Tuesday, June 22, 2010 • Bear Dance celebrates the Maidu New Year

Publisher’s note: This story originally appeared in the Tuesday, June 22, 2010, edition of the Lassen County Times.

Native Americans from as far away as Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon joined other native and non-native people who came to Lassen County June 11-13 to dance, feast, pray and celebrate the New Year with the Honey Lake Maidu.

Jamani Maidu Weda, Lassen County’s oldest existing Native American cultural event, is celebrated every June at the Roxie Peconom Campground near Susanville. The event, dubbed the Bear Dance by white fur trappers from the Hudson Bay Company who witnessed the dance from a distance in the 1830s, is the annual spring rite of the Maidu people.

These Maidu women clad in traditional regalia participate in the Spring Celebration Dance, one of nearly 20 dances that are part of three-day Bear Dance celebration.

Everyone of every ethnicity is invited to attend because the Bear Dance because forgiveness, cleansing and healing are all aspects of the Maidu New Year’s celebration.

“It was a little bit smaller this year,” said Ron Morales, chairman of the Honey Lake Maidu. “I was a little surprised because last year it was very big. But it was a nice one, and everybody had a good time.”

A number of Native Americans from the Susanville Indian Rancheria who had never attended the Bear Dance before participated in the celebration, Morales said.

Two Maidu dancers wear traditional regalia and play whistles made from eagle bones during the Spring Celebration Dance. The traditional flicker headbands are made from woodpecker feathers.

Attendees enjoyed fresh barbecued salmon for lunch on Saturday, June 12 and deep-pit roasted beef and turkey before the Bear Dance on Sunday, June 13. After the dance, attendees washed themselves in the nearby creek and then munched ice-cold watermelon.

Morales said the Bear Dance is a time when everyone attending the ceremony needs to let go of any bad feelings or thoughts.

“The Bear Dance is a place where you leave all that behind you,” Morales said. “If we could do that every day of the year instead of just at the Bear Dance, we’d all have a better world to live in.”

This Maidu dancer displays a number of abalone shells, sometimes called Indian money, during the Spring Celebration Dance on Saturday, June 12.

Celebration of spring
Morales, the Maidu tribal chairman, gave the newspaper permission to take photographs of a Spring Celebration Dance — one of nearly 20 different preliminary dances performed during the three-day celebration that concludes with the Bear Dance itself. Native Americans rarely allow their traditional religious ceremonies to be photographed.

The Spring Celebration Dance featured four Maidu men in traditional regalia who danced around a small campfire in the middle of the site, and several female dancers gathered in two groups alongside the dancers.

A drummer kept a beat with a long limb struck on a hollow log and several singers sang a variety of different songs and tapped traditional clackers during the dance.

The male dancers wore traditional Maidu flicker headbands made from the tail feathers of woodpeckers. They also wore a string of eagle feathers around their waists. Some of the dancers also wore necklaces and other sparkly items Morales said are sometimes referred to as “Indian money.”

Several young children learn to play the traditional Maidu hand game during the Bear Dance held at Roxie Peconom Campground just outside Susanville. The spirits encourage the Maidu people to play the hand game. One team sings power songs while the other team tries to guess where the marked bones are hidden. Many players use a handkerchief to hide their hands while they manipulate the bones. The winning team wins a stick that is used to keep score. The hand game is over when one team wins all the sticks.

In addition, the dancers played whistles made from the leg bones of eagles. Morales said the flute-like whistles “make a sound that’s pleasing to the spirits.”

In the old days, Morales said the Maidu would build a huge fire that would burn throughout the ceremony to serve as a beacon to lead travelers to the celebration. Travelers could follow the light or the smoke from miles away.

“They could see the glow from quite a distance,” Morales said. “Nowadays, we don’t do that.”

In the old days, young Indian runners also would travel all over the mountains in the region — to Greenville or Quincy — with a strip of buckskin tied in knots to represent the number of days until the Bear Dance. The runners would leave the buckskin and every day residents would untie one of the knots — keeping track of how many days before the Bear Dance would be held.

The Spring Celebration Dance, according to Morales, commemorates the return of spring. It’s a happy time of rebirth when the swallows return to nest, the animals bear their young, the plants flower and the creeks, rivers and lakes rise to reveal a bountiful harvest of fish.

