Saturday, November 9, 2013

"The Bear Dance" w/ the Ahwahnechee Indians in Yosemite Valley

Manahoo niwaa!

Wow, what an amazing experience and honor I had to be invited to attend "The Bear Dance" of the Ahwahnechee Indians of the Yosemite Valley.  I attended the Ceremony last Saturday, November 2nd, but it has taken me this long to find the words to describe as best I can what I experienced and how it affected me personally.  I was graciously invited by Paul Vasquez, better known to many as "Yosemitebear" or "Double Rainbow Guy."

Ahwahnechee stands for "dwellers in Ahwahnee."  Those who know me best know that the Ahwahnee Great Lounge is one of my favorite places to spend time - especially in the winter.  I have so many good memories from so many years spent in that lounge.  But I never connected its name with the actual original settlers that formed what is now Yosemite Valley.  They have been there for centuries and their legacy and traditions still continue to this day.  

I love history, and I love having the opportunity to experience new things, especially things like this which are by invitation only and a significant part of Yosemite's history.  Needless to say, I was humbled.  I wanted to make sure I was honoring and respecting the traditions, elders, and others at the ceremony, so I did my research and asked a lot of questions beforehand.

"The Bear Dance" is traditionally held three times a year  - in the Fall, Spring, and Summer.  In the Fall, the "bear" is celebrate for the work it's done this past year, but is now storing up for a long winter of hibernation with the Spring bringing about the renewal and birth of new baby cubs.  So this ceremony is symbolic in so many ways.  The bear is releasing all that this past year brought and is now preparing for a new season.  Offerings of what a bear would eat are offered to the fire and prayers are sent up to God that the bear would be fed well, hibernate safely, and come out in the Spring with an abundance of offspring and new birth.

So, that's the short version of what the ceremony is about and the history behind it. Now, let me tell you my first hand experience and how it all happened.

I had a busy Saturday with a baby shower earlier that day, a quick maternity shoot, and then had to head into Yosemite for the Ceremony.  It typically begins around sunset, but the Ceremony itself starts around 10pm (and has been known to end around 2am.)  Prior to the Ceremony, there's an abundance of food that everyone shares, and people gather together around fire rings and circles to catch up with each other.  It reminded me of a family reunion.  Unfortunately, the National Park Service has yet to grant permission for the Ahwahnechee band to build their own ceremonial ground away from people in the park on land that is theres, but that's an entirely different subject - but one that I now understand the importance of.  So for now, they utilize the Ahwahnee Indian Village that is a "Museum" by day and their village by night.

During this time, nothing from the outside is allowed inside.  This mainly includes cell phones, cameras, alcohol, drugs, or anything that would not have been around during the time of when then first Indians inhabited the land.  Also, women who are on their period are not allowed into the Ceremony.  I'm not 100% sure of the reason, but from what I was told, it messes with the "spirits" and makes for a bad ceremony.

I think I could have passed as an Indian due to my dark, long hair and complexion, but those of us who use wheelchairs know that we stick out like a sore thumb.  So it was apparent (at least in my eyes) that I was a visitor.  But to my surprise, I wasn't treated like a visitor.  I was treated like family.

I SO wish permission could be given to photograph and video the ceremony (but I respect their reasons.)  It was surreal.  Upon approaching the entrance to the Roundhouse, two gentleman stand at the doorway to "smudge" you down with a plant called "wormwood."  Ok, so time out.  At first hearing I was going to be "smudged," I was thinking I was going to get ashes smeared on my face like "Indian war paint" or something.  This is not at all the case.  Wormwood, which name itself sounds disgusting, is actually a plant that has a pleasant fragrance to it.  A bundle of it has been dried and tied together, lit from the fire, and brought to the entrance to wave around all parts of your body (and wheelchair, in my case) to clear any negativity that may be attached to me.  The bundle as shown below is probably close to a 2.5 feet long.  They want the ceremony to be pure, and there are people inside who are keeping it constantly burning.  So the whole Kindergarten teaching of "Pilgrims and Indians" is completely Americanized and actually made me re-evaluate how and what we're teaching our children about how Indians and the Europeans truly lived and met.  I now have a better perspective on the true meaning of "Thanksgiving."

