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Field Division of Education
Ethnology of Rocky Mountain National Park: The Ute and Arapaho
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The great ceremony of the Arapaho, as of most Plains tribes, was the Sun Dance. This is a great tribal ceremony at which all the tribe is supposed to come together. It was usually held annually; but it was held as the result of a vow by some individual. Sometimes it was given twice in the same year if more than one person had made a vow; sometimes it might not be given at all for a year. It involved a number of various ceremonies with elaborate regalia, special paintings of the performers, etc., which lent themselves to spectacular display. Abundant illustrations and detailed descriptions are given by Kroeber for the northern Arapaho and by Dorsey for the southern Arapaho. (Kroeber 1907, 279-308; Dorsey, 1903).

The various other ceremonies which are well-known are fairly modern, such as the Ghost Dance, Peyote Cult, etc., and probably have no place in any display, although some of the Ghost Dance paraphernalia is worthy of exhibit. Practically all the available material on the Peyote and Ghost Dance cults is in Kroeber, 1907, 319, et seq.

Aside from the elaborate ceremonies mentioned, the main feature of Arapaho religion, as is the case with most Plains people, is its individuality. This cannot well be brought out in any museum treatment. Certain articles of paraphernalia may appear in exhibits, however, particuarly such objects as amulets, medicine bags, and cupping instruments. (Kroeber, 1907, 410 et seq. Illus).


Ute ceremonies in the main were extremely simple. Ute religion, like that of the Plains, was primarily a personal affair, but the form taken was very different. One secured supernatural power through dreams, rather than visions, and these supernatural powers were very largely obtained in order to become shamans, or doctors, whereas the supernatural power sought by the Plains peoples was primarily to further personal desires, greatness in war, wealth, etc. Even the full routine of the Ute Sun Dance was undergone primarily that one might become a shaman, or doctor.

The Ute Sun Dance, as mentioned already, was borrowed rather recently. The only ceremony which appears to be indigenous to the Ute was the Bear Dance. This has been widely borrowed by Basin Shoshoneans but has not spread into the Plains. The Bear Dance is supposed to be mimetic of actions performed by the bears in the mountains at the same time, i. e., when bears come out of hibernation in the spring. It has now largely degenerated into a social dance, and it is difficult to determine exactly what its original motivation and form was.

One of its interesting features in contrast with most Plains dances is that men and women dance together in the ceremony. (Lowie, 1924a, 291 et seq. For the Bear Dance see especially Reed, 1896, Reagan, 1930, and Steward, the latter having by far the most full account).

Ute Sun Dance - Schematic Representation
c-male spectators
d-female spectators

Ute Sun Dance - Schematic Representation
(After Lowie, 1924)

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