CO - "You with the notebook," a man said over the loudspeaker.
I looked around. People conversed, dined or just stood around, but
no one had a notebook. "Come in and take a seat," he said.
This was the beginning of my first Bear
I walked hesitantly into the corral
the Southern Ute Indian Tribe holds its annual Bear Dance there
to celebrate spring as Bear Dance chief Rudley Weaver, sub-chief
Byron Red Sr., accompanying musicians and spectators looked on.
Timidly taking a seat near the front,
I put my notebook down to listen. The growlers, rumbling percussion-style
instruments, thundered as the dance leaders sang. Relaxing a bit,
I tapped my foot.
Then, they came.
Southern Ute tribal members Liz Kent and
Alice Red approached me, wearing traditional Bear Dance attire of
a shawl and dress. Kent, a lifetime Bear Dancer, pointed at me and
I knew I was in trouble, panicking over my two left feet. Red grabbed
a seasoned dancer.
Normally crowded with dancers the
four-day Bear Dance typically brings in several hundred people including
many from other tribes the corral floor was empty for opening
night, known as the warm-up night, and this reporter was the opening
The line dance was simple for those who
have rhythm. Left foot front, right foot up, left foot back and
repeat. For me, it might as well have been advanced tap. Still,
my partners were gracious with me. Perhaps too gracious, since I
was called for a repeat performance minutes later.
Because the Bear Dance is a sacred celebration,
cameras were not allowed (a good thing for me).
But despite my ineptitude, I could feel
the spirit of the dance in the rumbling of growlers and the heart-felt
songs, passed down for generations.
Weaver, who has served as the dances
chief for four years, spoke about the Bear Dance before my debut.
Growing up with the dance under the tutelage of his grandfather,
Weaver said the event is a time for family and friends to get together,
sing, dance and celebrate spring.
"You dance, you laugh, you crack
jokes," he said. "Its reaffirming our bond to each
other as a people."
Other Ute tribes, Apache tribal members,
and non-Indian people all come to the dance, he said. The Southern
Ute Tribe also participates in the Bear Dances for other Ute tribes,
the Northern, Ute Mountain and White Mesa Utes.
"You get to meet your families from
the other bands," Weaver said.
Not everyone who attends the dance will
participate, he said. Some just come to watch, as I had expected
I interviewed Anglo-attendee Bear Limvere,
of Elbert, who has traveled to the dance for almost a decade. He
was selected to dance after yours truly, in which he promptly showed
me up. Originally hearing about the event at a Denver powwow, he
keeps coming back for "the whole experience" and the "connectiveness."
Mustering up courage after my humbling
performance, I also spoke with onlooker Geri Julian, an Apache from
Her grandmother and great-grandmother
would travel to the Southern Ute Bear Dance by wagon. The Apaches
were allies of the Southern Utes and would travel to the Bear Dance
regularly. The tradition is still honored, with the Apache Jicarilla
wagon trek, which has been working its way toward Ignacio for the
past few days. It is expected to arrive at the Bear Dance camping
grounds around 2 p.m. today. Julian said she enjoys watching the
dancing and told me of similar Apache dances.
Legend says the Bear Dance began when
two brothers were out hunting and encountered a bear that seemed
to be dancing and making noise while clawing a tree. One brother
continued hunting, while the other stayed to observe the bear. The
bear taught him the dance and an accompanying song. Since then,
the dance has served to celebrate spring and bring spiritual renewal.
If you go, here are a few rules of etiquette: