Tom Ross: Ladies’ choice at Ute’s bear dance |

Tom Ross: Ladies’ choice at Ute’s bear dance

Ute elder, archaeologist discuss rock art

Native Ute elder Clifford Duncan describes his people's rock art and the significance of the Bear Dance on Friday at the United Methodist Church during a talk hosted by the Tread of Pioneers Museum.

— The bear dance can be many things to many people, Ute elder Clifford Duncan told a Steamboat Springs audience Friday. It can be a celebration of the arrival of spring, or it can be a healing ritual practiced only by a shaman, who was born into the role. Then again, it can be the equivalent of a modern-day Sadie Hawkins Day dance — call it ladies' choice.

"When I was a boy, you might hear thunder in February or March," Duncan said. "It means there's a change in the weather so you hear thunder rolling. It's a noise that tells us the bear is rolling over in its den, and it's getting close to spring."

Duncan and Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Carol Patterson spoke during the weekly brown bag lunch series hosted by the Tread of Pioneers Museum, held this week at United Methodist Church.

Because his maternal grandparents lived in this part of the Yampa Valley, Duncan calls himself Yampatika.

He said that as a boy, he did not know the spring ritual as the bear dance, but the Mo wakawi — literally, back and forth dance.

The members of the band form a large circle with an entrance on the east, symbolizing the circle of life, he said. The women are seated on the east half and the men on the west half of the circle.

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"The women control that dance as far as selecting partners," Duncan said.

A line of dancers forms in the middle of the circle, shuffling their feet forward and back until the sun comes up.

Traditionally, a shaman prays for the group and blesses each person with an eagle wing. When the dancers return to their homes, the male head of household in turn blesses each member of the family.

In the modern era, Duncan said, the blessing ritual of the bear dance has been left out of the ceremony and the dance has become more of a social event. Still, the dancers seek to tell a story with each step they take.

Duncan and Patterson also discussed Ute artwork.

Patterson said even simple rock art on Colorado's Uncompahgre Plateau could be a form of map. For example, a line pecked into a sandstone cliff, perhaps with an oblong shape at one end, guided people to important resources. She showed a slide of such a piece of art and then a photograph of the valley just opposite the rock art panel, showing a low ridgeline with a pool of spring water at one end.

Once the correlation was pointed out to the audience, the meaning was apparent.

"It's a spring with the only sweet water in the valley," she said. "Everything else is alkaline."

Ute rock art maps could be much more involved, Patterson said, representing larger geographic areas. But before one can read a Ute map, it's crucial to understand that one of their mapmaking conventions is the opposite of what people of European backgrounds are familiar with.

The road maps people rely on today place the northern compass point at the top of the map. The Utes oriented their maps with the south at the top.

"That's where the sun came from," Patterson explained.

After encountering rock art with many branches and circular shapes along the branches, Patterson surmised that they were maps. But it wasn't until she photographed them and turned them upside down that she was able to superimpose them on modern maps of the Uncompahgre River Valley, for example. The tributaries and historic walking trails lined up almost perfectly.

The bear also figures prominently in Ute rock art, Duncan said. Some members of his tribe think the bear symbolizes the Ute people, but he said he is less convinced of that after traveling to Santiago, Chile, and watching native peoples perform virtually the same steps as the bear dance.

Duncan tells the story of visiting a rock art panel west of Steamboat Springs with an archaeologist. He says he knows with certainty that the panel no longer exists.

"It was a row of red people. The archaeologist called it the red army. But it was the bear dance," Duncan said. "It was where they were digging a coal mine right under the rocks. That displaced the bear dance."

Duncan said his mother told him as a boy never to disturb the area near a rock art panel because of the possibility that there was a burial site close by.

"We believe their spirits are still living there," he said. "You have to tell them before you do anything."

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