Johnny Faststar is on a mission to preserve the traditions of his people of the Southern Ute Tribe. As an agent of the Division of Wildlife he has found a new opportunity to carry out the ceremony of the great “Bear Dance”.
A New Generation of Warrior
Johnny Faststar brings his pick-up to a stop at the end of the long dirt road down Escalante Canyon. Arriving at the trailhead he realizes this is the beginning of a new phase in a journey that began for him when he was just a boy, but one that has been travelled by many generations of his people before him.
From the time he could walk and talk he remembers the first spring gathering of his people of the Southern Ute tribe on the reservation. The tribe would come together to celebrate the rebirth of life after the long winter and the awakening of their brother and sister, the bear.
Unknown to the white settlers that came West during western expansion into the lands that were home to the native peoples for centuries, the native tribes had been given the responsibility by the Great Spirit to watch over their animal brothers and to assist them with their return to life after the harsh mountain winters that represented a symbolic death to those that inhabited them, allowing their Mother the earth to rest and renew. They did not understand or care to know that the traditions held so closely by the Utes and the many other native peoples were more than just empty superstitions of pagan peoples, they did not understand the significance of the Bear Dance.
The Bear Dance symbolized the circle of life for all living things, it celebrated abundant life during the summer, the period of wisdom and maturity of the fall, the subsequent death or winter of all things and finally the rebirth to life after death in the spring. But, just as important and from a practical perspective was the dance itself, and its effect on the bears. It was the dance and the ceremony surrounding it that brought the early spring storms that produced the thunderheads over the mountains and it was these thunderheads that released their energy and shook the mountains, vibrating the earth and waking the bears from their long, symbolic sleep of death. Without the dance, without the ceremony the bears would not wake at the right time and the new life that had emerged inside the dens during their sleep would perish.
When the Utes were driven from their home in the mountains and their dances outlawed as pagan rituals, they tried to explain to their captors its importance but to no avail. So, the people knew they would have to find another way to fulfill their oath to the Great Spirit.
They learned to adapt to their new reality, they sent their sons and daughters to the schools of higher learning and they infiltrated the white world wherever necessary to gain access to their native homelands and the resting place of the bear. This is how Johnny Faststar came to be on this dusty canyon road and how he came to be an employee of the Division of Wildlife. He took the path that would allow him to return, his purpose undetected, to his native homeland and carry out his people’s responsibility, to perform the dance.
With only a few hours left before sunset Johnny knows he has no time to waste. He gets out of the truck and grabs his pack and begins his ascent to the top of the Uncompahgre Plateau, his ancestral home.
Reaching the top of the plateau Johnny finds a large opening in the dark timber that stretches from east to west, making a way for the sunlight to illuminate the ceremonial ground from morning to sunset the following day, the perfect spot to perform the dance and ask the bears to wake. Dropping his pack, he gets to work, first he must construct a small wickiup for himself to ride out the cold night and what he hopes will be the coming storm with its thunderheads. Next, he builds a fire ring and starts a fire then unpacks his ceremonial clothes and emblems. Once dressed he makes an offering of sage, bread and tobacco asking for a blessing over the dance.
As his dance begins, he feels the company of his ancestors and he is energized to put his full spirit into the dance. He dances and chants the sacred prayer of rebirth, he begins to see with his mind’s eye what looks like lines of blue light heading off along the surface of the ground in all directions, emanating from his position like spokes of a wheel with him being the hub and the lights culminating over the dens where the bears lay sleeping. He can hear the bears breathing as they rest and feels the pulse of their hearts beating, everyone in unison. With each circle around the fire and each bending over and then raising back up with arms outstretched he feels his body take on the weight and the power of the bear, strength coursing through his limbs. His dance becomes more and more like the movements of the bear and his chant like their utterings as the intensity grows to a fever pitch and then he falls to the earth in silence, the Bear Dance complete.
Exhausted Johnny crawls inside his wickiup and a deep sleep overtakes him as a large thunderhead in the night sky begins to shadow the moon. Hours pass and he is jolted awake by the loud crack of a thunder’s boom as the earth shakes and rolls beneath him. It is happening, like a giant alarm clock the thunder begins to stir the bears awake in their dens as a mixture of rain and sleet begins to fall. Overtaken by sleep again the night passes, and Johnny is awakened by the sun in the eastern sky peeking into the wickiup.
Johnny gets dressed into his D.O.W. uniform and packs for his trip down the mountain. As he exits his nest, he turns around to find the emerging grass illuminated into a beautiful green carpet lined on both sides by the massive stands of dark timber. He swings his pack onto his back and as he begins to proceed down the grassy alley between the trees, he sees on each side of the path bears are lining its sides. He is awestruck but feels no fear as he begins to take his leave. As he passes each bear, the bear would stand on its hind legs as if to show respect and give thanks for the dance and the subsequent wake-up call.
As he leaves the tree line and starts his descent he stops to turn and take one last look, he sees the bears mingling, their young exploring their new world and he smiles as his heart fills with the joy of carrying out this great privilege. He knows that the world outside of his people would never accept or understand and to him it didn’t matter anymore, because his people are continuing to hold up their end of the bargain, to help maintain the fragile balance of the natural world, and in the end that’s all that matters.
Author’s note: Dear reader…. This Is Fiction!!!! Although the “Bear Dance” is a very real tradition of the Ute’s and other Native American Peoples, this story which is centered around the tradition is “Fiction”! Do not be offended, merely entertained and know that the utmost care and reverence was taken during the research of and writing of this story and the author believes that the value lay in informing even one person about this tradition that may have never heard of it prior to reading this, hope you enjoyed!