A look back through historical images of the dance held in Whiterocks, Utah.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
1930s to 1940s
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.
1950s to 1970s
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.
The dancers usually wear regalia passed down from parents or grandparents. The tribe believes that every dancer should earn plays by dancing for them.
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.
Morningstar Danford, 18, also said: “I dance for my elders and to keep in touch with tradition and our people.”
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