The Ceremony happened at such an appropriate time for me because that week, the week of October 29th - November 2nd, had been a very difficult week for me where I was extremely sad, bitter, and negative. The week was dark, dreadful, and confusing as I cried to my mom about a myriad of emotions.  And the funny thing is - which I don't believe in coincidences - is that the Ceremony was written to happen on November 12th, but it turned out there was a clerical error and it is always held on the first Saturday of November, thus being November 2nd.  Amazing how God works and is there just when we need Him.

Wormwood Smudge

The Roundhouse is the Ceremonial House - similar to a church for Christians.  It is where everyone gathers.  From the outside, it looks incredibly small, but it actually goes down about a 45 degree slope and is much bigger inside than it seems from the outside.  It's said to hold a little over 200 people.  The one in the village is approximately 45 feet in diameter.  The first two pictures are from the outside of the actual Roundhouse in the Ahwahnee Village in Yosemite Valley.  The opening is directly behind the tree.  The last two pictures are of the inside of a similar Roundhouse by another tribe, but it shows a bit like what the inside is like with the fire pit in the middle, a hole directly above it for the smoke to exit, and then a large circular opening around the fire pit where people sit.

After being "smudged," I entered into the Roundhouse, but with it being slick dirt and going downhill, my tires didn't have any traction.  Thus, I was sliding.  There were many male helpers who were there to keep order, but to also help in any way needed.  They all held smudge sticks.  Now, those of us who use wheelchairs know that feeling when someone asks you if they can help you, and in your head you feel like they are taking pity on you.  These people in no way made me feel insecure about my disability or that I was any different than them.  They didn't "talk down" to me or treat me like a baby or that I'm going to breakā€¦ you know how it is if you've been in a "can I help you" situation by most able-bodied people.  They were sincerely genuine and spoke to me as an adult, knowing I needed help and were there to assist but not take over control of my control.  I was immediately impressed from the beginning by the way I was treated and helped down the slope into the opening.

Once entering into the Roundhouse, Paul told me to take a stalk of live wormwood that was in a bucket of water, a pinch of finely crushed tobacco that was in a round, wooden box on top of a smooth tree stump, and walk clockwise around the fire that was in the center of the circle.  At that time, you throw your offerings into the fire (I had brought acorns), and the tobacco.  I was then escorted to a place to sit as I held onto the wormwood stalk.

The ceremony began with a speaker welcoming everyone and then quickly going into explaining the ceremony and its importance.  There are bigger pieces of offerings that have been left for a separate time - salmon, bottles of honey, blueberries, etc. They then choose people from the tribe to offer those items to the fire, starting with the children.  A sweet little girl who was probably four or five years old was then escorted by a helper boy who was probably eleven years old.  She grabbed a plate of a piece of that salmon, walked around the fire, and then offered it into the fire.  I thought it was very special how they began with the little ones, to teach them about the traditions at an early age, and to have slightly older children establish leadership skills.  Throughout the offering part of the ceremony, we are singing songs in a language I have no idea of, but it was fairly easy to catch on to the words and tune as it wasn't but probably eight bars repeated over and over.  It was nice to feel included in the ceremony in that way.  The heat of the fire was comforting, the integrity of honor was impressive, and the sense of community was inviting.  There was a simplicity of being out in nature, sitting around a fire with other people that welcomed you into their community, and not having any extra distractions of the world interrupting the special moments that occurred.  It was human nature at it's purest.

