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Ute tribes reimagine Bear Dances, a key ceremony of renewal, as coronavirus locks down Colorado reservations

As Colorado eases coronavirus restrictions, Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribal councils have voted to maintain strict protective measures

In the Bear Dance, even the youngest of dancers often pair up or "break" with their dance partners during the final days of the spring celebration. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, The Southern Ute Drum)
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In normal, non-pandemic times, this is the season when the thrumming notes of a ceremonial song, the rasping of metal sticks rubbed on notched wood and the swinging and flicking of colorful fringed shawls would be kicking off the annual Bear Dances on Colorado’s American Indian reservations.

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Groups of dancers would sway back and forth, shoulder-to-shoulder, with the lines of men and women closely facing each other before they split off into pairs. In a rite of spring for Ute Indians since at least the 1500s, hundreds of tribal members would gather for days of celebrations around the dances.

But, like so many other public gatherings, the dances won’t happen this spring. 

The Ute reservations have opted to remain even more buttoned up than the rest of Colorado. The dances and the attendant gambling and feasting festivities have been canceled. In their place, the Utes are using social media to display videos and photos of past Bear Dances. Bear Dance singers are also performing Bear Dance songs in otherwise empty arenas so tribal members can drive by and hear the traditional chants.

For now, the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in southwest Colorado are continuing to keep their reservations under tight coronavirus lockdowns.

Southern Ute elder and Air Force Veteran, Austin Box (far right) never misses a chance to Bear Dance in Ignacio, alongside family and friends. Boxer and his fellow singers use bone and iron to sound wooden instruments leaned against the growler box, performing songs passed down from one generation to the next, from one season to another, during the Southern Ute Bear Dance. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, The Southern Ute Drum)

Casinos, hotels and restaurants remain shuttered. Roadblock checkpoints limit comings and goings from the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. Food is being distributed to tribal members to lessen the need for shopping trips. Tribal publications and social media are filled with coronavirus information for members. And tribes are stressing the protection of elders who are most susceptible to the virus: they are considered the tribes’ most valuable members because of their cultural and linguistic knowledge.

All these measures have allowed the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and, to a lesser degree, the Southern Ute Tribe, to hold down COVID-19 infections and to avoid the virus spread that has made the adjoining Navajo Nation one of the coronavirus hotspots in the nation. The number of COVID-19 cases on some other reservations is higher than average due to a lack of resources, underfunded medical facilities and an absence of running water in homes.

Geography, discipline minimized spread of the virus 

As the remainder of Colorado loosens restrictions on orders from Gov. Jared Polis, the tribal councils on the autonomous reservations have voted to go their own way and maintain strict protective measures.

“We have put the brakes on everything,” said John Trocheck, the public safety director and acting executive director of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. “I have no idea when things will open up. The tribal council is looking at it every day.”

The Southern Ute Tribal Council issued a recent statement declining to go along with the State of Colorado safer-at-home recommendations and calling the statewide relaxation of standards “premature.”

The Ute Mountain Utes have reported no positive cases of the coronavirus on the reservation after the administration of nearly 1,200 tests. A report that a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent was sickened on the reservation and later died is not true, according to Trocheck. He said that agent lived out of state and contracted the virus and died there. The BIA did not respond to a request for comment.

The Southern Ute Tribe has reported 10 positive cases. Lindsay Box, the tribal spokeswoman, would not give any further information about cases or deaths.  

The Colorado Department of Public Health’s breakdown of COVID-19 cases by race show just 0.48% of cases in Colorado have been American Indians or Alaska Natives. The breakdown shows they make up just 0.57% of all Colorado deaths.

Lauren Enrrico, a spokeswoman for the health department, said it is possible that is an undercount because the information has been difficult to collect.

Wendy Forbes, a spokeswoman for Centura – Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango said the hospital has been closely watching for COVID-19 linked to the Southern Ute reservation but “we haven’t seen much impact.”

Lindsay Yeager with Southwest Health System hospital in Cortez would not say if Ute Mountain Ute tribal members have been seen there for treatment of the coronavirus. “We take care of whoever shows up on our doorstep,” she said.

Geography has helped Colorado’s reservations avoid out-of-control coronavirus infections. Both reservations are off the beaten path, unlike the Navajo lands that sprawl across more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico and are crisscrossed heavily by travelers.

Not many visitors venture off Colorado 145 south of Cortez and into Towoac, the center of the 2,200-member Ute Mountain Ute tribe. The Ute Mountain Casino and its RV park and hotel located out of sight of the town along the highway are the only visible tourist attractions on the 575,000-acre reservation.

Ignacio, the town at the heart of the Southern Ute reservation east of Durango, is also not a magnet for visitors beyond the Sky Ute Casino that sits along Colorado 172. The Southern Utes cannot be sealed off like the Ute Mountain Ute tribe because the reservation of 1,400 members is checkerboarded with private lands within its 1 million square miles.

MORE: Colorado casinos went bust when coronavirus hit. Here’s why they see a lucky streak ahead.

The casinos and adjacent lodges and restaurants on both reservations went dark in March as the rest of the state was shutting down. More than a month earlier both tribes had begun issuing warnings in tribal publications and a tribal radio station about a new virus. At the time, there were only a dozen cases in the country. By late March, the tribes shut down their reservations and told tribal members to stay at home. Visitors were no longer allowed.

