The Ute Bear Dance hasn’t been held for 20 years in this Utah town — until now

The Native people of Whiterocks, which used to be home to a boarding school, “need it to heal,” said Bear Dance Chief Paul Manning LaRose.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Swaying back and forth, Bode Kamai and Max Arrats are chosen by Sarah Cuch and Sonceray Cornpeach, from left, for the traditional Bear Dance, deemed women’s choice, at Whiterocks, Utah, on Thursday, May 19, 2022. Held for the first time in 20 years in the small town within the Ute Reservation, the traditional dance held after the first under of spring is meant to welcome in the new season.

Whiterocks • The dance begins with two women pounding their feet into the dry desert dirt, their moccasins disappearing as they step deep into the grasses that grow tall here even in drought.

Sarah Cuch and Vicky Yellowhorse sway forward and back together, one, two, three, four, following the thunder of the drum. They’ve known this dance since they were little and could do it anywhere; Cuch once danced it carrying her newborn girl in her arms. But it’s been a long time since they — or anyone — danced it in this remote rural town on the edge of the Ute Reservation.

Whiterocks, a small community whose Indigenous residents say they have been shaped by a traumatic past, this month held its first Bear Dance in over 20 years.

[Read more: See stunning photos of the Ute Bear Dance from the early 1900s to now]

“We’ve got to bring back the tradition to help our people,” says Cuch, who dances fiercely in her handmade yellow shawl, with fringe meant to evoke the desert grass. “We need it to heal.”

Some Utes say the traditional dance, meant to welcome spring, was abandoned after several chiefs in the town died. Others say it stopped with infighting in the community.

Many point to grief that lingers from the Whiterocks boarding school Indigenous children were forced to attend, away from their families, and where at least 33 kids died. A few former students still live here. Fragments of the building’s foundation sit as a reminder of the cruelty among the sagebrush and scrub oak.

“Our people have lost our way,” says Paul Manning LaRose.

LaRose was appointed chief of the dance to restore the gathering in Whiterocks this year. The Bear Dance, he says, is about endurance, strength, renewal and hope. And he felt he had to bring it back to this town that needs all of that it can get.

“It’s been 20 years, but we came back,” he says.

He also came back to his hometown after years away, he says, sweeping his arm out toward the Uinta Basin’s tough terrain that he knows well, where faraway blue mountains form the northern boundary and oil rigs dot the horizon. There are few houses and no stoplights in this town that the U.S. Census says is home to 275 people but doesn’t look like it.

Most of the people in Whiterocks grew up here and have stayed, though many from across the reservation came to support the dance. More dancers join Cuch and Yellowhorse as they toe across the field, leaving small circle footprints in the sand from their soft leather shoes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People travel from surrounding towns and across the Ute Reservation to join the Bear Dance at Whiterocks, Utah, for the first time in in 20 years, that welcomes the new season following the first thunder of spring on Thursday, May 19, 2022. The dance circle made of woven willow branches, opens to the east, toward where the sun rises, and where the Ute Tribe believes the creator will arrive.

The women line up to the east, holding hands and wearing beaded medallions, rainbow ribbon skirts and animal broaches. The men stand opposite in Levi’s jeans, Pendleton vests, bowler hats and bolo ties. Most wear timeworn regalia passed down by relatives.

Some little kids join the dancers, others run around chasing each other or trying to catch the reservation dogs that run wild. The dance is a commemoration of sorts, of what happened here in the past, but it’s also a celebration for the present and the future.

“It kind of feels pretty good,” declares one of the youngest residents of this town, 9-year-old Sonceray Cornpeach.

The legend

The chief paces around the corral built for the ceremony, fixing the carefully constructed circle of willow branches that’s been bowed by the whipping winds. It’s been a blistering, dusty day with dancers braced against the gusts.

But when LaRose settles in to tell the story of the Bear Dance, it seems to calm to a breeze just for him.

