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Opinion

Laura Pritchett: When it comes to rites of spring, bring on the Bear Dance

The long-running Southern Ute event invites the public to southwest Colorado to celebrate one of the tribe's most sacred traditions. It's worth the trip.

As someone not particularly fond of the last miserable, windy throes of winter, I’ll take any spring ceremony I can get. I need to release my grumbles, need to rev up my energy for all the exploring warmer months will bring. And as someone who is fascinated by bears, particularly the whole wonderful idea of hibernating during said dumb winter, and then coming to life again, I’ll take any ursine ceremonies, too.

Laura Pritchett

Combine these and you’ve got the Southern Ute Bear Dance, held over Memorial Day weekend, back after a COVID hiatus and open to the public. I urge you to make the trek. 

My trip several years ago stays with me: children running in circles, laughing, happy dogs trailing with tails wagging and tongues lolling. Big blue sky, big general cheer. Food trucks’ wafting smells mixing with those of earth-wakening spring.

And, of course, the two lines of dancers accompanied by a small group of singers and a morache – or “growl stick” – an instrument once made from the jawbone of a bear but now often made from two notched sticks. Rubbed against one another or over a tin box, the sound imitates both the noise made by the bear and the first thunder of spring, awakening the bears, awakening us all. That’s something I can appreciate. 

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All this takes place in the far southwestern reaches of Colorado, nearly on the New Mexico border, where the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s reservation spreads across 1,058 square miles in La Plata, Archuleta, and Montezuma counties. Here, in the small town of Ignacio, the Southern Ute Bear Dance is held. It’s a herald of spring, rejuvenation and, of course, a way to honor the bears that are leaving their dens and re-entering the world, as evidenced by the one that recently took down a bird feeder on my deck (time to bring them in!).  

The Bear Dance is one of the two most sacred ceremonies for the tribe, the other being the Sun Dance. This one has a social side, though, with the public being welcome and encouraged to attend. I felt awakened after a long winter. The laughter and dance felt like they were gallivanting in my very cells. 

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According to Matthew Box, who was then and continues to be the Bear Dance Chief of the Southern Ute Tribe, the Bear Dance is the oldest dance that the tribe performs. The story – at least one version of it – goes like this: Two brothers, out hunting, noticed a bear standing upright, facing a tree, dancing, and making a strange noise while clawing the tree. One brother stayed to watch the bear, while the other brother went to hunt. As a favor to the one watching, the bear taught him to perform this dance, and told the man that he should teach it to his people so that they could show respect for the bear and draw from the bear’s strong spirit.  

Box’s grandfather, Eddie Box Sr., ran the Bear Dance starting in 1952, so it’s a long family tradition. “The dance lives on and all are welcome,” he told me on my years-ago visit, adding that other tribes attend, as well as “regulars” from around the world. He stressed that the dance was not meant to be a tourist event, though. Participants should arrive with a real desire to learn and “benefit from the cultural teaching – as we all are the same when it comes to suffering, crying, and dealing with life in general. The dance gives us the tools against enemies of the world, which are anger, hate, greed, jealousy, violence.”

Bears are sacred to the tribe, and not killed or hunted or eaten. Nor are their hides or any part of the bear used in any way. And if ever there is an encounter with a bear, then “talking to the bear as a brother or sister is the answer,” Box told me with a smile, adding, “although common sense goes a long way.” Since about a third of bear deaths in Colorado are human caused, I’m always advocating common sense, too – especially when the obvious solution is no-duh politeness of securing your trash and not leaving bird or dog food to tempt them. 

There’s another intelligent aspect to this dance, it seems to me: It’s also a ceremony to let the grumblies go. An important component to the dance are the plumes – feathers worn to represent worries and tensions that have built up over the winter. On the fourth and final day of the dance, the plumes are left on a cedar tree at the east entrance of the corral. As Box told me, “When the dance is over, anyone who wishes to can leave pain, suffering, bad luck, or ‘mental luggage’ on a tree inside the corral by putting a plume, fringe, hair tie or anything in general that has been with that person. When walking away, the person does not turn back to look, but literally leaves it there for creation to take care of.” 

Sounds like a good idea. Winter is hard. The winds of spring are hard. I hope we are all able to dance, let our luggage go, and, like a bear, scratch our back against a tree, then wander out into aspens, and do a little dance for emerging life. 

Laura Pritchett directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University, is a novelist, and is the author of “Great Colorado Bear Stories.”


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