Students of the Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy have the honor of dancing the first dance in 2019, a tradition at the Southern Ute Bear Dance and an integral part of the cultural component emphasized through the Montessori program. The young students spend weeks, if not months in preparation, often sewing their own moccasins and decorating their Bear Dance regalia together in the classroom. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, The Southern Ute Drum)

Checkpoints manned by tribal police were erected on the few roads leading in and out of the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. Tribal members still are only allowed to leave for essential services, such as medical appointments or to return to their homes if they live off the reservation. A curfew requires Towoac residents to stay home from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

The bingo room at the Ute Mountain casino has been turned into a food-distribution center. Boxes of food have been distributed regularly to tribal members. Colored cards have been handed out so that tribal elders can signal with a red card in a window that they need help. Internet hotspots have been identified so that school children without broadband at home can download their assignments. Face masks and sanitizers have been handed out.

Tribal officials say welcome help has come from the state and also some belatedly from the federal government in spite of a national legal battle over $8 billion of the CARES Act stimulus package that was earmarked to be distributed to tribes by the end of April. More than a dozen tribes – not including the Colorado Ute tribes — sued the U.S. Treasury Department for failing to provide that money. The dispute centered on who among native populations is entitled to the aid. Part of the stimulus money was going to more than 200 for-profit Alaska Native corporations that serve tribal villages in Alaska.

Tribal governments in the lower 48 states argued that the corporations should not be eligible for the coronavirus relief funds.

 A judge ruled in late April that the money should be distributed to the 547 federally recognized tribes in the lower 48 states.

The funds are designed to help tribes provide food and protective equipment as well as to maintain their payrolls and their regular services to tribal members. Many tribes rely on gambling revenue for those expenditures. Nationally, 500 reservation casinos have been closed, putting nearly 300,000 people out of work. The casinos are the largest employers on Colorado’s two Ute reservations. 

Men and women line dance to the rhythm of the Bear Dance songs. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, The Southern Ute Drum)

The Southern Utes have been allocated $6.7 million in CARES Act funds. The Ute Mountain Utes are receiving $5.9 million, according to a study by the Native Nations Institute at Arizona State University. The tribes are not saying how that money will be spent. The Navajo Nation recently reported receiving $600 million in delayed CARES Act funds.

The Southern Ute tribe is currently dealing with an information leak related to the CARES Act. Southern Ute Chairman Christine Sage told the Southern Ute Drum newspaper that the tribe recently was ordered by the Department of Treasury to download extensive tribal financial information on what was purported to be a secure portal before funds could be released. Funds were to be forthcoming within 24 hours. Instead, the confidential tribal information was leaked. The funds didn’t come through as promised. Sage has demanded an investigation.

Sage, in the Drum, called the debacle just another in a long line of broken promises.

Songs of the Ute Bear Dance renew the spirit — virtually, this year 

While the tribes await funding — and members continue to stay at home as the wider world opens up — ceremonial leaders are working on another kind of help for members. They want tribal members to experience the comfort of ancient rituals like the Bear Dance without endangering anyone.

“We need to rejuvenate our spirits,” said Matthew Box, the chairman of the Southern Ute Bear Dance.

Box said he has applied for permission from the tribal council to go forward with elements of the dance. He said he hopes to have singers at a distance from each other and to possibly have one dancing couple at a time in the Bear Dance corral. Tribal members will be able to drive around on Bear Dance Road and hear the ceremonial song.

Benjamin Lehi Pavisook, former Bear Dance sub-chief, tells the Bear Dance origin story. This year, because of coronavirus risk, he listened to the songs of rejuvenation from his home a half mile from the Bear Dance corral in Towoac.

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe already did that over the past weekend with singing and with two or three dancers in the arena at a time. Tribal members watched from their cars. The stripped-down Bear Dance was posted for tribal members to watch on the Weenuche Smoke Signals Facebook Live page.

Benjamin Lehi Pavisook was able to hear the Bear Dance singing from his home a half block away from the arena in Towoac.

The former Bear Dance sub-chief said it was uplifting to hear, even if the usual busy gathering of family and friends won’t happen in a time of pandemic.

“During the singing, you ask for a full year for things to be OK,” Pavisook said. “I did that when I heard the singing.”

Even without the annual family gatherings, the trading and sales of Bear Dance finery, the fry bread and stew booths, Box agreed that just hearing the singing and the signature growl of the rubbed sticks, should give quarantined tribal members a lift.

The legend behind the dance is pertinent in this time, he said, because it is focused on survival and on renewal. 

The story passed down through generations recounts how two brothers were out hunting when they came upon a bear that was standing up and clawing a tree and scratching his back against that tree. One brother went off to hunt another animal and the other stayed behind to watch the strange movements of the bear. 

As a favor for not being killed, the bear taught the one brother to perform his dance and also taught him a song to accompany the dance. The bear told him to teach the dance to his people so they could draw strength, wisdom and survival skills from the bear’s spirit.

“This really is important when it’s a struggle to cope just as human beings,” Box said. “It does hold spirituality for us. We need this now.”

Updated at 1:48 p.m. on June 14, 2020: This story have been updated to correct that Navajo lands sprawl across more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

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