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Photos of the Ute Bärentanz over the decades

A look back through historical images of the dance held in Whiterocks, Utah.

(Uintah County Library Regional History Center. Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The photo at left shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance, where they bang a drum meant to sound like thunder. On the right, residents play the sounds of a bear singing and growling while using the drum during a bear dance in 2022.

The Ute tribe has been holding their traditional bear dance annually for believed to be over 1,000 years, making it one of the oldest cultural customs practiced today.

The dance is said to welcome spring and is based on the legend of a bear that is awakened from hibernation by the first thunderstorm of the year.

It’s held in towns across the Ute Reservation in eastern Utah and Colorado, but this year – for the first time in two decades – it returned to Whiterocks. [Read the story: The magic of the Ute Tribe holding a Bear Dance again in this small town after more than 20 years] The community there welcomed it back, residents said, as a way of healing, in part after the painful past of having a boarding school there that their children had to go to.

Here’s a look back at historical photos of the dance that’s been held in the city over the years.

The earliest photographs

(J. Willard Marriott Library Special Collections) This image of the bear dance being held at Whiterocks dates to the early 1900’s. The photo was taken by Robert Lee Marion, the then operator of the Whiterocks Trading Post.

This photograph was taken in the early 1900’s and shows a large gathering in the town of Whiterocks.

Today, according to the US census, a total of 275 people live there. But early images like this show more than just taking part in the dance in the past.

(Used with permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the bear dance.

(Used with permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the bear dance.

(Utah State Historical Society) Young children perform the Bear Dance in Whiterocks in this undated historical photo.

The photos also show subtle changes in the city, from how small the trees were then compared to how they grew today. Some of the buildings in the pictures no longer exist either.

(Used with permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the bear dance.

Around the 1920s

Dancers gather in a circular corral of branches where they stomp the earth.

In Whiterocks, the community prefers to go into the mountains to gather native willow branches that grow in the area.

(Used with permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the bear dance.

During the bear dance, the women stand in a line to one side, holding hands and swaying towards an opposite line of men. They are dressed in colorful regalia, including beaded moccasins, medallions, and hats.

(Used with permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the bear dance.

(Used with permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows a woman and child arriving at Whiterocks for the Bear Dance.

1930s to 1940s

(Used with permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the bear dance.

In this photo below, a woman is showing off her scarf. The hem of the cloth is intended to imitate the tall desert grasses through which the dancers move during the bear dance.

(Used with permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows a woman preparing for the Bear Dance at Whiterocks.

1950s to 1970s

(Used with permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the bear dance.

(Used with permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance, where they bang a drum meant to sound like thunder.

During the dance, several men shake rattles or spread notched rasps over a tin drum to imitate the sound of thunder. They also sing like a bear growling.

(Used with permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the bear dance.

(Used with permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the bear dance.

The dancers usually wear regalia passed down from parents or grandparents. The tribe believes that every dancer should earn plays by dancing for them.

today

After the break, the tribe now hopes that a new generation will learn and embrace the dance. At Whiterocks this month several youngsters came out to take part.

“I’m proud to keep it alive,” said 22-year-old Bode Kamai.

He’s been dancing since he was 8 or 9 years old. He said his grandparents encouraged him to learn the traditions of the tribe.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Swinging back and forth, Bode Kamai and Max Arrats are chosen by Sarah Cuch and Sonceray Cornpeach (from left) for the traditional bear dance to be celebrated Thursday, May, in Whiterocks, Utah as the choice of Women are considered May 19, 2022. The traditional dance, being held for the first time in 20 years in the small town on the Ute Reservation, is set to welcome the new season.

Morningstar Danford, 18, also said: “I dance for my elders and to keep in touch with tradition and our people.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sarah Cuch and her friend Vicky Yellowhorse prepare to step onto a large circle of woven willow wood for the first time the traditional Ute Bear Dance has been held on the Whiterocks Reservation in eastern Utah Thursday, April 19. May 2022.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A large circle of woven willows provides the natural stage on which to dance for several days, the first time the Whiterocks Reservation community of eastern Utah hosted the traditional Ute Bear on Thursday, May Dance hosted 19th, 2022.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Young dancers make the walk across the field for a Ladies Choice, a selection of male dancers on the other side of a large ring of woven willow rods as part of a traditional bear dance in Whiterocks, Utah on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

Christopher Tabbee, 49, is a tribal councilor representing the Utes’ Uncompahgre gang. He remembers dancing the bear dance at Whiterocks when he was 10 or 11 years old.

He brought his two boys, Samuel, 10, and Tdudoop, 7, to learn the dance this year.

Tabbee welcomed the bear dance back to town. “It feels good,” he said, “and it’s going to be a long time coming.”

https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/05/31/see-stunning-photos-ute/ Photos of the Ute Bärentanz over the decades

Joel McCord

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