Ute Bear Dance

Ute Bear Dance

Type of Holiday: Religious (Ute)
Date of Observation: Late May-early June
Where Celebrated: Towaoc and Ignacio, Colorado
Symbols and Customs: Bear, Morache, Plumes ORIGINS

The Ute Bear Dance is part of the Ute Native American religious tradition. The history of this and other Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The Bear Dance performed every spring by the Ute Indians of Colorado is the oldest dance that the tribe performs, dating back even further than the fifteenth century, when it was first witnessed by Spanish explorers. It is also the only dance that the Utes themselves originated, first as a mating dance or courtship ritual and later as a celebration of the arrival of spring and an opportunity to get together and socialize.

The dance is rooted in a legend about two brothers who went out hunting and came upon a bear who was standing up on his hind legs, shuffling back and forth while clawing a tree or, in some versions, scratching his back against it. The first brother continued to hunt, while the second stayed behind to observe the bear's strange movements. In return for sparing his life, the bear taught the second brother how to perform the dance and the mysterious song that accompanied it. The bear told the hunter that he should teach the dance to his people so that they could show their respect for and, at the same time, draw strength from the spirit of the bear.

Today, the Bear Dance usually takes place in an open field or corral surrounded by a fence made of brush or woven branches. Traditional women's dress for the dance includes tall white buckskin moccasins and brightly colored shawls, although today it is not uncommon to see the dancers wearing shorts and sneakers or cowboy boots and jeans. While spectators line up against the fence, two lines of dancers, one male and one female, face each other and start shuffling toward each other and then back again to the accompaniment of a small group of singers and the sound of the MORACHE or rasp. Then the women select partners by flicking the fringe of their shawl at them, and the dance continues with the two lines divided into couples. One of the singers plays the role of "the Cat," using a willow switch to urge slow or shy dancers to move more quickly. The dancing continues for four or five days, ending when one of the couples falls down from exhaustion or the singers grow tired. There is a huge feast afterward, which is organized by the Bear Dance Chiefs.

Some scholars believe that the Bear Dance was primarily a fertility dance and that it was performed in the spring because this is when the bears emerged from hibernation and started looking for mates. This theory is supported by the fact that the dance remains a "ladies' choice," and that the women select their partners for the dance in much the same way that female bears awake first and chase the males.

Although the Bear Dance was originally held at the end of February or in early March and lasted a week or more, nowadays it is more of a late spring ritual. The Southern Utes hold their Bear Dance over Memorial Day weekend in Ignacio, Colorado, while the Ute Mountain Ute tribe holds its Bear Dance during the first week in June in Towaoc. Currently, there are a few more than 3,000 Utes, most of whom live on reservations. Visitors to the reservation are allowed to watch the Bear Dance, which was at one time closed to all but Native Americans.



According to legend, the bear was created to teach strength, wisdom, and survival skills to the Ute people. To this day, the bear remains the symbolic source of the tribe's strength and a reminder of its former superiority in war. The bear is also believed to possess the power to heal and to communicate directly with the Spirit World.


The instrument known as a morache was originally made from the jawbone of a bear. Nowadays it is often made of two notched sticks or a notched stick and a piece of bone, which are then rubbed against each other over a wooden or tin box that serves as a resonator. The sound made by these "growl sticks" imitates both the noise made by the bear and the spring's first thunder, which is believed to awaken the bears from their winter hibernation.


One of the purposes of the Bear Dance is to give the dancers an opportunity to rid themselves of the worries and tensions that have built up over the course of a long winter. When the dancers enter the corral, they wear plumes that symbolize these worries. Then, at the end of the dance, they hang these plumes on the branch of a cedar tree located at the corral's eastern entrance, symbolically shedding their psychological burdens.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Eagle Walking Turtle. Indian America: A Traveler's Companion. Santa Fe: J. Muir Publications, 1989. Gill, Sam D., and Irene Sullivan. Dictionary of Native American Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1992. Hirschfelder, Arlene B., and Paulette Fairbanks Molin. Encyclopedia of Native Ameri- can Religions. Updated edition. New York: Facts on File, 2000.


Southern Ute Indian Tribe www.southern-ute.nsn.us/culture/bear.html

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe www.utemountainute.com/legends.htm#Spring%20Time

Ute Bear Dance

May, Memorial Day weekend
An ancient ceremony of the Southern Ute Indians, the Ute Bear Dance is now held on the Sunday and Monday of Memorial Day weekend in Ignacio, Colo. Originally the ritual was held in late February or early March, at the time when bears awaken from their hibernation. It stemmed from the belief that the Utes were descended from bears, and the dance served both to help the bears coming out of hibernation and to gain power from them, since bears were believed to cure sickness and to communicate with people in the Spirit World.
Today the dance is largely a social occasion, and is what is called a women's dance, since the women ask the men to dance. This practice is rooted in the habits of bears: supposedly the female bear wakes first and then chases the male bear. In earlier days, two bears—a man and woman wearing bearskins, with red paint around their mouths to suggest the bloody ferocity of the bears—romped around a corral, the female chasing the male, and both responding ferociously toward anyone who might laugh. In the present-day dance, lines of women and men advance toward each other, gradually dancing in pairs. The dancing goes on until sunset, when there is a feast.
Southern Ute Tribal Council
P.O. Box 737
Ignacio, CO 81137
970-563-0100; fax: 970-563-0396
EncyNatAmerRel-2001, p. 15
HolSymbols-2009, p. 992
IndianAmer-1989, p. 121