Rough Waters

The Animas-La Plata project is supposed to fulfill the government's promise to Colorado Utes. But tribal opponents worry it will leave the reservations high and dry.

The wind people tug violently at the white flag above the corral's only entrance--on the east side, as is proper. The flag proclaims that this is the Southern Ute Bear Dance in Ignacio, Colorado.

The first few vendors have erected their tables outside the corral. Kiowa neck chokers. Navajo silver. Ute beadwork. The smell of Indian fry bread wafts from a trailer advertising buffalo burgers and buffalo burritos. But none of these outfits is doing the business of the two white women in a garish yellow hut selling cheap plastic toys to Indian children who come to them with crumpled dollar bills in their small brown hands.

Most of the cars in the parking lot adjacent to the grounds are recent models, a testament to the relative affluence of the Southern Utes compared with other tribes--even their cousins, the Ute Mountain Utes, just to the west. Natural gas under the Southern Ute reservation pays for cars, college educations, houses, quarterly dividends. But everyone knows that the real wealth of the Southern Utes flows through the seven rivers that cut across the resevation, a 15-by-73-mile rectangle of land on the Colorado-New Mexico border. The Mancos. Los Pinos. The Florida (pronounced Flo-REE-da). The Piedra and the San Juan. The Animas and La Plata.

Animas. La Plata. In a land that looks thirsty, water is a precious commodity, something to fight for...and over.

It's early yet, just after lunch on the Saturday before Memorial Day, and only a few dozen people have arrived. More will come later in the evening, after the intertribal pow-wow and dance contests are finished at the horse-training facility south of town. Most of the early arrivals drift toward the corral, whose dance grounds have been obscured by dozens of cut cedar trees stacked around the perimeter. A deep sawing rumbles from somewhere within, a monotonous cadence that burrows through the skin and into the bones.

Inside the corral, sitting beneath a brush shelter on the west side, a half-dozen men vigorously rub sticks and deer bones up and down notched staffs called moraches. The moraches are the source of the sound. In the old days, they would have been placed on a hollow log in order to create the resonant buzz that fills the air. But today the staffs rest on top of a wooden tub covered with corrugated aluminum, and the sound is amplified by microphones.

The men begin to sing in time with the moraches, a high wailing chant. The words flow together like drops of water in a stream. It is a song about the awakening earth, the courtship between men and women, the beginning of the Ute life cycle.

Many generations ago, according to one version of the legend, a Ute hunter came upon a great bear sleeping in a cave high in the Colorado mountains. It was late spring, yellow taman--the season of infancy and fresh starts--and long past time for the bear to have come out of hibernation. Fearing that the animal would starve if he slept any longer, the hunter woke the beast.

In gratitude, the bear invited the man to a gathering of bears that danced in the forest. Standing on their hind legs, the bears growled their way up to the trees, scratching them to sharpen their claws before backing away and then repeating the procedure.

The bears taught the hunter the dance and the song that went with it. He was told to return to his people--the nuche, as they called themselves then--and teach them the dance. So the hunter made a morache to imitate the growls and scratching of the bears at their trees. (Some tellings of the story claim that the sound still awakens bears from their slumber.) And ever since, as the snow begins to melt in the high valleys, the Utes have left their winter lodgings and gathered to show respect for their guardian spirit by holding a Bear Dance, the mama-kwa-nhkap.

On the women's side of the corral, four teenage girls in dresses, moccasins and bright shawls talk together. The Bear Dance is a ladies'-choice affair, and the girls are eyeing two teenage boys wearing the urban uniform of baggy trousers, oversized T-shirts, basketball sneakers and baseball caps over hair that's been shaved on the sides. As the singers make the moraches growl, the girls trot over and flick their shawls at the boys in an invitation to dance.

The girls line up in the center of the corral, facing the singers. When the music stops, the boys join them and the music starts again. The girls take two steps forward and three back as the boys move forward and then back, imitating the dance of the bears as their feet stir up the soft brown dust of the dancing ground. Young, these dancers are tentative, their movements shy. Later, the older girls and women--dresses and shawls required--will select from the men, most of whom wear cowboy hats and boots and new blue jeans, some with their hair long in the old way, others with white-man haircuts. Then the lines will flow back and forth with greater vigor, with the women always facing the singers and the men facing the east. The growling of the moraches will go on until at least the evening of the second day, until someone falls. Then everyone will gather for a feast of stew, Indian bread, corn, potatoes and watermelon.

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