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The Bear Dance season ends with a celebration at White Mesa, Utah

White Mesa Bear Dance 2016
Robert L. Ortiz
Southern Ute Drum
Jack Cantsee Jr. (fourth from right) sings traditional songs with other tribe members at the Bear Dance Corral in White Mesa, Utah in 2016.

The Bear Dance is a Ute tradition celebrated in communities all over the Colorado and Utah area throughout the spring and summer.

This year’s dances were in Ignacio and Towaoc, Colorado, and Whiterocks, Utah. The Labor Day weekend Bear Dance marks the end of this season.

The scene was like any traditional Bear Dance: about 30 people partner-danced in an open-air corral made of juniper branches. Women wore colorful dresses and shawls, and men donned decorated traditional hats. In a shaded area, several tribal singers sang traditional Bear Dance songs. Spectators sat in the shade along the perimeter to stay cool from the 97-degree temperatures.

Bear Dance Chiefs had to protect people from the COVID-19 pandemic for the past two years. Dancing was limited, and there was no close contact between participants.

“The two years that the pandemic had hit our place here, we didn’t have the [dance] corral. We just had the guys singing,” said Jack Cantsee Jr., a Bear Dance Chief in White Mesa and a Ute Mountain Ute tribal member.

“Now we’re two years after the pandemic. We need the bear dance done, not only for the community but for everybody that just survived a pandemic,” Jack said.

The Dances returned full force this year after the pandemic. Ute people have continued this ceremony for generations. To Jack, the tribal members embody the spirit of the bear’s resilience. The Bear Dance marks the endurance of Ute culture.

“We’re surviving with this bear dance. No matter if it was just two people, I’d still be out here. That’s how much this bear dance means to me. The bear has overcome several obstacles in his life, and we’re the same way,” Jack said.

The Bear Dance season will return next spring. Bear Dance Chiefs hope the ceremonies will continue without restriction.

Clark Adomaitis is a Durango transplant from New York City. He is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where he focused on reporting and producing for radio and podcasts. He reported sound-rich stories on the state of recycling and compost in NYC.
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