As the legend goes, LaRose tells listeners sitting in the circle, a female bear was awakened from hibernation at the sound of the first spring thunderstorm. The Ute tribe at the time was starving, and two warriors who were out hunting watched as she emerged from her den.

The Utes, LaRose says, revered bears and would not hurt them. Some say the people are descendants of the great animal; others believe they become bears when they die. The chief notes that bears used to instruct the Utes on which roots to dig to help with sickness — “that’s when animals could talk with people,” he adds. A little boy nearby lets out an “oooh!”

When the bear noticed the warriors watching, LaRose says, she stood on her two back legs and scratched a tree, imitating the thunder. He says she then taught the men how to perform the dance and told them to bring it back to their tribe to practice every spring. She said it would heal them.

“She gave the tradition to them so they could be strong,” LaRose says, noting the dance is over 1,000 years old.

“It’s a part of us,” adds Yellowhorse.

Members of the tribe continue to hold the dance annually in eastern Utah in several towns on the reservation, including Ft. Duchesne and Randlett, which also had a boarding school for a few years before students were transferred to Whiterocks. It’s danced in Colorado, as well. LaRose reminds the crowd the tribe had a wide homeland before they were restricted to what the government saw as undesirable land.

LaRose starts the dance here by carrying a burning bundle of sage around the circle, inviting participants to waft the smoke toward them as a cleanse. Then he chants a resonating prayer.

When he’s done, the chief and other men scratch rattles on a wood and tin drum made for the occasion. It’s meant to sound like the thunder of spring. Meanwhile, clouds forming overhead threaten a real storm.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ute dance chairman Paul Larose, left, and drum maker Ben Watts, imitate the sound of a bear singing and growling while they strut notched rasps with rubbing rods during a traditional Bear Dance on the Ute Reservation at Whiterocks, Utah, on Thursday, May 23, 2022. The ceremony held around the time bears awaken from hibernation is meant to welcome the new season .

In this dance, LaRose says, the women are in control. They have the power to pick the partner they want, and the man cannot refuse. The couple then walks to the center of the circle and joins the line of dancers, stepping in unison in a colorful swirl of regalia.

It’s a four-day event and several of the songs are meant to test endurance. Cuch says she danced one “challenge song” for an hour and 22 minutes at the Bear Dance in Ft. Duchesne, held two weeks earlier. That was a dust bowl, she says with a laugh. There was nothing on the ground and every step produced a gray puff until it was hard to see the other dancers through the haze.

Cuch runs her fingers through grasses growing here in Whiterocks, remembering when more of the dances looked like this and she’d come home as a kid with her moccasins stained green from all her stomping, a point of pride.

The wild blades, she says, remind her of resilience, like the dance and the town.

“Life is precious and so is a community,” she says.

Her daughter, River, is now 5 years old and holds her hand out proudly bearing five fingers. Cuch has taught her daughter the steps to the Bear Dance — just like her great aunt, Rose Jack, taught her — and River has been wearing Cuch’s oldest shawl that she passed down.

Having the dance here again, both Cuch and LaRose say, is a way to make sure it’s passed down to the next generation. LaRose says he’ll tell the story as many times as he has to so that every kid in the tribe knows it by heart.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nancy Poowegup expresses her enjoyment of of attending a traditional Bear Dance in her reservation community of Whiterocks in eastern Utah on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

“We’re trying to get our youngest generations going,” adds Nancy Poowegup, 70. “We don’t want them to forget who they are. There have been efforts to make us forget.”

Boarding school memories

Strung along a wire fence behind the dancers are old black and white photos of the Bear Dances that were once held in Whiterocks, images dating back to the late 1800s through the 1940s. There were more people gathered then, into the hundreds. And the trees look much shorter than they stand today.

But the line of dancers with their braided hair and beaded earrings is the same — and so are their smiles.

The scenes look so similar.