“It’s a time when we remember our Creator created all these things in abundance for us, the Indian people,” Morales said.

Here’s an example of the marked bones and sticks used by the Maidu when they play a hand game.

History of the Bear Dance
For many years, the Weda was held in Janesville, but a few years ago it was moved to the new campground in the Lassen National Forest — a site known as Papame Sewi (the creek where bunches of little roots were found) to the Maidu.

The new site is especially important to the Maidu. For thousands of summers it was a bustling summer trading camp for a variety of native peoples from across the mountains and deserts of California and Nevada.

But more importantly, the campground site is the actual location where the Weda began when it was given to the Maidu people at the very beginning of human history.

The Maidu believe the Creator’s footprints still remain in nearby Willard Creek from the time when he passed through the area. The footprints have been buried under debris to keep them from being looted.

According to the Maidu oral tradition, when the Creator, the first human on the planet, passed through the mountains of Lassen County 13 miles northwest of Susanville, there were no other humans on earth.

The Creator summoned all the animal people to tell them other human people like him would be coming soon.

The snake was the first to attend the big meeting called by the Creator, but the snake was obstinate.

“I don’t have to listen to the Creator,” said the snake. “I’m the toughest creature here.”

As the snake left the meeting, the Creator stepped on his head and from that day on, snakes have flattened heads.

The grizzly bear also came to the meeting. He too shared the attitude of the snake.

“I don’t have to listen to the Creator,” said the bear. “I’m the toughest creature here.”

As the bear, known as ponto to the Maidu, left the meeting, the Creator grabbed him by the tail and pinched it off, and from that day on bears have short, stubby tails.

Then the Creator gave the dance to the Maidu people to protect them from both the snake and the bear and to celebrate the life they’d been given.

Prior to the dance, the dancers gather wormwood, a long shaggy grass in the sage family. They use the wormwood to purify themselves.

The Bear Dance is held in a huge circular area surrounded by benches. The dancers form four circles, representing the four points of the compass, with the youngest dancers in the middle and the oldest dancers on the outside. The eldest Native Americans sit around the outside of the dance on long benches.

When the dancers have assembled, an honored man who has fasted for at least two days and spiritually cleansed himself dons a bearskin. Another man hoists a flag, which represented the rattlesnake.

As the Native Americans sing songs and bang out a rhythm with clackers, 18- to 20-inch elder wood branches split three to four inches from the end, the flagman leads the bear into and through the circles of dancers.

The entwined circles of dancers move in opposite directions from each other. At the conclusion of each song, the dancers shout, “Ho,” which is similar to amen.

As the snake and the bear pass through the circles of dancers, sympathetic magic is at work. The dancers are telling both the snake and the bear, “You go your way, and I’ll go mine.”

Since the bear cannot see where he’s going amid the circling dancers, he frequently runs into a dancer and dances with him or her. To the Maidu, dancing with the bear signifies especially good luck in the coming year.

As the snake and the bear leave the circles of dancers, they pass the oldest elders sitting outside the circle where the elders have an opportunity to brush the bear with their wormwood.

In the days when the Maidu lived in the mountains near Susanville, the snake and the bear were their worst enemies.

Since berries and acorns made up a large part of the traditional Maidu diet, they were in constant danger of snakebite and in direct competition with the bear for native foods. Lassen County’s first residents found an abundance of natural foods in the mountains including wild strawberries, elderberries, blueberries, wild potatoes, Indian tea and wild tobacco.

The Weda also celebrates the visit to the area by the Creator and, with the arrival of spring, the celebration of the Maidu’s New Year.

Wormwood is used to cleanse and purify the dancers in the healing and forgiveness aspects of the Weda.

After the dance is completed, the dancers follow the bear to the creek, where they pray and wash themselves with the wormwood and water.

After ridding themselves of all the bad feelings from the year before and cleansing themselves for the year to come, they throw the wormwood into the water and all the bad is washed away.

After the Weda, the bearskin is put away and never brought out until the next spring. The rattlesnake flag is dismantled and scattered.

The Maidu have used the skin of a California black bear since 1913. Prior to that they used the skin of a grizzly bear, but the grizzly is now extinct in California.