Maybe there’s something to this Bear Dance after all
While I have a very keen interest in the beliefs of Lassen County’s indigenous people, I’ve never been one to randomly celebrate the rites of any religion, especially one that is so foreign to me.
According to Morales, the Bear Dance got its name from a group of Hudson Bay trappers who saw Indians in the Honey Lake Valley dancing with a bear hide in the 1830s. But in the Maidu tradition, the annual spring ritual actually goes all the way back to the beginning of time when the Worldmaker traveled through Lassen County preparing the world for the human beings who would soon follow him and eventually inhabit this place.
Blame it on my girlfriend, Cindie. Yeah, I was happy to just lounge on one of the huge log benches that ring the area used for the Bear Dance and watch the ceremony unfold. When we heard everyone was welcome to participate, Cindie said she wanted to dance. I told her to go ahead. She said she wouldn’t dance unless I did. I told her I was staying put. She frowned.
Blame it on the Indian who encouraged all of us to join in the dance. Several Native Americans gathered the would be dancers together into several circles, starting with the youngest and the smallest at the center, the oldest and the tallest around the outside.
“Come on,” he yelled at Cindie and me as we sat firmly planted on our bench. “Come on!” His call was irresistible. All at once, and for no real reason I can readily ascertain, I jumped up and said, “Let’s go,” to Cindie. We joined the circle.
Blame it on the wormwood, a medicine plant used by the Honey Lake Maidu. Every dancer holds a sprig of wormwood in his hand. Cindie told me she’d smelled that sweet smell many times when she’d been hiking in the woods, but she never knew what it was. I know I’ve smelled it, too. Some dancers stuck wormwood leaves up their noses, but I passed on that practice.
Blame it on the dancers. As a rule, Native American dancers don’t like to have their photograph taken. I’ve heard it’s because they believe that photographic images can steal their power or their spirit. Photography is strictly forbidden during all the Bear Dance ceremonies. It’s obvious everyone involved in the Bear Dance takes this ritual very seriously. The ground is blessed long before the ceremony even begins and the purification rituals at the site continue for days.
Several groups of Native American dancers clad in traditional attire dance to further prepare the site the day of the dance. The intensity in their eyes and in their movements is unmistakable. They’re not putting on a show for anyone. Clearly they know they are serving an undeniable purpose.
Blame it on the singers. Perhaps I should have learned the words to the Bear Dance song, but I did not. It’s a single line repeated hypnotically over and over during the dance. Before we could actually do the Bear Dance, we had to practice.
As the inside circle of dancers moves clockwise, the next circle of dancers moves counterclockwise. Then the next circle of dancers moves clockwise again. And so on. Each dancer holds the hands of the dancers along side him or her to form a perfect unbroken circle.
The dance itself is pretty simple. The dancers stomp their feet in rhythm to the song and with every other beat they throw both their arms high into the air.
Blame it on the clackers. As the song is sung and the dancers dance, two or three Native Americans beat on two strips of wood. Their tank-tank-tank-tank sound provides the basic beat of the dance. We dancers practice several rounds. After a few minutes, I guess the hodge-podge collection of dancers — Native and non-native people, the very young and the very old, hippies and lawyers, anthropologists and ditch diggers, believers and non-believers and everyone in between — can satisfactorily perform the dance. Finally, we’re ready to begin the dance for real.
Blame it on the flag. When the Worldmaker passed through our area preparing the world for humans, he gathered all the animals together. The rattlesnake did not want to participate and the Worldmaker stepped on his head. That’s why rattlesnakes have flattened heads to this day. Separate from the circles of dancers, a Native American dances and carries a flag made of maple bark tassels that represents the rattlesnake. The flag resembles a rattlesnake’s rattle. Through the ritual, hopefully the rattlesnake will be calmed so he won’t harm the Native Americans gathering acorns from underneath the oak trees this year. Through the ritual, the dancers also acknowledge the rattlesnake’s right to exist.
Blame it on the bear. The bear was the other animal who didn’t want to participate in the Worldmaker’s gathering long ago. The Worldmaker grabbed the bear by the tail and ripped it off. That’s why bears only have a short tail to this day. As the circles of dancers move in opposite directions, the flag and another Native American covered with the bearskin move in the space between the circles. The bear dancer mimics the movements of a real bear. The dancers rub the wormwood on the bear dancer as he passes by so the bear may be calmed and not be so aggressive toward humans this year. As with the rattlesnake, the ritual also acknowledges the bear’s right to exist as well.
Blame it on the sun. Rain threatened all morning and during the free meal of roast beef, acorn soup, sweet corn, salad, beans and bread prepared for all the participants. The beef was cooked underground on a bed of coals for 14 hours in the traditional manner.
The Bear Dance is a spring ritual in which the dancers celebrate the new year and help with the world’s renewal and rebirth. Just before the Bear Dance began, the sun broke through the clouds. It felt warm, and as I danced I broke into a sweat.
When the flag and the bear break through a circle of dancers the music and the dancers stop for a moment. When the music begins again, the dancers, the flag and the bear resume the dance, but the circles of dancers spin in the opposite directions.
Blame it on me. Forgiveness plays an important role in the Bear Dance.
“If you have hard feelings or any animosity toward your brother or sister, you should stay away from the Bear Dance,” Morales said. “You should leave your bad feelings at the highway or stay away.”
During one of the breaks in the dancing, I lifted my gaze to the heavens and asked for forgiveness. Of course, such prayers are always reciprocal if they’re real, and I gave an equal measure of forgiveness as well.
Blame it on the creek. After the flag and the bear have moved through every circle of dancers, the outside circle is broken and all the dancers follow the flag and the bear to the creek. At water’s edge, the dancers wash themselves with the wormwood to symbolize the washing away of sins and the renewal of life for another year. When they are done washing themselves, the wormwood is tossed in the creek and carried away.
When the dance was over I felt strangely satisfied and content. I’m glad I participated, and I just might join in again next year.
Blame it on the Bear Dance.
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