(J. Willard Marriott Library Special Collections) This image of the Bear Dance being held in Whiterocks comes from the early 1900s. The photograph was taken by Robert Lee Marimon, who was the operator of the Whiterocks Trading Post at the time.

OnaLisa Ridley, 56, loves looking at the pictures and recognizes family members who once lived here. She says she feels tied to this place, even with the pain.

When she was 4 years old, Ridley says, she became one of the youngest students to attend the school in Whiterocks, which was the Uintah Boarding School until 1952, then operated as a day school, although it appears some children may have continued to board there for a time. She remembers the teacher forcing her to wear a heavy cone on her head if she spoke her Native language or practiced her culture. Before her, Benton Ridley, her dad, also went there.

He didn’t talk much about his time at the school, she says, but she knew it traumatized him. He ran away in the fifth grade and never went back.

OnaLisa Ridley went there for a little less than a year, she says, before the school was closed and she was transferred to the public system. Among the white students who became her new classmates, she recalls, some weren’t kind to her, and she often skipped classes, getting off the yellow bus at Todd Elementary and walking miles back to her house.

In 7th grade, the state cited her for truancy and took her away from her parents, she says, placing her in a foster home. There, she recalls, the white family “told me if I was to speak my language, they’d cut off my tongue.”

In a court hearing, Ridley says she was given the choice to go to a new foster home, a boarding school or a state school, where she’d have to stay until she was age 25. She chose to go to the Intermountain Boarding School in Brigham City, which she attended until 1982 before they moved her to another school in California.

Ridley came back to Whiterocks after that, she says, to be with her family. She now lives four miles from the former boarding school site in the town.

Many of the elders in the town went to boarding schools or talk about parents who did.

Poowegup says her late mother was forced to attend as a teenager and refused to talk much about what she experienced there. Poowegup wears a bright pair of blue and yellow beaded earrings to the dance as a way to honor her.

Syenne Tallbird, 19, says her grandmother, Flora, was also made to go to the school in the 1950s.

“It’s a dark place for a lot of Native Americans,” Tallbird adds. “And this town holds onto that.”

Tallbird, who grew up in Whiterocks, says she’s walked through the rubble left of the school and seen what she believes to be grave markers from some of the kids who died there. LaRose also thinks children were buried there. The tribe’s chairman hasn’t commented on that possibility.

Ridley, now the community president of Whiterocks, hopes bringing the dance back will help her people fiercely reclaim their identity even in a place — especially in a place — where their language and culture was once forbidden. But they could never be extinguished, she says.

“The dance is back where it belongs,” she says.

‘A new generation’

As the sky’s last light fades into orange and red, more pickup trucks pull into the lot.

The Danford siblings hop out, eager to join the dance. They help each other strap on their moccasins, made by their grandparents, and adjust their shawls. Morningstar Danford, 18, assists her littlest sister, 2-year-old Journee, with a beaded medallion and barrette made to look like Hello Kitty, her favorite.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Young dancers make the walk across the field for a “ladies choice,” selection of male dancers on the other side of a large ring made of woven willow sticks as part of a traditional Bear Dance in Whiterocks, Utah on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

They bring with them a mixture of the new and the old, individuality and tradition — or “tradish” as 12-year-old Taelor Danford calls it.

“We’ve got to keep it going,” she says. “There is pain, and there is healing.”

“And we should be proud of all of it, everything we’ve gone through and come out of,” adds her brother, Rang Danford, 14. He shows off his beaded eagle belt from his uncle and proclaims he’s going to learn the craft — just as soon as he nails the steps to the Bear Dance.

It makes LaRose smile. The Danford kids are younger than 20, meaning they had never seen the Bear Dance take place here in Whiterocks before now.

“They’re a new generation,” the chief says. “They know this is history that needs to be told. This is culture that needs to be practiced here again. And they’ve come to do it.”

Cuch tips her beaded cowboy hat at Rang Danford, choosing him as her partner for the next song. Together, their feet move through the dirt and grasses, forward and back together.