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See stunning photos of the Ute Bear Dance from the early 1900s to now

A look back through historic pictures of the dance being held in Whiterocks, Utah.

(Uintah County Library Regional History Center. Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The photoghraph on the left shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance, where they beat a drum that's meant to sound like thunder. On the right, residents perform the sounds of a bear singing and growling as they use the drum during a Bear Dance in 2022.

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

(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 Marion, who was the operator of the Whiterocks Trading Post at the time.

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 U.S. Census. But early pictures like this show more than that attending the dance in the past.

(Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance.

(Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance.

(Utah State Historical Society) Young kids in Whiterocks perform the Bear Dance in this undated historical photo.

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.

(Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance.

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.

(Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance.

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.

(Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance.

(Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows a woman and child arriving for the Bear Dance in Whiterocks.

1930s to 1940s

(Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance.

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.

(Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows a woman preparing for the Bear Dance in Whiterocks.

1950s to 1970s

(Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance.

(Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance, where they beat a drum that's meant to sound like thunder.

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.

(Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance.

(Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center, all rights reserved) This undated photo shows residents of Whiterocks gathering for the Bear Dance.

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.

Today

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.

(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.

Morningstar Danford, 18, also said: “I’m dancing for my elders and to keep connected with tradition and our people.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sarah Cuch left, and her friend Vicky Yellowhorse, get ready to enter a large circle made of woven willow, the first time that the reservation of Whiterocks in eastern Utah has held the traditional Ute Bear Dance on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A large circle of woven willow showcases the natural stage that will host multiple days of dancing, the first time that the reservation community of Whiterocks in eastern Utah has held the traditional Ute Bear Dance on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

(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.

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.”