Artists from a Ute tribe break their silence on a century-old tragedy

An exhibition at The Leonardo is part of the ‘healing process’ over the mass imprisonment of Ute Mountain Ute residents in 1923.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A ribbon skirt and beaded vest titled ÒHealed circleÓ made by Lakesia Lopez sits on display during the opening event for the 100 Years of Silence Project at the Leonardo Museum in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

After more than a century of silence, seven artists and members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe are working to illuminate a part of the community’s past that hasn’t been talked about — when white settlers imprisoned Ute people for six weeks in a barbed-wire stockade in Blanding.

Talking about what happened in 1923 is part of what Malcolm Lehi, who represents the White Mesa community on the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s tribal council, called “a healing process for the people — healing our community, our ancestors, our grandparents.”

That healing process is at the heart of “100 Years of Silence,” a project involving artists and members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and centering on the community in White Mesa in San Juan County. Organizers have mounted an art exhibition, which opened last month at The Leonardo, 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City, and is expected to run through May.

The project has been in the works since March 2021, said Shaun Ketchum Jr., the project’s director. The project, he told The Salt Lake Tribune, “is the story of the historical essence of the rich tapestry of the Ute people that reside here presently in White Mesa, Utah.”

Ketchum is half Navajo and half Ute (Paiute and Ute Mountain), and a direct descendant of William Posey, the Paiute elder who took a group of followers on the run in March 1923, pursued by a posse and a marshal.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A digital drawing on canvas, "Healing Within the 'Corral'" by Lauana Morris stands on display during the opening event for the "100 Years of Silence" exhibition at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

That event, which some historians call the last confrontation between Indigenous people and white settlers in the Old West, is referred to as the “Posey War” — though some consider that name offensive, as the project’s historian put it, because it says “almost nothing of the unbearable losses that befell an entire people.”

At the exhibition’s opening on March 23, hosted by the White Mesa community and led by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ketchum said, “Today, we will be changing the term ‘Posey War,’ the last Indian battle, to something in healing.”

To start the project — which was hosted by the nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah and The Leonardo, and funded by the Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project — Ketchum said he held several meetings in White Mesa, with elders and members of the wider community, to hear stories passed down from generation to generation. It was important, he said, to earn the community’s trust in telling the story a century later.

“What really connected me — to want to be part of this project — is to be able to hear the elders, ancestors and members of [the] community, to tell the story from their view, to understand their stories,” Ketchum said.

“There’s not many elders left home on the White Mesa community, which made it difficult to get history and facts from their point of view over the 100 years of silence and Posey War,” he said.

Hearing those stories, Ketchum said, was a step towards understanding the “trauma, silence and healing” of his people — Ute people from Allen Canyon.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A mixed-media piece, "Into Harmony" by Toni Pelt, stands on display during the opening event for the "100 Years of Silence" exhibition at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

What happened in the ‘war’

The “Posey War” started, according to a timeline on the project’s website, when “Joe Bishop’s boy and Shanup’s boy, Ute men in their early twenties, drove a Mexican herder from his camp, ate at the camp, and fled with some provisions.”

A history sheet handed out at the exhibition’s opening, compiled by the project’s historian Jedediah Rogers, pointed out that there had been many struggles among the Ute bands, Colorado ranchers and Mormon settlers in southeastern Utah, often about overgrazing and searching for food.

The Mexican herder reported what happened to the sheriff in Blanding, William Oliver, and an arrest warrant was issued. The young men turned themselves in, were tried in local court and found guilty of raiding the camp.

On March 20, 1923, the young men got in a fight with Oliver outside the school where the trial took place. Oliver, the history sheet said, “attempted to shoot one of the convicted Utes.” A group of Utes, led by Posey, fled — but not before one of the young Utes “grabbed the sherrif’s gun and returned fire, wounding the sheriff’s horse.”

