Ute - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Religion was not formalized, but was nonetheless important and pervaded daily Ute life. An integral element of Ute metaphysics was the concept of power obtained from knowledge received through dreams, visions, or from mythical beings. Religion was expressed at the level of the individual rather than through group activity. Senawahv is named as the Ute creator of the land, animals, food, plants, and the Utes themselves. Animals, especially wolf and coyote, were commonly depicted in myths in which they were described as having humanlike traits combined with some mystical powers. Belief in water babies, supernatural beings that lived in springs, was widespread among Great Basin Indians. Ghosts and souls were real and feared. Charms for various purposes were also common. Several Christian religions Currently have followings among the Utes as does the Native American church.
Religious Practitioners. Shamans held the power of healing obtained through dreams or from other shamans. Healing methods involved songs, dances, and various pieces of paraphernalia, the forms for all of which were learned through the dreams. Special shaman designations included weather, bear, evil, sexual, and childbirth. Both men and women practiced shamanism. A payment was expected if the cure was successful.
Ceremonies. Two ceremonies have dominated Ute social and religious life: the Bear Dance and the Sun Dance. The former is indigenous to the Ute and aboriginally was held in the spring to coincide with the emergence of the bear from hibernation. The dance was held in a large brush enclosure or dance plaza and lasted about ten days. The dancing, which was mostly done by couples, propitiated bears to increase hunting and sexual prowess. A theme of rebirth and fertility is pervasive throughout. This theme was reinforced by the announcement of the completion of a girl's puberty rites during the ceremony. The Sun Dance was borrowed from the Plains tribes between 1880 and 1890. This ceremony was held in July, and the dancing lasted for four days and nights. The emphasis of the Sun Dance was on individual or community esteem and welfare, and its adoption was symptomatic of the feelings of despair held by the Indians at that time. Participants often hoped for a vision or cures for the sick. Consistent with the emphasis of this ceremony was the fact that dancing was by individuals rather than couples as was the case with the Bear Dance. Both ceremonies continue to be held by the Ute, although the timing of the Bear Dance tends to be later in the year. The Ghost Dance was briefly popular during the late 1880s and 1890s on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation.
Arts. The Ute enjoy singing and many songs are specific to the Bear Dance and curing. The style of singing is reminiscent of Plains groups. Singing and dancing for entertainment continue to be important. Rock art was another form of expression, and both pictographs (painted) and petrogylphs (pecked) of obvious Ute manufacture have been documented.
Medicine. Curing ceremonies attempted to drive evil forces from the body through songs, sucking tubes, and so on, rather than through the use of medicines. Herbal remedies were also applied, however, and medicinal powers were assigned to a number of plants. These, usually the leaves or roots, were pounded and boiled and the resulting potion drunk.
Death and Afterlife. Death was a time of community and individual loss and was formally observed by abstentions from certain behaviors and by acts such as hair cutting. Mourning lasted up to a year. Care was taken to ensure that the ghost of the deceased did not return, although it was generally held that the soul lingered near the body for several days. All souls went to an afterlife similar to this world. Burial and funeral customs included burning the house wherein death occurred and the destruction of most personal property, which sometimes included horses, dogs, and slaves. Bodies were washed, dressed, and wrapped and buried, extended, in a rock-covered grave in the mountains.