History of the Bear Dance

Bear Dance Chief, Matthew J. Box, goes over safety precautions and guidelines with various tribal departments at the Bear Dance grounds Wednesday, April 15.
Damon Toledo | The Southern Ute Drum

The Bear Dance is one of the oldest recorded dances in North American history. The origins of the Bear Dance can be traced back hundreds of years to the fifteenth century, and has since served the Ute people for each generation. The dance has seen its share of changes throughout its time, but has always stood by the foundation of gathering tribal people together for the celebration of life. As the Bear Dance heads into its next year, the Southern Ute Drum takes a look at how the Bear Dance has evolved throughout history and the current role of the Department that organizes it.

Present day, the Culture Department and various tribal departments have played an active role in the organization of the Bear Dance, working closely with Bear Dance Chief Matthew J. Box to ensure a good turnaround.

“The dance enhances a bigger picture for our people … it providesin many ways for the Utes, especially healing, and that’s why it’s still here,” Box said.

Box has been the Bear Dance Chief since 2004. His family has had an association with the Dance for many generations, beginning with his grandfather Edward Box Sr. who was Bear Dance and Sundance Chief in 1952.

“My grandfather was one of the Elders responsible for bringing back the Bear Dance,” Box added. “In the recent past, Indian ceremonies weren’t permitted. In Indian Country, a lot of natives were massacred because people saw ceremonial dances to be dangerous. [My grandfather] taught me the importance of it. I would follow him around and acted like his right-hand-man. I still remember the songs from him. He told me that if there’s ever a day when things are lost, then knowing one song allows it to go on.”

The Bear Dance originally was held around the middle of March, usually after the first thunder in the spring was heard and when the Bear came out of hibernation. All the various Ute bands would come together and prepare for the dances, which were held throughout Ute territories. For the Southern Utes, the hosting date would eventually be changed to Memorial Day weekend to cater to the youth who would be out of school for the summer.

Gender plays an important role with preparation, as it is the men who prepare the Bear Dance corral to its full advantage while the women would prepare the clothing that was to be worn. The women are highly regarded and respected and have been recognized throughout stories. The Bear Dance stories were told over winter by an elder storyteller whose role was to express the ways of life.

Present day, the Culture Department host’s classes involving shawl, dress and ribbon shirt making. These classes are offered more frequently and focus on teaching tribal members of all ages the proper ways to craft their own attire for the dance. The Culture Department also hosts workshops for the public to learn proper etiquette of the dance.

Recently, the Southern Ute Culture Department was created by Tribal Council and has since provided additional help in organizing the event.Without the Tribe’s assistance, the dance’s necessary resources would fall solely on the Chief and the community members to gather, create, and see the dance to the end.

“The Cultural Department has helped with the Bear Dance for a few years now,” said events coordinator Tara Vigil. “We have to get all the departments together, coordinate with the casino, and make sure everything is on time. I learned how to organize the event through my aunt, Dona Frost. She taught me a lot about preparation. She showed me how to cook the food, knew what to order, and knew how many people were present.”

“Nowadays, we all coordinate with each other,” Box stated. “The [Culture Department] provides massive contribution now. Those involved deserve the needed credit.”

The last day of Bear Dance features a feast for all in attendance. Traditionally, a stew is prepared with meat and vegetables mixed in a large, round pot atop an open fire.

In past times, tribal members had to carry the responsibility of providing their own food for the people. That included buying the ingredients and cutting every single piece of meat and vegetable that was to be served. Nowadays, the feast is easier for organizers to manage as the food is ordered by the Culture Department and delivered pre-cut, ready to cook.

Vigil described the lessons she learned from her aunt and hopes the same can be applied for future generations.

“To me, the preparation gives that respect for the tribe, the people, and what we do. Every year has been getting better since it started. We never had Ute Nations Day before, and we were able to bring that to the community so anyone can be apart of the open dance. I don’t turn anyone away. I want everyone to put a hand in it.”

Great thanks has been given to the various departments and entities that are involved with the Bear Dance: Southern Ute Cultural Department, Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy, Boys & Girls Club, Multi-Purpose Building, Natural Resources Department, Property & Facilities Management, Construction Services, Justice & Regulatory, Growth Fund, Sky Ute Casino Resort, and the Los Pinos Fire District.

“The Cultural Department has helped me out fully,” Box added. “They help organize the workshops, the food, I can’t say enough how grateful I am for all the tribal departments. It’s important for the tribe to archive these events so the information can be housed for our kids and their kids. My grandfather always told me it wasn’t my braids that makes you Ute, it is how you live your life by greeting the sun, giving back when taking from the Earth, being a warrior against our enemies; anger, hate, greed, lust. He instilled me with that information, and those ways of life can still be said for each generation … It’s paramount to keep and make more songs, because if you don’t have any songs then you don’t have a dance. Thanks to the Culture Department, the Dance’s future shall continue perpetuity just like the tribe.”

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