In late spring, as the sun blankets the depths of Sleeping Ute Mountain in shadow and light, the cactus on Towoac Reservation bursts into life. Red and yellow flowers dot the landscape, breaking up the lines of red and brown that is the land the Ute Mountain tribe of Colorado call home. Nearby in the mountains, nature performs its rituals, carrying out the steps to mating, and heeding the call of nature and tradition, the Utes perform the Bear Dance.
History of the Bear Dance
The Ute Bear Dance is performed every spring in late May or early June (usually the first week in June) and represents the oldest dance that the tribe performs, dating back further than the 15th Century when Spanish Conquistadors first witnessed and recorded it.
The story of the Bear Dance is an old one and in the way of the best kind of history, is wrapped up in legend and lore. As the story goes, the dance began when two brothers went hunting and came across a bear. The bear was shuffling back and forth, clawing a tree. Without discussion, the older brother went down to hunt the bear while the second stayed to watch the bear’s strange movements.
After a bit of misunderstanding during which the younger brother thought his older brother had been killed, the bear taught the brothers how to perform this dance she was dancing, and the sound of the mysterious song that accompanies it. To show their respect and draw strength from the bear’s spirit, the brother told to teach this dance to his people.
The Bear Dance Today
Through today, the Ute Mountain tribe continues to perform the dance of mating and courtship, celebrating the arrival of spring and generally enjoying good company. The dance itself takes place in an open field surrounded by a fence woven out of branches. Spectators line up against the fence and two lines of dancers, one male and the other female, face each other. As the singing sounds of voices rise, the lines shuffle toward each other in a dance that can’t really be described, accompanied by the sound of the rasp.
Dress is still mostly traditional, with women wearing brightly colored shawls and long white moccasins. All the dancers wear plumes on their heads to represent the tensions built up over a long, hard winter. As they dance, the plumes sway with their movements and under the warm breeze, washing the tensions away.
Women choose their own partners in this dance, flicking the fringes of their brightly colored shawls at the men they are interested in. Divided into couples, the dance carries on … and on. Four or five days will be spent in the dance, ending only when one of the couples fall down from exhaustion or the singers become too tired to continue singing. Think that sounds like a long time? Originally, the Bear Dance was held in February or March and lasted a full week or longer. It is a source of pride to the dancers and singers that they were not the first to falter.
Attending the Bear Dance
In the past, the Bear Dance could only be attended by Native Americans. With the growing popularity of the SUN (Spanish, Ute, and Navajo) Dance and Pow-wow, the Ute Mountain dancers and tribe have opened up and now allow all visitors to the Towoac reservation to attend.
Visiting Towoac, located about 10 miles outside of Cortez Colorado, offers up a lot more than just the Bear Dance. Casino gambling will entertain for hours, but if you want to get into the nature-side of things this is definitely a unique opportunity for you. Taking to the Tribal Park, you get a chance to see some amazing natural red-rock formations, and learn about Ute history, pictographs, artifacts, and dwellings. A guide will take you through a half-or-full day trip, which includes a three mile walk back in time on unpaved trails to visit four well-preserved canyon cliff dwellings in Lion Canyon.
Full-day tours cost $40 per person, running from 9 am to 4 pm throughout the year. Half-day tours are less actively intensive, running from 9 am to 12:30 pm and cost $20 per person. If you make advanced reservations, your guide will provide transportation which helps you enjoy the trip even more. Taking the full-day tour? Make sure to pack plenty of water and food – the park is operated as a primitive area to maintain its culture, so there are no food and drinks provided but you can purchase them at the Visitor’s Center before embarking on the tour.
Need to know where you can stay? Easy enough – you basically have 3 options:
1. Book an RV spot or rent a tipi (yup, really – a tipi) at the Ute Mountain Casino for $16 per night. Reservations can be made toll-free at 800-889-5072.
2. Make reservations to stay at the Tribal Park cabins. These cost $10 per night, and can be booked toll-free at 800-847-5485.
3. Stay in Cortez, with a ton of lodging options. Request a free visitors guide by visiting http://www.swcolo.org/Tourism/cortez.html