The Bear Dance ...
Click to play or pause Introduction to the Bear Dance
Our traditions tell us that years ago all the animals were people.
Salmon, Fox, Deer, Bear - everything was a person.
And at one time all animal-people were killers too. Just before humans came, the Worldmaker, the big man who made this world, decided to end all of that. He decided to call a big time, and after that everyone who went there would be friendly and get along together. He invited all the animal-people, and when the big day came they all showed up. The Worldmaker went about and counted heads. "Yep, everyone here - Nope, two missing ! Where's Bear and that Rattlesnake? Anyone seen Bear or Rattlesnake around?"
(Those two hid out in the woods.)
Worldmaker got mad, and chased after those two. He flattened Rattlesnake's head with a piece of soda bread, and just as Bear ran away Worldmaker managed to pull off Bear's tail. That's why to this day rattlesnake has a flat head and Bear has a short tail. And that's why we still have those two dangerous animals in the woods --bears and rattlesnakes. Now, every year we have to hold a Bear Dance to calm them down --Bear and Rattlesnake-- or we are liable to get bit!
The dance ground at Roxie Peconum Creek
On the the Bear Dance grounds you can see a pole with a black bear hide draped over it, and a second pole with maple bark tassels - Indian Flags- - dangling from it.
If you look closely you might notice a white splotch in the 'sticking spot' on the bear hide (that's a hard kind of bear to find!)
Treat the bear hide with respect. It is sacred. Never make fun of the skin, regardless of how shabby it may look. Bear will hear you, and it will go against you.
We have tied pieces of wormwood on the bear to calm him down. And you may see a feather of swan's down dangling from the bear's nose. The down brings peace.
Courtesy Dorothy Hill Collection
And take a second look at the flags swaying on the other pole. They look pretty much like rattlesnakes dangling there - just shredded inner maple bark, dyed with alder, but then again, rattlesnakes.
Click to play or pause Maiduan prayer at sunrise ceremony
When the rising sun stains the dance ground, the old timers stand before the pole and speak whatever comes from their heart. They talk to the Spirits in the sacred lakes of the Sierras, to the Spirits in the sacred mountains shaped like sweathouses, to the Spirits in the clouds, to the Spirits of the land you stand upon. Tobacco smoke may swirl over the pole, over the ceremonial grounds, dissolving into the air, carrying prayers to all parts of the world.
Click to play or pauseAnother year, another prayer by the late Frank Joseph
Feel welcome, and take part in the festivities, whether by singing, by dancing, by playing hand game, by cooking, or by just picking up trash. By taking part you become part of the ceremony. By becoming a part, you clean your heart. Just watch the old people and follow their ways. They sing, they stay up all night listening to old songs. They stay light on their feet and their hearts beam peace.
The Bear Dance song.
How can our hearts be heavy when we play and dance and sing? So if you have traditional songs or dances or stories to share, please do.
Photo by Cody Hilbert
We hope you will take part in the hand games. We play the game because it is a part of our roots, because it is in our blood, because the spirits of our land want us to. And after the games and dances and songs we have a free dinner-- again because the spirits of the land want us to.
Eat all you want! It's FREE. But who pays for it all? Well, in the old days a fellow could go to a big, hollow oak tree and sing to it. A big, hot salmon would pop out the bottom, like hitting the jackpot in Reno!
But the Coyote spoiled that. He wanted to make the men leave camp and work hard for the fish. So food is tough to get these days. Everybody is supposed to bring something to the Bear Dance. But lots of folks are hard-up, or they forget or don't know, and that's alright because the Bear Dance is concerned about hearts rather than stomachs. So we have raffles and sell books and try different ways to keep from going too far into the red. If you can, put something into the donation box to help keep the next Bear Dance going.
In the old days we had many more dances. For exanple, we used to get food for our poor old widows by doing a begging dance. Women with burden baskets on their backs would dance through the crowd singing a begging song. If a person would not put food or tobacco or something in the basket they would jab and poke that person with long sticks until something was given.
Nowadays we do a circle dance, a friendship dance. We all hold hands in a circle, circles within other circles on the dance ground. One ring slowly circles to the right, while the other rings in front and in back move to the left, and we move with the Bear Dance songs. Just watch the old people, it's easy.
During the circle dance, you'd better watch out, because here comes old Bear, running around the dance ring. Look out girls, that old bear might try to grab you!
That bear seems to have human feet, but he pants like a bear! Oops - that bear grabs a woman in a dress of woven wormwood. When that bear jumps into the air, she gives a bear jump too!
Now that bear is going after someone else. That bear needs to be calmed down. Wormwood will do the trick. Brush the bear with wormwood when he comes by. Don't hit him hard with the wormwood - treat him with respect. Remember the bear is sacred. And that man inside the bear hide is sacred too.
As the dance winds on, the dancing rings of people slowly unwind around the dance ground, circle the sacred grounds as the singers sing, and all move slowly toward the creek.
Everyone heads for the water, and all the trouble or sorrows of the past year are wiped onto the wormwood, which is finally tossed into the creek to flow away.
We then cleanse ourselves by washing our faces in the stream, saying prayers of thanksgiving.
Wormwood swirls downstream. Slowly, some of the visitors leave, others linger, some stay to help clean up the grounds. Our new year has begun.
Our Bear Dance is held every year, the second weekend in June, at the Roxie Peconom campground near Williard Creek west of Susanville, California.