Art can be an important way to record traditions and celebrations in one’s culture. Invite students to discover two examples of a traditional American Indian ceremony through Louis Fenno’s piece Painting of Bear and Sun Dances, and then let them try their hand at capturing an important celebration in their life.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonOne 50 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- Decode a scene from a painting;
- Identify important elements of the Bear and Sun dances;
- Identify how an artist creates a sense of story in an artwork; and
- Create an image that depicts a traditional celebration in their family.
- Warm-up: Display the image of Painting of Bear and Sun Dances and invite students to look carefully and share what they observe. Ask: What do you notice? What colors do you see in this painting? What adjectives would you use to describe this piece? Who do you think is going on in this image? What animals can you identify?
- Share with students that this painting, titled Painting of Bear and Sun Dances, was made by an artist named Louis Fenno sometime in the late 19th century. Fenno was a Ute Indian artist who was active during the late 1800s. He was hired or commissioned to paint these scenes of the Ute Bear Dance and Sun Dance by the owners of a trading post in Myton, in northwesternUtah. This painting shows two important dances of the Ute people in southernColorado andUtah.
- Draw students’ attention to the top half of the painting, which depicts the Sun Dance. Ask: If you look closely, what do you notice about this dance? Describe who you see attending this ceremony. What is unique about the special structure built for this ceremony? Is everyone dancing or only some people? What else can we learn about this traditional dance from this image? Share with students that the Sun Dance, held each July, is both a personal quest by the dancers for spiritual power and purification and a communal rite. The dancers fast for the duration of the ceremony, which can last three or four days.
- Now, ask students to look closely at the lower half of the painting, which depicts the Bear Dance. Ask: How does the style of this dance differ from the dance shown in the top half of the painting? Is this a kind of dance that one does in a line or in a circle? This dance is called the Bear Dance and is a traditional ceremony that takes place in spring; what are bears doing in springtime? If you were to describe the personality of a bear, what would you say? Is it ferocious? Wise? How do you feel about bears? Share with students that Ute Indians believe their ancestors were bears. They believe the bear is the wisest animal and possesses magical powers. This dance, with its loud drumming and singing is meant to awaken the bear, and he will then lead the people to gather roots, nuts and berries. In the painting, we see one line of male dancers (only their heads are visible) and one line of female dancers wearing shawls (we see their backs).
- Before distributing any art supplies, take a moment to help your students brainstorm possible scenes to depict in their own artwork. Ask students to think about traditions that are important in their family, culture, or community, from holiday celebrations to birthday parties to graduation ceremonies. Once students have selected a tradition to capture in their artwork, distribute the art materials of your choice and let the students get started. Encourage students to follow Fenno’s example and do their best to portray the scene accurately and with as much detail as possible.
- Once the images are complete, take the class on a tour of each student’s workspace and ask the artist to say a few words about the family tradition they chose to portray.
- Large piece of chart paper and markers or (interactive) whiteboard on which to record students’ ideas as a class
- Art materials of your choice (paints, pastels, markers, crayons)
- One piece of drawing/painting paper per student
- About the Art section on Painting of Bear and Sun Dances (included with the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
- One color copy of the artwork for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Social Studies
- Ask questions, share information and discuss ideas about the past and present
- Analyze historical sources using tools of a historian
- Become familiar with United States historical eras, groups, individuals, ideas and themes
- Become familiar with United States family and cultural traditions in the past and present
- Visual Arts
- Invent and Discover to Create
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Envision and Critique to Reflect
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
For a long time, the name of the artist who created this painting wasn’t known. However, research by the museum’s native arts curator, Nancy Blomberg, uncovered about half a dozen paintings in a very similar style in other museum collections. In the records associated with a painting almost exactly like this one, Blomberg found an entry in an auction catalog with a signature and was therefore able to attribute this work to Louis Fenno.
Fenno was a Ute Indian artist who was active during the late 1800s. He was hired, or commissioned, to paint these scenes of the Ute Bear Dance and Sun Dance by the owners of a trading post in Myton, in northwestern Utah.
What Inspired It?
This painting shows two important dances of the Ute people in southern Colorado and Utah. On the top is the Sun Dance held each July. The Sun Dance is both a personal quest by the dancers for spiritual power and purification and a communal rite for the entire tribe. The dancers fast for the duration of the ceremony, which can last three or four days.
The two lines of male and female dancers in the middle of the painting are performing the Bear Dance, one of the oldest Ute ceremonies, held in the spring when bears come out of hibernation. The Ute people believe their ancestors were bears. According to Ute tradition, the bear possess magical powers and is the wisest animal. The Bear Dance is performed to awaken the bear from hibernation so the animal/ancestor can lead the people to gather roots, nuts, and berries.
Louis Fenno painted these scenes in great detail, portraying everything from the items of clothing worn by the dancers to the construction of the Sun Dance enclosure. His painting style is both individualistic and culturally accurate.
Fenno placed the Sun Dance lodge in the top center of the painting. Its center pole is meant to represent the center of power. The two dancers are closest to the pole, and family and community members watch from the edges of the brush circle. According to Southern Ute Sun Dance leader Eddie Box Sr., “the presence of family is absolutely critical in giving the Sun Dancer strength and sustenance as he undergoes his quest-ordeal.”
Some of the dancers carry eagle-feather fans.
This man is rubbing a bear rasp, often made from an animal’s jawbone, to mimic the sound of the bear and create music and rhythm for the dance.
On the left side of the painting, Fenno included a woman seated by herself, not participating in the dance. This woman probably represents the traditional practice of seclusion during menstruation.
Along the bottom of the image, Fenno painted an eagle, a snake emerging from an earthen mound, and a bighorn sheep entwined with a snake. Though we don’t know the meaning of these animal images, we believe they likely relate to the origins of the ceremonies shown in the artwork.