Wellsville leaders and members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation met for an amicable hour and a half Tuesday after rising tensions over the city’s “Founders’ Day” tradition in which white residents paint themselves red and pretend to attack Mormon settlers.
The discussion, though, didn’t lead to any immediate action to end the annual affair known as the “Sham Battle.”
“At the end of the day, I told [city officials] I would give them the opportunity to do whatever they felt was best,” said Darren Parry, tribal chairman, who last week commented that the event “needs to go away.”
Six members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, including their health director, cultural resource manager and two council members, “shared ideas” about how to address the tradition. Parry declined to comment on what those specific suggestions were.
Wellsville Mayor Thomas Bailey, too, said there were “options” on the table that he intended to discuss next week with the City Council; he also would not disclose the potential remedies. On Friday, Bailey had hoped for “compromise, so that at least some form of the Sham Battle could continue.”
Despite the behind-closed-doors resolve to work toward some sort of solution, both sides reported that the conversation was worthwhile, open and honest.
“It was a meeting of friends that have different histories. But my gosh, we all need to learn from each other,” Parry said. He later added that he “just wanted them to do the right thing” and would comment more after an anticipated Sept. 20 announcement.
The leaders mutually decided to sit down together after the Sham Battle gained widespread attention with a column and video from The Salt Lake Tribune’s Robert Gehrke.
The footage shows Cache Valley residents in head dresses circling pioneer wagons, whooping and hollering on horseback, with a teepee nearby and a fake cabin on fire. The enactment, part of the town’s Founders’ Day Parade, has been going on since at least 1930. Thousands attended this year’s portrayal on Sept. 4.
Bailey has said the mock fight represents the emergency drills that early settlers conducted to protect themselves against possible raids. The narration at the event says “even with the capture of their own children, the settlers stayed. They were determined to make this their home.”
It also mentions the January 1863 “Battle of Bear River” (now classified by historians as a massacre), but the mayor 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.
No matter what the Wellsville City Council decides to do with the Founders Day event, the Ute Indian Tribe Political Action Committee will host a rally on Sept. 20. PAC Director Robert Lucero believes it’s important to defend “Indian dignity on this.”
“There are people I talk to that are upset every year,” he said.
Lucero said there is no excuse to “disregard” Native Americans or portray individuals in a racially or culturally “insensitive” way. The event, too, he added, is not historically accurate: “The Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation was not aggressive toward the settlers in the Cache Valley.”
“The red-face issue, just like black face, is another issue there,” he said.
City Manager Scott Wells said leaders will continue to weigh “if there’s any decisions to be made” about the Sham Battle. Councilwoman Kaylene Ames, who sat in on Tuesday’s meeting and oversees preparations for Founders’ Day, suggested there is “not a clear path” forward yet.
Wellsville officials apologized, she said, for “it being an inaccurate story from the very beginning in The Salt Lake Tribune” with Gehrke’s column.
“No one in Wellsville is racist, so it’s not about racists,” she explained. “There are a lot of people involved in the reenactment. I am not certain that the people who are reenacting are giving that conscious thought of being racist.”