White Mesa Community Holds Modified Bear Dance To Continue Annual Healing Tradition
The last time the White Mesa Bear Dance was canceled was in the 1960s, according to Aldean Ketchum, a community member and current Bear Dance Chief.
“There was a death in the family of one of the Bear Dance Chiefs,” Ketchum said. “So it was his call, and he suspended it for a while that year.”
Normally, Ute people from northern Utah and western Colorado drive long distances to attend the Bear Dance at White Mesa over Labor Day weekend. They crowd into a large, round arena laced with cedar branches—called an arbor—to perform the ceremonial dance. But this year, the event at White Mesa drew under 20 participants, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
As a Bear Dance Chief, Ketchum plays music and helps coordinate the event. He said it was important to hold the dance this year, because it’s a healing ceremony.
“They say when you enter the arbor, you come there with all your problems, your burdens,” he explained. “But when you get here, everything just lands on the floor, and the winds of the four directions come along and take it, so the healing can begin.”
The Bear Dance is a form of prayer, in which women dance in a line spread across the arbor, facing west as the sun sets. They pray for the health of their family and communities as they dance, stomping their worries into the ground and drawing strength from the music.
Men sit in a shade structure at the east end of the arena, mimicking the sound of a bear growl by rubbing notched sticks together and singing songs passed down through generations of the Ute Mountain Ute, or Weenuche, people.
The four-day ceremony begins on Friday morning with a prayer at sunrise and ends on Monday afternoon. Usually on the last day, the women choose a male partner to dance with. But not this year, as only women participated, dancing in family groups spaced six feet apart.
Belicia Posey, 33, is one of the women who participated this year. She started going to the White Mesa Bear Dance as a child with her grandmother, and she hasn’t missed one since.
“It feels like it’s dying right now, so it’s really important to keep going, no matter what,” Posey said. “Even if it’s only one or two people, just dance if you enjoy it.”
She and her sister, Mariah Posey, attend all five annual Bear Dances, which are held by Ute communities in Randlett, Utah; Fort Duchesne, Utah; Towaoc, Colorado; and Ignacio, Colorado. The last dance of the season is the one at White Mesa, which is meant to send the bear back to sleep for the fall.
Ketchum said the dance accomplished its purpose this year, despite being small.
“It’s been something that’s different,” he said. “But the healing process is beginning here. So it’s been good.”
The White Mesa community has been closed to outsiders since the coronavirus pandemic began in the spring. A handful of community members have contracted the virus so far.
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi