After friendly negotiations with tribal members last week, Wellsville leaders have vowed to revise the town’s annual “Founders’ Day” tradition in which white residents slather themselves in red paint and pretend to attack Mormon settlers.
At the request of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, the so-called “Sham Battle” will be updated “with the changes necessary” so it “depicts historical accuracy and may tell a story rich in heritage and culture,” the city wrote in a letter to residents posted Sunday.
While it’s unclear what those specific changes might be — or whether residents will continue to dress up as American Indians while whooping and hollering on horseback — Wellsville officials “agree our depiction of the Native Americans portrayed in the annual Founder’s Day Sham Battle does not convey the relationship the pioneers had, or the respect we have today, for our Native American neighbors.”
“Wellsville city meant no disrespect. We apologize if we’ve offended anyone.”
Though it was “short on details,” tribal Chairman Darren Parry called the city’s statement a “wonderful first start.” He is confident future iterations of the event will not include Native American role-playing or face paint.
“They’re good people, and they’re trying to do the right thing,” he said. “They can call it whatever they want, but the natives will be out of it.”
City officials sat down with six members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation last week 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 with a teepee nearby and a fake cabin on fire. The enactment, part of the town’s annual parade, has been going on since at least 1930. Thousands attended this year’s portrayal on Sept. 4.
Wellsville Mayor Thomas 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), 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.
“If the Sham Battle continues, there will be no mention of the Massacre of Bear River in the narration. Period,” the mayor said Monday.
Additionally, he added, “the way I see it right now there will probably not be people in red paint.”
The City Council will discuss possible changes to the event Wednesday at 6 p.m. Bailey, who had hoped for “compromise so that at least some form of the Sham Battle could continue,” has proposed creating a committee of residents and tribal members that would review the enactment and suggest changes that balance tradition with cultural sensitivity.
Parry envisions having the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation set up a booth or perform native dances at the parade to showcase the tribe’s actual traditions.
“As long as our perspective is heard that would be great,” he said, but as for the mock fight: “Just keep us out of it or you’re making history fake.”
During this year’s portrayal, Dustin Coleman, 34, led the cavalry for the pioneer side and usually waves the American flag. When he was a teenager growing up in Wellsville, he was on the other side, putting on war paint and playing like he was an American Indian.
Having participated in the Sham Battle for at least 20 years, Coleman is not against making “positive changes” to the event, but he resents being labeled a “racist, ignorant hillbilly.”
“We’re not trying to be racist in any way,” he said. “We’re loving people. We’ll do whatever we need to do to make adjustments. … But it will not stop our event completely.”
Coleman, who moved to Wellsville when he was 4, calls the mock battles “our heritage.” And he acknowledges that while there were small skirmishes between the settlers and the tribes, there were no real fights or violent raids in Cache Valley.
That’s a large part of what bothers Parry about the event. “We were peaceful,” he said of his ancestors.
Before Wednesday’s council meeting, there will be a rally in front of City Hall, 75 E. Main, starting at 5 p.m. organized by Robert Lucero, director of the Ute Indian Tribe Political Action Committee.
Lucero has said there is no excuse to “disregard” Native Americans or portray individuals in a racially or culturally “insensitive” way.
Coleman, though, is “disappointed in the fact that they feel like they need to come protest. That isn’t an avenue we think they should take. We’re down to earth people and we’re willing to make adjustments. We haven’t put up walls.”