AT DAWN, THE Yeponi leader walks among the tents and lumpy sleeping bags that are scattered through the forest. He stops at one and says a few words in Maidu before moving on to find someone else. A few of those he seeks are awake at the fire pit and have been awake all night in anticipation of this day. One by one, the chosen people converge at the campground’s fire pit near the creek. There they assemble the rattlesnake flag and, with songs and prayers, they call to the bear. Come down, bear! Rattlesnake is here. Come down, bear! Come and greet the people.
Today the grouchy, wild bear that comes down the trail is found in another Yeponi and a venerated bear skin. Bent over, growling and waddling, the bear comes down to join the group of Yeponi. There the bear is welcomed, tamed and befriended by ceremony, songs and prayers, and he agrees not to harm the humans in the coming year. Together, singing a morning prayer, they go to the consecrated dance ground. The bear skin is taken from the shoulders of the bear Yeponi and hung up on a pole with the rattlesnake flag. A sunrise prayer is given and the day of the Bear Dance begins.
Frank Joseph with the Bear, 1973.
There are preparations for the dance to be made during the four-day period. The men gather wormwood (mumunyee), an aromatic plant that has important healing properties that will be used by everyone during the dance. The materials for the rattlesnake flag must be gathered. At the same time, the women, led by the women of the Yeponi leader’s family, gather flowers and prepare acorn soup from the acorns of trees near the dance ground. Even though many people will be bringing food to the dance, preparations must be made to feed a large group. On the evening before the Bear Dance, families begin to assemble in the campground near the dance ground, setting up tents and now recreation vehicles. Everyone brings food to share in the evening meal and in the big feast the next day. The Yeponi circulate among the arrivals to welcome them and to see that they have what they need. It is a time of happiness and excitement; old friends and in-laws greet each other and recall the events of the previous year. Young unmarried people have a chance to meet each other. Families that have been separate find ways to work with each other in economic pursuits as well as in social matters. Soon the gambling bones are brought out and teams of gamblers challenge each other. The forest resonates with gambling songs as the spiritual powers of the gambling teams are tested.
In the evening, as the people eat, the fasting Yeponi gather at the dance ground to clean it and to make decorations of flowers and wormwood that the people will wear in the Bear Dance. No attempt is made to modify the natural plant growth in the dance area; nature is accepted as it is. During this time, the Yeponi offer prayers and songs to awaken the dance ground. The dance ground, like the whole earth, is endowed with spiritual energy that is helpful to human beings but the energy within the dance circle is raised and concentrated by this consecration. When the people later enter the circle, they will become connected to the life of the earth and benefit from the elevation of the energy.
After breakfast, social activities continue through the middle of the day. The elders gather around the fire pit sitting in portable lawn chairs. Gambling teams vie with each other over small amounts of money. Those who have made traditional crafts might offer them for sale or trade. A young person might seek out his or her Yeponi advisor, an elder who knows the Maidu traditions and stories and who has been identified by the family as the one who will guide the young person through life, interpreting dreams and even choosing who the young person will marry. An advisor Yeponi, called a mamado, is usually a revered elder in the young person’s extended family. The Yeponi advisor may or may not be part of the Bear Dance leadership, but the Bear Dance is a good time for a young person to be instructed by his mamado.
By mid-afternoon, everything is prepared for the feast and the dance. The fasting Yeponi retire to the dance ground while the feast is going on and, when the people have eaten, the Yeponi call them to the dance ground. All able-bodied people are expected to participate whether Maidu or not and, when the call goes out, the people rise as a group and begin streaming toward the dance ground. Singer Yeponi beckon the people with a song accompanied by clapper rattles and young people run among the arrivals distributing wormwood. This is a sacred time but the sacredness is seen, not in silence, but in the happiness of the people. Entering the dance ground, smiles and laughs break out and, holding hands, they form a circle around the fire pit. The Yeponi leader, distinguished only by a clamshell necklace with a few little orange beads, walks to the center and welcomes the people in Maidu, in English or in both. He will talk to the people about the meaning of the Bear Dance. When we eat together, he will say, we are family. We will not poison (harm) each other. We do not waste food, especially the acorn soup. When we dance together, we shed our negative feelings about each other and we give up negative ways of life. On some occasions, he might talk about the levels of the universe and about the different animal-people who live at different levels. On other occasions, he may tell the story of the Bear Dance, about the creation of humans by Worldmaker when rattlesnake and bear were the only animal-people who did not agree to humans being created nor to Worldmaker’s request that all animal-people help the humans. This resulted in Worldmaker later teaching humans how to do the Bear Dance.
When the Yeponi leader falls silent, the clapper rattles are heard and the singers start a song for dancing. The circle of people moves first counter clockwise and then clockwise, four times in all, using a simple shuffle dance. But, as this dance proceeds, there is a commotion to one side and the bear breaks into the circle. This is the tame bear from the sunrise ceremony, not the angry bear from the mountain, and, as he goes around the circle, he may sniff and even hug the people. The bear is male and especially fond of women; he will hug some of them amorously. There is laughter at the bear’s sexual antics but these antics are not a diversion. They are an integral part of the dance and are meant as encouragement for sexual activity among the people. The leader Yeponi may speak of this in his talk, relating it to the blossoming of life in the New Year.
