Photos from the Ute Bear Dance over the decades
A look back through historic pictures of the dance being held in Whiterocks, Utah.
The Ute Tribe has held its traditional Bear Dance annually for what’s believed to be over 1,000 years, making it one of the oldest cultural customs practiced today.
The dance is meant to welcome spring and is based on the legend of a bear being awakened from hibernation with the first thunderstorm of the year.
It’s held in towns across the Ute Reservation in eastern Utah and in 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 to heal, in part after the painful past of having a boarding school there where their children were forced to attend.
Here’s a look back at historic photos of the dance being held in the town over the years.
The earliest photographs
This photo was taken in the early 1900s and shows a huge gathering in the town of Whiterocks.
Today, there are 275 people total there, according to the US Census. But early pictures like this show more than that attending the dance in the past.
The photos also show subtle changes in the town, like how small the trees were then compared to how much they’ve grown today. Some buildings in the pictures also no longer exist.
Around the 1920s
Dancers gather in a circular corral made up of branches, where they stomp on the earth.
In Whiterocks, the community prefers to go into the mountains to collect native willow branches that grow in the area.
During the Bear Dance, the women stand in a line on one side, holding hands, and sway toward an opposite line of men. They’re dressed in colorful regalia, including beaded moccasins, medallions and hats.
1930s to 1940s
A woman shows off her shawl in this photo, below. The fringe of the wrap is supposed to imitate the tall desert grasses that the dancers move through during the Bear Dance.
1950s to 1970s
During the dance, several men shake rattles or strut notched rasps over a tin drum to imitate the sound of thunder. They also chant like a bear growling.
The dancers will typically wear regalia that is passed down from parents or grandparents. The tribe believes each dancer should earn pieces by dancing for them.
After the hiatus, the tribe now hopes a new generation will learn and embrace the dance. In Whiterocks this month, several youth came out to participate.
“I’m proud to keep it alive,” said 22-year-old Bode Kamai.
He’s been dancing since he was age 8 or 9. He said his grandparents encouraged him to learn the tribe’s traditions.
Morningstar Danford, 18, also said: “I’m dancing for my elders and to keep connected with tradition and our people.”
Christopher Tabbee, 49, is a tribal council member representing the Uncompahgre band of the Utes. He remembers dancing the Bear Dance in Whiterocks when he was 10 or 11.
He brought his two boys, Samuel, 10, and Tdudoop, 7, to learn the dance this year.
Tabbee welcomed the Bear Dance back to the town. “It feels good,” he said, “and it’s a long time coming.”