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Southern Ute Bear Dance goes on after slight delay

Powwow canceled because of COVID-19 pandemic
Students of the Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy had the honor of dancing the first dance in 2019, a tradition at the Southern Ute Bear Dance. The spring celebration will continue this year after a delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jeremy Wade Shockley/The Southern Ute Drum, file)

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe Bear Dance has been delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a pared down version of the celebration is scheduled to start June 18.

The Bear Dance is an annual ceremony and celebration that symbolizes the welcoming of spring and serves as a community gathering. Before the pandemic, the Bear Dance attracted hundreds of people from other Ute tribes, neighboring tribes and the region on Memorial Day weekend.

Last year, the tribe held a smaller ceremony because of the pandemic, with two dancers and four singers. This year, the tribe canceled the Bear Dance Powwow and delayed the celebration, again because of COVID-19. As of Wednesday, the slightly smaller celebration was scheduled to go on, said Lindsay Box, tribal spokeswoman.

“We will be kicking up dust this year, and we are so excited! Our tribal community will be able to celebrate the spring but in a safe manner,” she said in an email to The Durango Herald. “We invite the community to attend our Bear Dance June 18-21, 2021!”

In past years, campers would set up on the road across from the Bear Dance corral, which was lined with chairs often three to four rows deep. The hotel would be booked months in advance, vendors would arrive, and tribal elders would sit in their vehicles across from the corral entrance, Box said.

“Bear Dance is an integral part of our way of life,” Box said. “Before colonization, we lived in small family encampments to survive. Bear Dance provided us the opportunity to gather with other families.”

Tribal elders also say that long ago, people would line up to receive spring blessings during the Bear Dance. This still takes place today in some fashion, Box said.

“It is important that we continue these traditions because it is a part of our identity – the songs and dancing provide strength and protection for the coming year,” Box said. “When cultural practices are stopped, they are easily forgotten. It is important to the tribe to preserve our traditions, language and culture.”

This year, the tribe plans to hold the Bear Dance with a number of COVID-19 safety guidelines in place to protect the health of attendees.

Unvaccinated people will be required to complete COVID-19 screening, and vaccinated people can bypass the screening. Face masks are encouraged to provide another layer of protection for the tribal community.

COVID-19 vaccines will also be available to tribal members.

“Elderly are the most at risk and our tribal elders hold our traditions and culture, losing even one elder means a greater piece of our cultural and language preservation is gone forever,” Box said.

The Southern Ute reservation is in Phase 2, “Safer at Home,” of its gradual reopening plan. It is the second of four phases, the most restrictive of which is Phase 1, “Stay at Home.”

Face masks are required in public indoor spaces for people ages 3 and older, according to a tribal public health order released Wednesday. Masks are not required outdoors, for those with impaired hearing or otherwise disabled, for those seated and eating, or if a person is alone in an indoor space, among other exceptions.

Anyone who enters the reservation is under tribal jurisdiction and must comply with tribal public health orders. People interested in attending the event should monitor the tribe’s social media accounts for updates and additional COVID-19 guidelines, Box said.


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