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Fair invites Utes to show off Bear Dance

Youths traditionally start off ceremony

Youths from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe were invited to perform their traditional Bear Dance at the Montezuma County Fair on Wednesday.

“We’re here to share a part of our cultural heritage,” said organizer Marcianne Wing. “The dance is open to anyone to watch or participate.”

The dance occurs every June, explained Ute Mountain cultural specialist Mark Wing, and symbolizes rebirth and beginning of a new year.

“This year was the 128th Bear Dance since they started counting, but it has been going on much longer,” he said.

For the dance, guys and girls dressed in traditional clothing line up across from each other and step back and forth as Wing sings in Ute. The fair’s demonstration Bear Dance was “Ladies Choice,” so the women, who face west, choose a male dance partner, who faces east.

Wing explained the origin story of the Bear Dance as curious fair visitors stopped to listen:

Two warriors were traveling through the mountains when one rested next to a tree. When he woke, a bear was pawing the tree in a back-and-forth motion, symbolized by the movements of the dancers. “The bear communicated with our ancestors and gave the dance to a village so it could become prosperous,” Wing said. “It used to be a healing dance not open to the public or photographs, but it has become a social dance that is open to all.”

Youths traditionally begin the annual spring Bear Dance to “break it open” and get them accustomed to the tradition at an early age, Wing said, then the adults join in.

“When I do the Bear Dance, I wear a heavy buckskin dress with beads,” said Lea Ware, 10.

As the dancers move back and forth, Wing sings and runs a metal tube across a serrated stick called a Growler. The noise it makes represents the sound of the bear. He occasional bangs a wooden box with a metal top, which represents the thunder of the arriving spring.

“It is our celebration, and we invite other tribes and non-natives to join in,” said Teyha Ketchum, Ms. Ute Mountain Ute.

Non-natives, including this writer, were asked to participate. “If you decline a request to dance, you have to pay money,” Ketchum warned.

Wing also acts as a “Cat Man” for the dance. He uses a long wooden pole with ribbons on one end to gently nudge the dancers so they stay in line, and also to separate dancing pairs so they dance “one on one” outside of the main line.

“The little ones are learning, so they pass it on to the next generation,” Wing said.

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