Many of the myths of the Ute Indians have been preserved in stone, literally, with petroglyphs (etched into the stone) and pictographs (painted on the stone).
One such myth is the story of how the Utes learned the Bear Dance, and annual rite of passage and courtship held on the vernal equinox, when the tribe prepared to move from its winter lowland camps to the high mountains.
The third and final presentation in the Telluride Unearthed: Utes of the Valley series, hosted by Pinhead Institute and the Telluride Historical Museum, will explore such myths with Northern Ute Elder Clifford Duncan and archaeologist and anthropologist Carol Patterson. Myths of the Utes: Stories Told Through Petroglyphs will be held on Thursday, Nov. 16.
The origin of the Bear Dance is one of the sacred and secular stories Ute elders tell during the long, cold, winter days to pass sacred values and practical information to younger generations. Grizzly bears, weighing up to 800 pounds and reaching heights of eight feet, were historically the Ute’s greatest competitor for food resources. Grizzlies were the guardians of the mountain, and an animal to keep peace with. The story of the Bear Dance goes something like this:
Long ago, a Ute hunter stayed in the mountains after it snowed. He was captured by a female grizzly, who took him into hibernation with her. On the vernal equinox, they emerged, he in bad shape. The female grizzly bear taught him to respect her and her people. She taught him to honor bears with the bear dance and to never stay in the mountains after it snows, but to return only after the first day of spring. Then she let him go and the hunter brought this knowledge back to his people.
In addition to an oral tradition, the Bear Dance story and dance instructions are also passed on through rock art that depicts various scenes and themes of Ute life, from the domestic (births, hunts, animals) to mythic figures and ceremonial practices. Newspaper Rock in Canyonlands, Utah is among the most famous sites of Ute rock art.
Myths of the Utes will be held at the museum, 6-8 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 16. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. for free appetizers and a cash bar. Cost is $10 at the door. Call the Telluride Historical Museum at 728-3344 or visit www.telluridemuseum.org or www.pinheadinstitute.org for additional information.
The annual Telluride Unearthed lecture series is designed to give locals an opportunity to discover more about their resident valley during the slow off-season months. The program is supported by a Museums for America Grant given by the Federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. Other sponsors of the event include Ice Design, ResortQuest, Ice House Lodge, CCAASE and Telluride Foundation. Partners of the program include the Telluride School District and the Wilkinson Public Library. While in town, each of the presenters has made classroom presentations at the Telluride Elementary and Intermediate Schools as part of Pinhead’s Scholars in the Schools program.