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I have a dress and shawl packed in my car, but the moment I near the dancers I know I won’t be using either. I’m too shy, too out of my element, too naïve about the culture and dance I’m about to witness to want to participate. Ducking my head—as if that will make me invisible —I sidle up to a quiet area and stand on my toes to peer through bushes, and then, finally, I can see what I’ve been hearing: the men and women lined up facing each other in a large corral, moving their bodies, then their feet, then their arms. The long line of people moves forward and back, forward and back in rhythm. Like most dancing, it’s difficult to describe but captivating to see. It’s not unlike staring at puzzle pieces: Which goes where? What’s the overall scene? How do all the elements come together?
It’s a hot, dusty spring afternoon, and I’m at the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s Bear Dance, one of the two most important annual ceremonies for the tribe (the other being the Sun Dance). Colorado has only two Indian reservations, the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Tribe, and they are both in this part of the state, which is in the far, far southwestern reaches of Colorado, nearly on the New Mexico border. This is one of the hardest parts of the state to get to, and, although I’m a Colorado native, I’ve never had occasion to come here. This reservation is flat-out remote, surrounded by mountain passes, and more or less not on the way to anything.
Which, of course, is why I wanted to come.
As Colorado’s longest continuous residents, the Southern Utes have something else I want to see: the new Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum. The facility—52,000 square feet, housing 1,500 artifacts—is just as breathtaking as the Bear Dance, but for different reasons. In stark contrast to the dust of the corral, the glass and steel building looks vaguely like an enormous, postmodern tepee. I wander around the cool interior, and I’m taken especially with exhibits on beading work, the focus on the natural world, and the recorded stories of the tribe’s elders and youth. Tribal members have loaned many of the artifacts, and others, which have been sought out from around the world and returned to Colorado, are on display for the first time. There’s pottery, intricate beadwork, and baskets woven by White Mesa weavers.
The reservation sits on natural-gas reserves, and the Southern Utes are one of the country’s wealthiest tribes. Although the Southern Ute Indian Tribe has fewer than 1,500 members, it’s worth billions of dollars, and the $38 million Cultural Center & Museum shows it. The new building is the only tribally owned cultural center in Colorado. Building it was no doubt meant to increase tourism, but it’s also been developed to conserve and promote the history and culture of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. It houses a library and archives, a permanent and temporary exhibit, a multimedia room, and gathering spaces for tribal and community functions.
The dance, though, calls me back, with the thrum of music and the promise of fry bread. Outside the corral of dancers, I find Matthew Box, a member of the tribe who’s been in charge of this dance for seven years, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Eddie Box Sr., who had run the dance since 1952. “Welcome,” he says. “This dance lives on and all are welcome.” He tells me members of other tribes attend, as well as “regulars” from around the world, although there don’t appear to be too many outsiders. (No kidding: I’m the only white woman I see, and the directions I got consisted of localisms: “Take a left at the big cottonwood by the baseball field, that one down by the river, and then….” )
“Did you bring your shawl? You can go dance,” Box says. I smile and tell him I’d rather watch. My shyness is stronger than the music, and there’s a lot to take in: The women wear bright dresses and shawls, and many wear beaded moccasin boots, although Tevas, tennis shoes, and combat boots are present too. Some of the men are in T-shirts and jeans. Some wear bowler hats; others wear ribbon shirts. The dress, in other words, is a mix of the tribe’s complex and varied history, deep tradition, and an embracing of the present. Box, who’s standing at the edge of the dance, wears a bright white dress shirt, black pants, and a vest jacket, a formal appearance that harks back to the historic photos of American Indians in Western-style garb.
Box notes that the Bear Dance and the Sun Dance are the two most important dances for the tribe, and according to some are ancient—possibly the oldest continuous dancing tradition, dating back well before the 15th century when Spanish explorers first witnessed and recorded the ceremony. The dances are still relevant today, Box says, noting that participants “dance and benefit from the cultural teaching, as we all are the same when it comes to suffering and dealing with life in general. The dance gives us the tools against our enemies of the world—which are anger, hate, greed, jealousy, violence, drug and ethyl abuse—and provides a means to rejuvenate annually to be at our best.” These cultural teachings are needed, he says, for all generations, including future ones, regardless of how the world and popular culture changes around them. He adds that the importance of the dance is multi- faceted, but its primary aim is to provide a means in which people can shed “luggage” and start fresh.
And, as if on cue, another elder speaks from the center of the corral: “This is a time to look forward to something good, this is a time to move our bodies! Before cars, before even the horse, we danced.” His voice booms, amplified, across the corral, and for a moment there is complete silence. “There are many distractions nowadays,” the elder continues, “but this dance helps our people make good tracks on Mother Earth.” Then the music starts again, the dancers sway, and I prepare to leave, a journey that will take me past the new cultural center, the new casino, the vast wide-open spaces, and a history as dynamic and complex as the music that lilts through the air, following me home. m
Laura Pritchett, the author and editor of numerous books, writes the My Colorado column and is a 5280 contributing editor. Email her at email@example.com.