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Dancing With the Bears

Editor’s Note:

We publish opinions to help people think about things and to help them understand issues that pop up in our lives.

We also publish opinions to help people understand us and our lives a little bit better. Johnny Rustywire, an old Navajo, helps us accomplish that. In his stories you will catch glimpses of not only our many personalities but the issues as they impact our day-to-day living. In every vignette of Rustywire’s, if you look, you will see the people and glimpse the issues. Promise.

Old Man Toponotes would sit in this ‘84 Chevy pickup, wearing a faded brown cowboy hat that had seen more youthful days. His face weathered from the sun, he is sitting and watching a group of young men who are unloading tree branches in an area along the Uintah river in Randlett, a small Indian community named after some cavalry officer who watched over this band of Indians 160 years ago.

“Eeeehaaah!”he yells out, swinging his hat as the young boys on the threshold of manhood assemble the brush around a corral that provides shade with an opening to the East. They place two wooden logs where the singers will sit and sing. 

Notched pieces of wood, two pair, two feet long are laid on the ground. These make a hollow sound when rubbed together. As time passes, some people begin to gather in the open area next to the Old Man, some walking and others parking their cars. Black hair, gray hair and children moving about find a place around the inside of the shaded corral, men on one side, women on the other

Toponotes gets out of his truck and walks slowly to the shelter looking at the high mountains that surround this high desert plain. The cottonwood trees along the river are still bare of leaves, the tree limbs on the corral are the same, no leaves, and so the area is all gray. 

Women with shawls come; a few young ladies from Ouray and Whiterocks, distant Indian communities, make their way to the corral. 

Toponotes sits with these young men he had watched, the Kanip brothers. The four of them learned to do these things from their father, who has long since passed. They pick up the notched sticks and being to rub them up and down. Moving as if one, they begin to sing. “Ah-Uh-Uh-Uh-Uh-Uhhh.”

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A Whipper walks into the corral carrying a wooden switch and makes his way among the Indian people sitting on the ground along the edge of the corral and he selects a man and woman, and makes them go to the middle and they stand facing each other and begin to dance back and forth, a few steps forward and then back again, over and over, listening to the sound of bears, as bears make a sound like this in the Spring, waking up and rubbing their back against a tree, dancing their winter sleep away. “Ee-yaahhhh”--- it is springtime. Time to dance and to sing. 

The Whipper makes more couples and sends them out to the middle where two lines of men and women face each other dancing back and forth. Some wear cowboy hats. The women wear colorful shawls and scarves. Shy boys stand outside the shelter looking in, afraid to go in because, once you are inside, you have to dance when touched by the shawl of a young girl. It is her choice.

It is a rite of Spring. Not exactly a ceremony but rather a chance to refresh from the long winter, to gather as a people to visit and talk and bring life anew. It is Bear Dance, a social dance where the people gathered from the Shining Mountains and when young people got a chance to know one another. 

The singing goes on as the earth begins to get packed down and the sounds of the pounding feet carry a cadence of their own. The Whipper breaks the two lines up drawing his whip separating the couples into pairs, who stand face to face, hip to hip holding each other and they dance back and forth together, hanging on as the sound of Spring makes them sway with deep steps back and forth. It becomes crowded out there.

A woman with white hair makes her way to the singers and touches Old man Toponotes with her shawl, she in an Ankerpont and calls him out to dance. The other singers laugh at him as he slowly gets up and finds his legs and goes out to the middle and dances with her. He doesn’t smile. It is not his way. He looks tall and though a little bent with age he takes a hold of hips and away they go. 

They knew each other way back in the days of their youth when standing outside the corral at Bittercreek. She came outside and chased him down, running around, all over, back and forth until she tagged him, making her way back to the corral where he had to follow with the Whipper following him. In the old days, if you didn’t dance when called on you got whipped, so he followed her in and they kicked up the dust. 

That was a long time ago and they had gone their separate ways, finding mates and having children who are now grown, but today they can move back and forth and remember it is spring and life begins anew.

It goes on like this each Spring. The area where this takes place is being made ready and this weekend a few brave souls will step back into a time of tradition, where they could dance and sing with their mothers, fathers, old folks and children, and share nothing more than a chance to dance back and forth like waking bears, a dance that found a place in the mountain people, having survived their leaving their homeland, the mountains of Colorado. It continues through the songs learned by the Kanip boys, young men in their twenties, who take the time from work to set up these dances so the words and actions learned from their father can go on into a new time. And such is the way life continues.

Johnny Rustywire is Folded Rocks Clan People on his mother’s side, and born for Tsinahbiltnii, the Mountain People Clan on his father’s side. He comes from Toadlena-Two Gray Hills, New Mexico, where the mountain is cracked and the water flows. He is a father of six and grandfather of 12. He attended Indian boarding schools and grew up on the Navajo Reservation, and has been married to the same woman for 40 years, a Ute from Fort Duchesne, Utah.