White residents will no longer paint themselves red and role play as American Indians attacking Mormon settlers during rural Wellsville’s annual “Founders’ Day” festivities, under an informal agreement by a committee tasked with revising the controversial and deeply held tradition.
“We felt that was the best direction to go at this time,” Mayor Thomas Bailey said Thursday.
The small focus group studying the issue decided Monday night that after more than 80 years of enactments, the so-called “Sham Battle” will continue on in a new form. What that will look like — possibly more generic bandits or maybe federal troops attacking on horseback — is still yet to be decided.
Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, is relieved. He had worried that the town might decide to ditch the red paint but continue portraying his tribe. The committee’s recommendation, he said, was his “desired outcome.”
“That’s all I wanted,” he said. “I’m certainly not one to kill their celebration. I don’t want to do that. We don’t want to erase history, but there’s some aspects of it that aren’t as tidy and neat as others, and we shouldn’t celebrate it.”
The Sham Battle gained widespread attention this year after a column and video from The Salt Lake Tribune’s Robert Gehrke. His footage shows Cache Valley residents in headdresses and face paint whooping and hollering while circling pioneer wagons. The event has been going on since at least 1931. Thousands attended this year’s portrayal on Sept. 4.
Bailey has said the mock fight represents the emergency drills that early residents conducted to protect themselves against possible raids. The narration at the event said “even with the capture of their own children, the settlers stayed. They were determined to make this their home.” There were no violent skirmishes perpetrated by the Shoshone people, though.
It also mentions the January 1863 “Battle of Bear River” (now classified by historians as a massacre), though Bailey said the city’s event is not actually related to the killing of an estimated 250 Shoshones by U.S. Army volunteers near Preston, Idaho. That massacre — which included beatings of children and the rape of women — is considered one of the deadliest in American history.
The recorded narration will be updated so it’s more “historically accurate,” said Dustin Coleman, a Wellsville resident and committee member. “We want people to learn as much as they can about the way things really happened.”
Coleman, 34, led the cavalry for the pioneer side in this year’s parade and usually waves the American flag. When he was a teenager growing up in Wellsville, he was on the other side, playing like he was an American Indian.
“We absolutely do not want to mock or degrade or show disrespect in any manner toward Native Americans,” he said. “That’s never been the intent, and we want to avoid that as much as we can in the future. … No matter what you do you’re going to offend somebody these days somehow. We want to offend the least we can and enjoy our city’s traditions.”
Members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation plan to set up some teepees at future Founders’ Day events and have food, song and dance to represent their actual culture and traditions, Parry said. The committee also asked the chairman to ride in on a horse wearing a headdress.
“That’s probably not going to happen,” he said.
A divide remains, though. Many residents cherished the event and took pride in wearing the red paint. During a Sept. 21 council meeting, several said they didn’t plan to stop. One woman told Parry his name “wasn’t Indian enough.” And a man called the dress-up “just good entertainment.”
“I still think there’s a small group in that community that has always done it, participated and still doesn’t see anything wrong with that,” Parry said. “I think they’re going to try to educate them as much as possible.”
The mayor intends for the committee to present more ideas to the city council in the next two or three months. A vote, he said, would come at that time.