The lead headline on the front page of The Salt Lake Tribune on March 21 read “Piute Indians Again on War Path; Attack Southern Utah Community.” The story described “thirty-six hours of a terrorism,” in which “Blanding has been virtually beleaguered” from “constant sniping skirmishes — redolent of the days of the pioneers.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shaun Ketchum, the project director for the "100 Years of Silence" exhibition, speaks at the exhibition's opening event at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

The news coverage was “hysterical, World-War-I-era yellow journalism,” Robert S. McPherson, emeritus professor of history at Utah State University, wrote in a 2016 article for the Utah Division of State History.

McPherson wrote that The Tribune’s reporter, C.F. Sloane, “stayed in Blanding and fired off press releases with a thin veneer of truth covering a mass of outright lies.” The locals in Blanding kidded the reporters, McPherson wrote, over their exaggerations.

Oliver, Rogers wrote in the history sheet, “formed a posse to pursue the group of Utes,” and he and “other Blanding residents made the decision to imprison all members of the Allen Canyon Utes so they would offer no form of resistance.”

The Ute residents of Allen Canyon were held for six weeks in a stockade, said Rogers.

“The women and children found themselves prisoners on their own land,” Rogers said at the opening. “Residents of Blanding, Utah, rounded up members of the band in the nearby village of West Water and the surrounding areas. A posse of some 50 men overtook and detained those youths who fled, seeking refuge. … Two youths were killed in the fight. Everyone else was placed in a barbed wire stockade the size of a town block.”

The imprisoned Utes received meager rations, which “were sometimes thrown to them by residents outside the compound, as one might throw a bone to a dog,” Rogers said.

Forrest Cuch, the former director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, who attended the opening, pointed to a historic photo of people in the stockade and said the imprisoned Utes were “suffering like the Jewish people in concentration camps in Germany.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Forrest Cuch, former director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, speaks during the opening event for the "100 Years of Silence" exhibition at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

Rogers said “nearly the entire band remained in the corral for six weeks — except for the children, painfully shipped to Towaoc, Colorado, to a different kind of imprisonment: boarding school.”

Meanwhile, the posse pursued Posey and those who went with him. On Comb Ridge, according to Rogers’ history gathering, a member of the sheriff’s posse “shot and killed one of the Ute men who stood trial.”

Posey, Rogers wrote, was likely wounded and separated from the larger group, which surrendered and joined their fellow Utes in the Blanding stockade.

Oliver and his posse utilized modern technology in their pursuit, such as a Ford Model T. McPherson quoted a March 22, 1923, article in Moab’s newspaper, The Times-Independent — with the scary headline “Piute Band Declares War on Whites in Blanding” — that said county commissioners had sent a request to Charles Mabey, Utah’s governor at the time, for “a scout plane armed with machine guns and bombs.”

The Durango Herald wrote in a 2023 article that the pursuit spilled over into what is now Bears Ears National Monument.

It was reported that Posey died in an alcove near Mule Canyon. According to Rogers’ history sheet, “Ute oral history indicates that he died not from a gunshot wound, but from poison laced in flour settlers permitted to be taken to Posey by members of his band.”

Rogers also wrote that “members of the posse and federal officials” dug up Posey’s body and “posed for pictures with it” several times, years after his death.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lakesia Lopez, a enrolled member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, speaks about her ribbon skirt and beaded vest, titled "Healed Circle," during the opening event for the "100 Years of Silence" exhibition at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

The Ute residents were released from the stockade on April 29, 1923. Some residents were given land allotments in Allen, Cottonwood and Hammond Canyons, Rogers wrote in the history sheet.

By then, Rogers said, “So much changed for the Utes.” Two Indigenous men had died; no white people were killed. The lasting legacy of what happened to the Ute Mountain Ute community of Allen Canyon has never been relayed.

“The deepness of the sorrow, grief and trauma that the people experienced at that time has hardened and stayed with us to this day,” Cuch, the former Utah Division of Indian Affairs director, said. “[It] stays with us because the hurt has been ignored and swept under the rug. Consequently, we have not healed.”

Rogers said that, “as with most historical events, what happened in 1923 is quite complex. We have no simple answers. There are lots of different versions. Some of these contradict each other. History is often messy in that way, but with careful attention to all the historical evidence, and especially from stories from the youth elders, we can arrive closer to the truth.”

