Gehrke: Outcome of Wellsville Sham Battle controversy will mean a more complete rendition of history

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

For years, Darren Parry has visited community groups around northern Utah to tell the story of his ancestors who lived in the Cache Valley, including his great-great-great grandfather, Chief Sagwitch, a revered leader of the Northwest Band of the Shoshone Indians.

Sagwitch was one of hundreds wounded or killed at the Bear River Massacre. He dove into an icy river to escape with his life. Ten years later, he and 100 of his followers converted to Mormonism, served as missionaries and helped build the Logan temple.

It is a rich part of northern Utah’s history, and one that was almost entirely obliterated in Wellsville’s wildly inaccurate and culturally insensitive cowboys-and-Indians re-enactment where white residents paint their bodies red, put on war paint, and whoop and fire guns, attacking the humble settlers before being driven off by the cavalry troops.

“It’s racially insensitive and not historically correct at all, so I don’t see how it can go forward from here,” said Parry, who is now chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone.

Hopefully, that is about to change.

I’d heard about this so-called “Sham Battle” a few years ago from a few friends who live in the town, and their descriptions, which sounded beyond belief, probably didn’t do justice to the distasteful scene.

After I called for an end to the tone-deaf dress-up escapade, the initial, understandable reaction was for people to hunker down. One city councilwoman blamed me for misrepresenting the distasteful tradition. Others wanted the bleeding hearts from the big city to back off. Some lashed out.

“Your a stupid human that knows nothing about Wellsville and what we have been threw. … Ive lived here for fifty years and the Sham Battle is true to our traditions,” one Wellsville resident e-mailed, with some spelling challenges. “You look like a kid from high school that everyone made fun of so your looking to put down my town!”

Maybe she’s right.

But it was about more than that. It was about treating fellow human beings with dignity and respect, about teaching the children of Wellsville the full history of their town, and about coming to terms with the distasteful and complicated settlement of our state.

I’ve always believed the residents of Wellsville are, by and large, good people who, when they took a deep breath and looked at the offensive tradition objectively, would try to make the right decision.

“Wellsville City officials met with tribal members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation and agree our depiction of the Native Americans portrayed in the annual Founders’ Day Sham Battle does not convey the relationship the pioneers had or the respect we have today for our Native American neighbors,” councilwoman Kaylene Ames wrote on behalf of the council.

Parry said it’s a positive sign, but he still plans to attend a rally on Wednesday before the City Council meets to discuss the issue, and he plans to speak in opposition to the Sham Battle, as it has been conducted over the years.

“I’m definitely not one for saying that things have to be politically correct, but I’m not for saying things that are not historically accurate,” he said.

Parry has also offered to make the Shoshone part of the Founders’ Day festivities, bringing native songs and dances and the culture of the people who called the Cache Valley home for centuries.

Hopefully Wellsville officials see the wisdom in a more accurate, complete telling of the settlement of their home, and next year I can return to Wellsville for a celebration that features real Shoshone Indians, not just a bunch of white people in red paint who by now should know better.