Tony Vagneur: Celebration of life comes with a bit of a Bear Dance

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Living here in bear country, many of us have a fascination with these ursine creatures, which seems odd given we’ve encroached on their habitat. I’ve told the story of a bear high in a cottonwood across the driveway by my house. From early morning until late afternoon, there were people camped in my horse pasture, blankets, chairs and coolers in hand, cars parked every which way, as though they had never seen a bear.

I should have thrown them off the place, but that would have been like Captain Ahab facing down mutiny, so I let it ride. People would stay awhile and then leave, replaced by newcomers. Late afternoon, as I headed to the back hayfield to change the irrigation water, a lady skidded around the gravel corner, rolled her window down and breathlessly wanted to know when the bear would come down from the tree. “When you damned people quit coming around here to sight see,” I curtly said. In the long shadows of late afternoon, the bear finally came down, but not until after a couple of interrupted attempts.

A bear in a downtown tree is cause for front-page newspaper coverage as people throng around it, waiting for the perfect camera shot. You want to see bears in numbers, walk around the West End neighborhood after dark. You’ll know where every fruit tree and unsecured trash can is by the crowd around it. A friend and I used to see 10-12 bears every night, and sometimes a sow with cubs in the daylight hours. We didn’t name them, but there were a few regulars we recognized, night after night.

If you study Ute culture, you’ve been apprised of the shaman, standing there with a bear skin covering his body, with the attached head covering his own. Bears are big medicine to the Ute and other related tribes who believe in Shamanism. As you might expect, bears figure large in Ute history, including pictographs and petroglyphs laboriously placed on steep, relatively smooth rocks. I’m not gonna tell you where they are, but take a spin around western Colorado and you might find a few. Some date back to 1000 BC, others more recent, such as the 1800s AD.

The Bear Dance is central to Ute culture and is performed every spring. Ursine hibernation activities exemplify the seasons of life on this planet. The dance is performed in a circle, surrounded by cedar. In the fall, the bear goes into hibernation, a metaphor for death, Winter signifies a return to the liminal space between the forest, mountains and land of dead ancestors, “the Deity,” the place where spirits go after death.

Spring brings forth rebirth, a recovery from hibernation, a chance to wipe the sleep from the eyes, a chance for food, and the opportunity to find a mate. Life is going to be good. A piece of clothing worn during the dance, such as a scarf or belt, is discarded at the edge of the circle, to signify that all bad feelings, ills and discouragement have left the person.

It is interesting to note that the dance is somewhat like a “line dance,” the craze that swept country music dance halls a couple of decades ago. Three steps forward, three back, just as a bear tends to dance. Refreshingly, the women pick their partners, and they stand across from each other. If they click, it is a match. If not, there will be other chances to mate up. The dance itself goes on for four days, and if you pass out, can’t take anymore, or whatever, you are dragged, pushed or placed on the outside of the circle, along the cedar. If you’re one of these dropouts, it’s fairly certain the woman who picked you may not be back again to pick you up.

It’s a time of celebration, of rebirth, especially after the distressing year we’ve just been through. If you attended the celebration of David E. Stapleton’s life the other day, you have to still be impressed with how the bedrock of Aspen, the truly real “locals” still around (and far-flung), showed up. People I’ve known all my life were there, and many younger than that. As Sue Kern said, “How nice it is to get big bear hugs once again, the kind that don’t want to let go.” It was our own version of the Bear Dance.

David, it was with heavy hearts we said goodbye, but the great turnout at the Aspen Historical Society’s Stallard House, your mother’s childhood home, was evidence of how many people have held you close in their hearts over the years. Slan leat, my friend.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at