The exhibition, Rogers said, “signifies a commitment not to forget. It’s a reminder that the stories we tell about the past animate the present. … Telling the history from the perspective of the youths, based on oral tradition passed down generations, will not only allow for a higher degree of historical accuracy, but it will do more to raise awareness, to feel, to acknowledge.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aldean Ketchum speaks about the flute he is holding, which he carved, during the opening event for the "100 Years of Silence" exhibition at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

Art as a way to heal

The seven artists whose work is featured in the “100 Years of Silence” exhibition at The Leonardo range from 20 to 60 years old, Ketchum said, and a variety of media.

“These artists know the history of Allen Canyon, of the ‘Posey War,’” Ketchum said. “They always made sure that [when] our ancestors and the elders told us stories — to listen, pay attention to those stories, because one day we’re not going to be here to tell you.”

Lauana Morris’ digital drawing on canvas, “Healing within the ‘Corral’,” depicts those left in the stockade — but also a portrait of a Bear Dance, a spring ceremonial event traditional in Ute tribes, happening within a corral.

“As we go into the corral, we dance for those that are no longer here with us,” Morris said at the opening. “As we dance, we heal our mind, body and spirit. … I put the two together because our ancestors were never able to talk about the past, … [or] let us dance for those that were never able to dance, that were never able to heal from the traumas that they went through.”

Toni Pelt, in her mixed-media work “Into Harmony,” said her goal “was to create something different. … The collage of Ute people, young and old, they’re embracing the circle of life. Each piece is created as detailed regalia. … I captured the sunset over the Bears Ears, because from my view in White Mesa, that’s what I see every evening. … I also wanted to capture this moment in time, that this day may be over, but we’re not forgotten and we’re still here.”

The hummingbirds flying in the sky in her work, Pelt said, represent healing, while “the bear represents a significant meaning of protector, strength, power, healing and listening to the Ute people.”

Pelt continued: “You’ll notice that lady has the white horse, and it’s about a story my mother had told me when she was growing up in Allen Canyon. They had no vehicles at the time, and it was a horse she rode in and out of Blanding. She would ride her horse daily.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A traditional Ute flute made from cedar by Aldean Ketchum, aka Lightning Hawk, sits on display during the opening event for the "100 Years of Silence" exhibition at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

Lakesia Lopez, who is Pelt’s daughter, has a background in beadwork and sewing that she learned from Pelt and from her grandmother. She applied those skills to her piece, “Healed Circle.”

“I wanted to focus more on the healing side of what happened 100 years ago with the beaded vest and the ribbon skirt,” Lopez said. “I wanted to incorporate one of the cultural ceremonies that the Ute people do — the Bear Dance.”

Lopez said she included images of a bear in the vest’s beadwork and embroidery, because the Ute people consider the bear a protector — and it references the Bear Dance corral and Bears Ears National Monument.

Lopez said she changed up the design for the ribbon skirt, to include multiple colors to represent “the different emotions that we go through as individuals and people.” She chose yellow as the base color, because to her it represents happiness, she said, adding “I thought that it would be a perfect fit for healing.”

Also in the exhibition: Ute flute music from a cedar flute carved by Aldean Ketchum; pen and ink drawings by Roland Cantsee; a buckskin beaded dress and moccasins by Sheila Denetsosie; and traditional male and female infant cradleboards by Shirley Denetsosie.

Speaking at the exhibition’s opening, Alston Turtle, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s tribal council, praised the project. “It’s time for us to no longer be silent and put our stories out there and give that history lesson in the most accurate way possible,” he said.

Juanita PlentyHoles, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Tiwahe Program director, said many Indigenous people carry intergenerational trauma within them because of events like what happened in 1923.

“Today, many of our tribes or communities are still healing from that, individually and as a whole,” she said. “Psychologically speaking, the first thing is recognizing [and] understanding that that [trauma] really happened.”

Dustin Jansen, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, said “I’m so glad that this knowledge [and] history is coming out, because we can learn from this. We can learn to empathize with each other about what happened and how not to do it again.”

Lopez, the beadwork artist, said she thinks the exhibition is “not only a win for the community of White Mesa, it is a win for Indian Country. … When one tribe wins, we all win.”