Photo Gallery: The Southern Ute Bear Dance Pow Wow

Photo Gallery: The Southern Ute Bear Dance Pow Wow

Diego James Robles

High winds throughout the Southern Ute Indian Reservation and many parts of the Southwest could not keep people away from the annual 2012 Southern Ute Bear Dance pow wow in Ignacio, Colorado. Held on the same weekend as the tribe's famed spring celebratory bear dance, this year's powwow took place on May 25 and 26 in the sprawling Sky Ute Fairgrounds.

Although early craft and food vendors easily outnumbered the sparsely attended early afternoon gourd dance, a slow but steady trickle of people eventually made their way into the safety and comfort of the roofed fairgrounds.

"Man, it's really windy out there," David Yazzie said while visiting from the Navajo Nation. "At least they have trees and don't have sand like us or else it would be worse."

As spectators and dancers settled in and prepared for the evening's grand entry, it became clear that many of the dancers throughout the Four Corners region had chosen this to be their weekend pow wow.

One such dancer chose the Southern Ute powwow for its big-money reputation and because it afforded him the chance to see some seldom visited relatives.

"I have my census on the other side but I speak a little Ute," half Diné and Ute northern traditional dancer Earl Sherman said. "I like to come to the Bear Dance and these kinds of event to see some of my relatives even though most of my people are all Christians so they have nothing to do with the bear dance and the pow wow."

It was hard to escape the shadow of bear dance not only because of the pow wow's name and the fact that it's hosted on the same weekend as the ever-popular dance, but also because the tribe sponsored pow wow took advantage of the former's popularity. The relatively few pow wows taking place in a large region synonymous for them didn't hurt either.

"The purpose of this pow wow is spring celebration and to unite all our friends and family, " pow wow committee chairperson Joyce Delaware Ford said.  "Just really a celebration like our bear dance just down the road."

Keeping the master of ceremonies company and also the Sundance chief for the tribe, Kenny Frost described the two events as spring celebrations that are now more social events than in former days.

"When the bear awakens, long ago we had seven bands, the Utes were scattered throughout Colorado and it was in the spring time that the Utes came together to gossip, who married, who passed on during the winter and it was a time of meeting relatives and coming together," Frost said. "The bear dance was a courtship dance a long time ago in the 1800s where a woman would see somebody she liked and she would fling her shawl at him and they would dance, start talking and then they exchanged information and more importantly, made plans to meet again at the next bear dance."

Perhaps feeling more comfortable at a pow wow, an event they were familiar with, the Freiburger family of Dubuque, Iowa, thoroughly enjoyed themselves even though they were slightly out of place sitting amongst  a sea of brightly color regalia, long braided black hair and lots of t-shirts full of Native-pride slogans.

"We are on vacation, heading towards Durango and then the Four Corners and it's wonderful and I am so glad they welcomed us to their traditional pow wow," Veroma Freiburger said. "The regalia is beautiful, I just cannot get over how they are put together, the color; I love it all."

Norman Largo, a Diné northern traditional dancer eventually won his golden-age category on Saturday night with an specially skillful footwork display during the second song of the contest. At 68-years-old he often beats out men close to 20 years his juniors.

"Mostly, we compete with the singers and they say to us, 'see if you can dance to our songs,' and the drummer says, 'see if you can dance to our beat,' Largo said while letting out a wide grin. "Non-indian people, they think that we are competing with each other but we are not, we are trying to make people feel good and be with the crowd, our elders."

After the windy night wore on, results were announced and some of course complained of favoritism.  While the dancers and crowd started to slowly file out of the fairgrounds, in accordance to the category they were eagerly waiting to hear, there were two universally held truths: a lot of dancers showed up to the pow wow and the parking attendants sure must be cold.

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