The singers fall silent for a short period and then begin a third song. The circle of people again dances counterclockwise and clockwise four times. Now, as the bear makes his way around the circle, people will whip the bear with the wormwood, telling him to stay away and not to harm us. Children may chase the bear with their wormwood wands. Symbolically, any bad feelings the people may have are given to the bear and good fortune of the New Year is guaranteed. As the dancing ends, the bear will break from the circle and begin a slow procession to the creek or river nearby. The Yeponi carrying the rattlesnake flag falls in behind the bear and then the singers follow. After them, the Yeponi leader ushers the people into the line going to the water. When the rattlesnake flag reaches the water, it is thrown in, to be swept away by the current. All of the people walk out into the shallow water and throw the wormwood into the flowing stream. This is the climax of the Bear Dance and, with quiet reflection, they wash their hands, arms and faces, cleaning themselves of negative feelings and thoughts and linking themselves with the positive and powerful spiritual forces of the Bear Dance.
As the people break up, the Yeponi stay behind with the bear skin to contemplate and talk about the dance. When the sun has reached the horizon, they will have a short ceremony to put the dance ground to sleep again. Then, as people pack up and prepare to leave for their homes, the Yeponi can at last break their fast at the kitchen. The Yeponi will also circulate among the departing families, saying goodbye to them and making sure that all of the food is taken with them.
Yeponi Herb Young (on crutches) wearing his clamshell necklace and wormwood with others at the Greenville Bear Dance, 1970.
TODAY THE BEAR DANCE is the largest and most important spiritual gathering of the Mountain Maidu during the year. Although it is, in a sense, a New Year’s celebration, it is done in June, rather than April to accommodate spring planting and the school year, but otherwise it is essentially unchanged from the old days. It is still done in the context of everyone’s daily spiritual activity. Nature is permeated with spiritual energy. It is not possible to walk through nature in daily activity without feeling the energy around you. A young person who grows up sensing the energy becomes competent by understanding the energy and achieves by using the energy. In this way, a young person learns how to live. The elders watch the young people closely to see which of them are learning how to live. Those that begin to know how to live are given an advisor Yeponi and are offered roles in the Bear Dance. They begin with cleaning the dance ground and gathering the material for the rattlesnake flag. Some then will be chosen to gather firewood and tend the fire. Later their advisor Yeponi may take them to significant places in the environment where they can see and listen without distraction.
In today’s world, the teenage years present many paths that lead young people away from the Bear Dance. The distractions are loud in a young person’s mind and it is easy for them to forget that they are still learning how to live. Beyond that time, some young people will find a Yeponi path and may become a flag Yeponi, a singer Yeponi, a bear Yeponi or even a Yeponi leader depending upon the person’s disposition or inclinations. This will mean that they see higher levels of understanding and competence that can be achieved. Advisor Yeponi are very important. With their help, the young people will glimpse the highest level of understanding, the level of a Prayer Warrior. Few people understand what that role is, let alone achieve it, but it is good to travel in that direction.
THE INTRUSION OF the outside world and expanding populations into the Maidu world has had several negative effects on the Bear Dance but perhaps the most significant is the loss of permanent dance grounds. Each year it is necessary to get permission from local non-Maidu people or the Forest Service to use some public property just for the time that the dance is held. Each year it is necessary to deal with the effects that other people have had on the dance grounds during the rest of the year. It is not possible to awaken the dance ground until the beer cans and other remnants of thoughtless people are removed.But the Mountain Maidu hope for more than communal lands. Near the dance ground, they would like to see a traditional Round House that would serve as a spiritual center but also as a workroom, a meeting room and a classroom for the young people. Such a Round House would have to be made by the Mountain Maidu people in accordance with the instructions handed down through the generations from Worldmaker. A Yeponi or Prayer Warrior would have to be in permanent residence. The Mountain Maidu see this as a vision of the future, one that Worldmaker will make possible.
Given their desire for a permanent center with a Round House and dance grounds, one might think that the Mountain Maidu are seeking cultural separation and seclusion, but this is not the case. A Yeponi leader told me, “The Mountain Maidu are people of the world. Anyone who wants to participate is welcome at the Bear Dance.” The Bear Dance is a place and a time at which the heritage of the Mountain Maidu provides an uplifting and cleansing experience of love and harmony. But, while based upon the wisdom of the past, the basic, underlying purpose of the Bear Dance is to invite all participants to shape the future on what they experience here.
The author is indebted to and thanks Farrell Cunningham, William Harrison and Don Ryberg for their assistance in understanding and writing about the Bear Dance.
Dr. Manlove is currently a visiting scholar in the anthropology department at the University of California at Berkeley. He was formerly on the anthropology faculty and dean of science and mathematics at the City College of San Francisco. Manlove’s fieldwork has been in two areas: in the culture and history of California Indians and in Philippine urban culture. He has worked with the Chukchansi Yokuts and the Yurok as well as the Mountain Maidu. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.