The women in the band are honored highly, and the female bear was the first to enter.  A real bear hide was placed over the ladies head as they walked clockwise around the fire, singing, and honoring her because of what she's about to be doing during the hibernation period - carrying cubs, giving birth, and raising them in the Spiring.  The bear hide is then tied to a supporting pole.  The male bear comes in next after a few songs and talking.  At first, the male bear comes in "angry," and it's only one gentleman dressed in a bear hide, but has "handlers" that are trying to tame the bear.  As the bear passes you, you are supposed to touch the bear with the wormwood stalk to help calm the bear and symbolize transferring of your energy onto the bear.  He leaves, then there's more singing and talking with an occasional sound of "more fire!" from someone in the circle.  There's a central beat on a hollow tree struck by a long stick.  Paul's son was an interregnal part of that responsibility, and he was extremely steady and focused when doing so by keeping the steady beat through the chanting/singing.

The head elder, Jay Johnson, spoke twice throughout the ceremony as well as a main leader who led the ceremony.  He said some things that really hit home for me.  He mentioned how hard of year this has been for many people in many different ways - and not just people, but the animals as well.  When the Rim Fire passed through and burned over 400 miles of forest, he explained that perhaps that area needed cleansing and renewal.  When the government shut down, perhaps God knew that the land in Yosemite needed a rest so that the animals could roam freely.  He went on to say that there will always be a seasons that are painful or difficult, but that after that season of rest is given, there is renewal.  This hit me hard.  In the year of 2013, I have had so many emotionally painful things happen to me.  I have lost almost every man in my life that I've cared for and loved - whether it be relationally or family-related (and not in a death way, but in a "they are out of my life" way.)  This has been difficult because 80% of them were of the man's choice.  And of that 80%, only 50% gave me a reason of why they had to leave my life.  I moved to a place that I absolutely love, yet I'm not here with the outcome I had hoped for.  Yet, I have learned so much about myself, been able to accomplish things I wouldn't have otherwise, and been forced to separate myself from everything I know.  For me, 2013 was my time of "burning," and I had entered into the season of rest for the past three months or so.

At the end of the ceremony, I again walked around the fire clockwise, grabbed a pinch of tobacco, prayed, threw the tobacco into the fire, and this time threw the wormwood stalk into the fire as well, symbolizing for me that I am burning all of those hurtful things that have happened to me this past year.  I type this with tears in my eyes, but as I threw that wormwood branch into the fire, I immediately felt a release of everything I've held on to, hoped for, wanted, and selfishly prayed for.  I immediately - literally - felt renewed.  I was now entering into that season of renewal as I walked out of the Roundhouse.  And since that time a week ago, that feeling of self-confidence and release has continued.  I no longer have that "longing for" feeling.  I don't have anything that is consuming my mind other than positive things.  Though I am not a Native American Indian, for me, the fire represented Jesus, and as I cast that wormwood into the fire, all of my "wants" went with it.  It was such a feeling of freedom like I've never experienced before as I laid all my desires into the hands of God.  What will be, will be if it's in God's will for my life.  Anything with my "doing" will never work.  The simplicity of such a traditional ceremony touched me in a very powerful way, and I see nothing but positive, exciting things for my future.

There are so many emotions and feelings that I can't explain or have words for, but I'm utterly grateful for this experience in so many ways.  I was able to experience something that not many people are able to be a part of, I experienced history of a tradition that has been going on for centuries, and I was able to escape from the technological, fast-paced, rush-rush of American society and get back to calmness of nature in its purest form - fire, air, trees, and community.  I was able to place all of the negativity that I had in my life and cast it into the fire and walk out a new person.  I hope that those that participate in this Ceremony each time don't take it for granted as it is so special.

I got back to my car and prayed for a good 45 minutes, and it was prayers that were unlike anything I had prayed before.  I had been renewed, all thanks to a simple invitation to experience a special part of the Yosemite Valley history.  Thank you to all of those who allowed me to join alongside you and embrace it to its fullest capacity.  You each left a memorable moment in my life, and I hope I can be an advocate in the future so that you have your own land back rather than having to share the village with thousands of tourists every day.

* Disclaimer:  This is my own interpretation of "The Bear Dance" and how it affected me.  Statements or information given about the actual ceremony may or may not be true to the traditions of the Ahwahnechee Indians, but were recounted to the best of my ability.

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