Southern Utes observe Bear Dance though ceremony
The motion of the growlers against metal resounded in the early morning calm. Between songs the quiet sounds of nature could be heard stirring the still morning air, from the birds and insects that make their home in the neighboring cottonwoods and willow thickets along the Pine River. The Bear Dance Chief, Matthew Box, had assembled his singers and dancers for a special, unique Bear Dance ceremony. He spoke to the importance of the Bear Dance, and the need to carry on the ceremony under these unusual circumstances; the need to uphold this longstanding Ute tradition for the people during the coronavirus pandemic. He emphasized the importance of the opening song, the opening prayers and the honoring of women.
Carrying this honor were two young dancers, Aislinn Ryder and Jakob Box. Together they stepped into the large, mostly empty corral. In harmony, the two danced together, moving to the rhythm of the familiar Bear Dance songs. Respecting the old ways, they danced apart, swaying into the open space that existed between them. Together, they carried the tradition for the Southern Ute people, the Pino Nuche.
The Bear Dance Chief explained the importance of this to the young woman, Aislinn, ahead of the ceremony. Emphasizing that she was dancing for others who could not be there, that she carried a tremendous responsibility for her people. He asked her to carry that responsibility into the corral, and honor the Bear Dance in that way — for the people.
Box noted that we often prioritize the social aspect of the Bear Dance, inadvertently minimizing the ceremonial purpose. It is closer to 80 percent ceremonial, 20 percent social he said, but we often make it more about the social. This is a chance to focus on the very nature of the dance, the ceremonial aspects — acknowledging the essense of the spring celebration, at its very core.
“There was just no way we were going to have a regular, same as always, Bear Dance. There was no way that could happen. We needed to find a balance between — ‘this is the time we need to dance’, all the way to ‘heck no, we shouldn’t even need to be gathering.’ I had to find a balance in there where people were respecting each other,” Box explained in an interview with Native Braids Co-producer Adam Burke.
“Now is the time to focus on the ceremonial part, the heart, the core. How can we benefit from the spirit of that Bear Dance, so they can actually look at the very center of it all, which is grandma, mom, wife, daughter – honoring woman. It’s the key to a healthy community,” Box emphasized in the interview. “That’s the heart of this Bear Dance. The gift of the Bear to the Utes, so that they can learn that way of life and apply it to their own lives.”
The 2020 Southern Ute Bear Dance took place at the Bear Dance grounds, Friday, June 12. Fresh cut trees were harvested by Matthew Box and his youngest son, Noah, which now lined the otherwise bare corral. Two small junipers marked the entrance, his and hers. Southern Ute elder, Elwood Kent, Sun Dance Chief Hanley Frost, and Bear Dance Chief Matthew Box sang the Bear Dance songs. Edward Box III kept a vigilant eye on the dancers, fulfilling the role of Catman. Elwood Kent provided a blessing, closing out the ceremony for this year’s Bear Dance.
It was important to Box that this year’s Bear Dance had a formal beginning and end. He wanted to see all the important aspects carried out, the things that need to happen in order to hold a Bear Dance ceremony under normal circumstances — only this year’s ceremony was compressed into a single morning. The familiar songs carried themselves on the gentle morning breeze, reaffirming the need for spiritual rejuvenation, acknowledging the arrival of summer — honoring the Ute people, and the bear.