“This is our soul”: Ute Indian teenagers turn to dance to tell their story
May 19, 2017
Steamboat Springs — Three Ute Indian students took turns trying to explain, and all three attempts met the same fate.
Half a dozen members of the Nah-na-mah Culture Club from the Uintah River High School of Fort Duchesne, Utah, spent the day in Steamboat Springs Monday in a cultural exchange event arranged by Tread of Pioneers Museum and its director Candice Bannister.
The group toured the city, visiting with students from elementary schools to the high school. It then capped the stay with a pow wow in front of a standing room-only crowd at Bud Werner Memorial Library in downtown Steamboat.
The Ute students danced, covered head to toe in their culture — feathers and ribbons and ornaments flying through the air with a blur as children, teens and adults watched in awe.
Afterward the dancers took questions from that audience, and one after another, they ran into one they simply couldn't answer.
What is the meaning of the feathers and ornaments?
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The answer? The meaning is tremendous.
They didn't wear costumes for show. They didn't dress up to impress. They donned the ornaments of their ancestors and danced the dances handed down to them.
It all had meaning, from the dance steps to the feathers, and despite — or perhaps in part because — of all the hours that have gone into the pow wow dances, being asked about that meaning brought to tears any who were asked to talk about it.
"With feathers, you have to do something to earn it," said Stoney Mills, a 15-year-old student at Unitah River High School. "You don't just get them handed to you, 'Here you go, go dance with these.' You have to earn them."
Mills danced Monday in a brilliant collection of red, yellow, orange and white plumage — a feather headdress coming off his brow and a wide array of feathers coming off his back.
A wide, orange ribbon hung low on his torso, a white horse emblazoned on it.
"So," one spectator asked, "are you a Broncos fan?"
Maybe. Mills never clarified, but it's not why he wears an orange ribbon with a white horse. He wears it because it's a symbol of his grandfather, a devout fan of broncos, small b, if not the Broncos, big B.
Mills explained the story, the meaning, and emotion overtook him.
"It really touched me," he said later. "I haven't talked about that since my mom attached it to my regalia."
He was far from alone among his troupe. Dancers took turns in the center of a circle in Library Hall, hundreds of Steamboat Springs residents gathered around the circle, enchanted.
The Ute Indian students danced with gold dresses with long tassels and wearing brilliant yellow, beaded boots. They wore long capes with ribbons attached, creating a colorful, flowing story of their culture in the middle of the hall.
And it all meant something.
One dancer received a feather from his grandfather.
"He said, 'I'm going to give this to you because you're a strong, independent woman,'" she said.
She too soon stepped away from the microphone, tears streaming down her cheeks.
"It's really hard to talk about our regalia," another dancer, Dorice Burson, 16, said, filling in at the microphone. "It's a really beautiful and strong thing. We don't get them because they look nice or they're pretty. We did something to get them. We're really proud of them, and we're really proud to show them to you and tell you about them.
"Then," she continued, "we will cry a little because we are wearing our hearts. This is our soul."
She, too, turned away from the crowd, wiping at her watering eyes.
The regalia goes right to the heart of the reason a group of high school students boarded a bus and traveled nearly four hours each way.
The regalia represents their culture, and that's what they came to showcase.
"We came to show them where we come from, to show them our culture and show them that we love to dance," Burson, said. "I've been dancing since I could walk."
She took on the Jingle dance, with the gold, tasseled dress.
Some of the difficulties she faces are familiar to any dancer.
"It's hard to keep time to the music," she said, laughing.
Others are unique to her and her culture.
Burson was taught to dance by her family — yet another thing that's been passed down. She's found a passion for it, a love and a need.
"When I have children, I want them to keep dancing, too," she said. "It's a part of us. It's where we come from."
Steamboat is a part of where she and her friends and family came from.
Steamboat Springs and the whole Yampa Valley was Ute Indian land until the late 19th century — a place where their culture was already established, not one the tribe had to return to.
That, too, was a theme of the day as the students soaked in the land their ancestors roamed.
They performed for the third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes at Soda Creek Elementary School in the morning, participated in a roundtable discussion over lunch with Steamboat Springs High School students, then danced for about 330 Steamboat Springs residents in the evening at the library.
It was fun, the visiting students said, and it felt natural, warm, from the moment their bus pulled into the valley.
"We roamed these mountains for many years until we were forced onto reservations," said Eveningstar Curry, an advisor assisting the group. "My family, we were White Rivers, one of the bands removed during the Meeker Massacre up to the reservation where we reside now.
"The people today have been great, very welcoming. It's been an honor to come here. When we come here, it feels like home."