Bear Dance has sights, sounds of Ute tradition

FT. DUCHESENE — There was a Bear Dance May 16-18.
It was traditional. It was a celebration. The event took place within a live branch bough dance circle, and it is a wonderfully warm Ute tradition to welcome in spring — a time to shake off the ills of the cold winter months.
The activity is a Ute dance going back at least 500 years. On this particular Saturday the sun was blazing hot, but it didn’t seem to affect the dancers — many who danced in the center of the circle over and over.
The gathering in Ft. Duchesene, Utah, was a small and local event. There was much laughter and bantering. It was a wonderful mixture of all ages; the young and old enjoying the time of rebirth.
The Bear Dance differs from the dances seen and experienced at a pow wow. It is a specific dance that pays homage to the bear coming out of hibernation. There are no drums. Instead the musicians have a 17-27 inch long wooden pipe (rasp) that is notched. A much shorter stick or deer shin bone is used for rubbing down the rasp. The thrumming sound awakens the bear and the land.
A video camera would be the only way to capture the sound and rhythm to share with others. It is a unique and exciting sound. It is the woman, with her fancy floral shawl edged with thick fringe, who chooses the man she wants to dance with. He cannot refuse the flick of her shawl unless he is willing to part with something of value. Meeker’s Paul Vinzant was chosen many times.
After getting the two-step rhythm he was quite a sight in the dance circle. The same dance is repeated over many times during the three-day celebration as everyone comes to life.
In the evening after the Bear Dance everyone reassembled in the community center auditorium for a pow wow which brought together many of the western tribes. There was a grand opening when all the people in full regalia danced onto the floor. This was a time of more seriousness as each age group took to the floor in a variety of dances. The beat of the drums and the singing of the men reverberated across the floor and walls, but it was the rhythm and steps of the dancers that kept your attention. It was soon apparent that even with the gay colors and intense music, all participants were concentrating on their performance.
Spending the day watching the Ute people, I thought about the pow wow being held here at the end of July in Ute Park. No one knows at this point whether it will be a small, local affair or draw tribes from across the country. I do know, though, that it will be a highlight — not only of the summer but for the town of Meeker.
For the Native drums to once again roll off China Wall and rumble throughout the valley is truly a sign of great growth and maturity. Although there were a few curious looks at my small group of white women, I hope Meeker will welcome the Ute people with the same kindness and patience with which we were greeted.