The Sabbath quiet of the newly formed Mormon colony at Parowan, Utah, was shattered one morning by the arrival of Wakara, the most prominent of the Ute leaders, and a large contingent of his tribesmen, returning north after an expedition to the Colorado River.
In 1853, Wakara’s anglicized name, Walker, would become attached to a brief and bloody war between the Indians and the white settlers; previous clashes with Wakara over the Indian slave trade and payments made to the Utes for the use of natural resources had already taught the Mormons to be respectful and wary in their dealings with him. When they arrived at the log meeting house/schoolhouse in which church services were underway, Wakara and his brother Ammon – who, as his name suggests, had had extensive and far more friendly dealings with the Mormons – were ushered to seats in the front of the room, and invited to speak.
Wakara spoke, in Ute, translated by Ammon into very decent English. Wakara had heard of the frequent dances of the Mormons, he said. He wished to see such a dance, he said. Right now, he said.
Parowan’s leaders held a quick huddle. Ordinarily, a Sabbath dance would be out of the question … but this was Wakara … and Parowan was some 300 miles from defensive reinforcements in Salt Lake … Rationalizing that their safety was at stake – and besides, the Indians were not familiar with the concept of the Sabbath – church meetings were hastily cancelled, the fiddler went home for his instrument, and the entire town, with their Ute guests, hustled over to a nearby flat piece of ground, and sets quickly formed for a square dance.
When the music commenced, the dancing couples did their best to put on a fine show for the Indians. The men whooped and hollered, and slapped their knees. The women kicked their heels high and gave extra attention to swishing their skirts. The dance floor – bare dirt in a desert that had seen no rain for many weeks – gave off clouds of dust that soon became so thick that it became difficult for one couple to see the couple opposite. But that only caused the dancers to try harder to be seen and heard as their elbows flew and they swung their partners with vigor as the entire congregation clapped and cheered.
Wakara tolerated the dance for three full sets – but when the fourth set was forming, he astonished the Saints with an angry shout.
“Stop! You dance like children!” he said in disgust, through his translator. “They lied when they said the Mormons could dance! Get off the ground! I’ll show you how to dance!”
At a brief command from their chief, about 60 Indians stepped onto the ground hastily vacated by the Mormon dancers. They formed a circle, as perfect as if one had been laid out on the ground with a compass, facing inward. Two of their fellows began beating time on drums, and the dancers began chanting. “Ay-yah, ay-yah! Ay-yah, ay-yah!”
Stepping to the beat, the dancers moved sideways, first to the right, then at a change in the drum circling to the left. The chanting and the stepping was monotonous, by Anglo standards, but the onlookers acknowledged that there was great dignity to it, as 60 men, with no marks on the ground to guide them, maintained their perfect circle, never crowding each other but always stepping in perfect unison. What’s more, their feet touched the ground so lightly that the dust settled and the dancers at the far side of the circle were in perfect view.
After about 20 minutes of chanting, drumming, and circling, Wakara signaled the dancers to stop. “That’s how men dance,” he told the Mormons disdainfully, “not like children who know nothing.” Abruptly he turned, and, followed by his men, he left Parowan as suddenly as he had arrived.
Behind him he left a crowd of men and women, standing in the hot July sun, their clothing gray with dirt, their faces covered in dust except where trails of perspiration had turned the dust to mud.