‘It’s almost like you’re walking into the earth’: Shoshone tribe, Utah architects design an interpretive center for the site of the Bear River Massacre

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "We've forgiven over the years, but we're never going to forget," said Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, Tuesday, May 8, 2018, of the tribe's plan to build the Boa Ogoi Cultural & Interpretive Center to educate and enlighten the public about the history of the Northwestern Shoshone Band, their life ways, enduring spirit and the 1863 Bear River Massacre, the single largest mass killing of Native Americans in United States history.

When you stand on the trail and look out over the grassy valley, you’ll see 500 weathered stone pillars scattered over the landscape. Some of the boulders will stand alone by the creek. Others will be planted together under willow trees.

All will serve as gravestones for people who never got one.

The grim markers, part of the early plans for a memorial to be built at the site of the Bear River Massacre, demand that you stand above the area of carnage and see the full scope of the atrocities that happened there. It’s meant to be a commemoration as much as a confrontation, unlike anything the country has ever seen to memorialize the killings of American Indians.

“We’ve forgiven over the years, but we’re never going to forget,” said Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation.

The tribe paid $1.8 million in January to finalize a monthslong deal to acquire the land, roughly 550 acres near Preston, Idaho, where its ancestors died in the 1863 massacre. Now that it owns the parcels, the band intends to tell the history of the place from its perspective.

Parry has worked with GSBS Architects, a Salt Lake City firm, to develop renderings for an interpretive center and trail system at the site. As visitors drive to the memorial on Highway 191, the first thing they’ll see is a row of teepees, recreating a Shoshone campsite. There will also be an outdoor amphitheater and a 6,000-square-foot exhibit building tucked into the hillside with large windows and wood beams to blend in with the natural terrain.

“The hills come above you, and it’s almost like you’re walking into the earth,” said Baylee Lambourne, one of the lead architects.

The firm had pulled together three or four different designs, but the tribe’s leaders quickly and unanimously agreed on the one titled “Reverence.” They hope it brings peace to a landscape that’s still filled, for many, with hurt. They hope it serves as a reckoning for past racism.

The 500 boulders in particular, Parry said, should be hard to look at and haunting to remember. That’s the point. It’s the site of one of the deadliest massacres of American Indians in U.S. history and, he fears, “nobody knows about it.”

“People will forget facts and figures about history, but they will never forget how they felt when they heard the story.”

About 250 volunteer soldiers from Utah’s Fort Douglas raided the tribe’s winter camp at dawn on Jan. 29, 1863. They attacked with the intent of punishing the band for interfering with mining supply wagons and killed hundreds of Shoshones — estimates range from 250 to 500. The militia, too, beat children and raped women.

An outdated monument currently at the site, though, erected by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers in 1932, mostly expresses sympathy for the 14 U.S. Army volunteers who died. It calls the band “combatant” and “guilty of hostile attacks.”

“Monuments are a scary thing because it’s like carefully placing a small window,” Parry said. “You can look out that window and see a landscape, but it only lets you see what they want you to see. It’s not the whole landscape. … We just want to tell people what we think happened.”

The blueprints for the interpretive center were done largely pro bono, but building it will cost about $5 million. Parry’s goal is to collect the money over the next year (donation forms can be found at www.boaogoi.com).

As part of the plans, Shoshone leaders also intend to restore the landscape to what it would have looked like in 1863 through a partnership with Utah State University, which has done extensive field work in the area. That will require digging out thick patches of nonnative Russian olive trees and reintroducing more willows.

The Bear River that once ran through the area has shifted since then with nearby dams and is no longer on the land where the massacre occurred. In its place, the memorial design plots a curvy stream of trees to replicate the flow. David Garce, a landscape architect working on the project and a member of the Catawba Indian Nation rooted in South Carolina, said it’s symbolic of growth.

The tribe plans to name the center Boa Ogoi, which is Shoshone for “Big River.” It will honor the dead while celebrating the descendants that live today.

Parry said it’s a model his late grandmother, Mae Timbimboo Parry, would have been proud of. She lobbied for decades to secure the massacre site for the tribe and was the granddaughter of Chief Sagwitch, who fled the Army’s attack 155 years ago and later led survivors to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

She used to tell Parry: “Everyone has a story worthy of being told.” He has kept that in mind throughout the interpretive center design — and it’s why he wants to represent the tribe’s narrative in stone.

That way, it’s immense and unavoidable and immovable.