At the White Mesa fairground in central San Juan County, about 50 boys and girls stand opposite each other in a red dirt corral lined with tall cedars. They’re ready to take their first steps in the traditional Bear Dance. But first, they need a partner.
The girls run toward the boys as musicians strike up a rhythm on traditional Ute instruments. This is an important part of the Bear Dance, according to Ute Mountain Ute elder Aldean Ketchum.
“It’s the lady bear that taught this dance to the people, so in turn we honor her by having the ladies’ choice. So the women get to pick their partners,” he said, adding that, out of respect, the boys cannot say no.
Ketchum is a Bear Dance chief, and he’s teaching children from Blanding Elementary School how to do the traditional dance, which will be performed at White Mesa through Monday. The four-day celebration began Friday morning with a prayer before sunrise.
It’s the second year that students from Blanding Elementary have gathered to learn the dance, which Ute communities in Utah and Colorado perform annually throughout the spring and summer to celebrate the end of the bear’s hibernation period. The first are in Randlett and Fort Duchesne, Utah. Dances in Ignacio and Towaoc, Colo follow. The White Mesa Bear Dance is the last each year.
“It’s a social dance to commemorate the end of the season and getting ready for the harsh winter,” Ketchum said. “So it prepares the people for that endurance by the dancing they do to help them become strong.”
About 50-70 adults and children will participate in the Bear Dance over the course of the weekend, according to Ketchum. Each dance is over an hour long. After a final dance on Monday, a feast will close out the celebration.
Many children from White Mesa go to school at Blanding Elementary, said Trevor Olsen, the San Juan School District student services coordinator. He helped organize this field trip for students to learn the Bear Dance. Students from White Mesa perform traditional dances throughout the year at assemblies and other events, but this gathering is different, Olsen said.
“This allows them to see that here in a traditional setting, so it kind of connects this community to our school and to those kids.”