

The dancers are clad in a mixture of modern and traditional garb, moccasins vying with sneakers and cowboy boots, brightly dyed shawls clashing with jeans and shorts. But when they join hands, they find unity in the time-honored ritual of the Bear Dance.

The men move forward, their eyes fixed on the horizon, as the women retreat. Then the women advance a few paces as the men retrace their footsteps backward. The dance is driven by the beat of the music, a mixture of singing and "growl sticks" -- notched ax handles stroked by bones or pipes.

The rasping rhythm is meant to imitate the sound a bear makes when it claws a tree to mark its territory, said Lee, a 76-year-old Bear Dance musician who declined, with a smile on his leathery bronze face, to give a last name.

"This is a spiritual time, a time for prayer," he said. "People dance into the night sometimes, trying to dance away the viruses or whatever is on them."

"It's a spring celebration, but it's also religious and spiritual, like a healing of the winter sicknesses," added Margo Powaukee, a 25-year-old woman selling hamburgers and pop from a nearby plywood shelter.

Nelson Cesspooch, 26, brought his infant son to the dance. "This is his first. Ever since I was small I've come, and now it is his turn," he said. "To me, it's like a vacation. I can watch the people go out and have fun and see friends and family."

Ute Bear Dance


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