Wellsville • Darren Parry momentarily looked up from the white sheets of paper with his prepared remarks and put his mouth close to the microphone: “Please don’t display us as savages,” he said.
“We are not.”
One member of the City Council stared back at the chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation and apologized. Councilman Carl Leatham acknowledged that for 18 years, when he was a kid in this small northern town, he had painted his face red and pretended to be an American Indian attacking Mormon settlers during the annual Founders’ Day festivities.
It’s a deeply held tradition known as the “Sham Battle” that has recently roiled rural Wellsville, where American flags wave from almost every porch, horses strut in open pastures and tractors sit in dirt driveways. There’s hardly a stoplight here and many folks share the same last names — Maughan, Riggs, Gunnell and Thomson — that are etched into a large monument dedicated to the founders of the city’s “first white settlement” in 1856.
A few of the roughly 50 attendees at Wednesday’s town hall meeting defended the event and scoffed at being called racists. Others demanded it be put to an end. Still, some acknowledged that it looks bad and could stand to be revised.
“I never, never meant any offense,” Leatham said, choking up. “I’m sorry. But we will move forward and we’ll do what we can.”
His promise echoed the intentions of Wellsville leadership. They voted unanimously to form a committee of residents — composed heavily of former and current participants in the Sham Battle — to examine the tradition and discuss possible changes with tribal members. It’s a resolution that Parry approves of as long as Native American role-playing and red paint are left out of the event.
He has proposed 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 you celebrate your Founders’ Day and what that means to you, my people get to mourn for the loss our native lands and the way of life that our people have known of hundreds of years,” Parry added.
A divide remains in the community.
One woman told Parry his name “wasn’t Indian enough.” A man said he “takes pride” in wearing the red paint and doesn’t plan to stop. Another resident called the dress-up “just good entertainment.”
“If you change it too much, it would ruin the whole celebration,” said 22-year-old Jayden Maughan with a drawl and a declaration that he’s “always an Indian” in the mock fight.
The Sham Battle gained widespread attention after a column and video from The Salt Lake Tribune’s Robert Gehrke. His footage shows Cache Valley residents in head dresses, whooping and hollering on horseback while circling pioneer wagons with a teepee nearby and a fake cabin on fire. The enactment has been going on since at least 1931. 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.
“The Sham Battle has never, ever been about the Bear River Massacre. It’s never been portrayed that way, and if it has, people have taken it wrong,” said Councilman Perry Maughan. He put his hand up as Parry tried to speak out against that response.
“I never in my wildest dream thought of it that way,” Maughan added to cheers from the audience. The councilman has participated in the Sham Battle on the pioneer side because he’s afraid of riding horses. Ed Christensen, a Wellsville resident, called Maughan his “mentor” in preparing for the affair.
“I was the best Indian there ever was,” Christensen said. When he was younger, he noted, he would put shoe polish on his face to dress up for his part. “We’re poor. We don’t have costumes.”
Several residents, too, protested from the back of the room after a Shoshone woman was allowed to speak (though she wasn’t on the agenda) and they were denied. “So it’s not open to discussion?” they yelled. “We can’t have any comments at all?”
The mayor, who hand-picked the committee, responded: “This is the beginning of a process. This isn’t the end of anything.”
Earlier this week, he said, “If the Sham Battle continues, there will be no mention of the Massacre of Bear River in the narration” and there also “will probably not be people in red paint.” Bailey, too, stood outside before the council meeting and watched as a group peacefully rallied against the tradition.
Braidan Weeks, 29, grew up in Nibley, which sits across from Wellsville with a highway in between, and said the annual event “surprisingly passed under his radar.” Weeks’ mom is a descendant of pioneers and his dad is a member of the Ute Indian Tribe.
“Both sides of this issue are things I identify with,” he said. “My community is not racist. My community is not bigoted.”
A few “Wellsvillians,” as they endearingly call themselves, professed that same belief. Their intentions, many said, were good-natured. Their actions, though, should have been more carefully thought out, said resident Loralee Choate.
“You don’t have to have a cross burning on a lawn [to be racist],” she said. “You don’t have to have a colored bathroom.”
Several in the rally wore “Shoshone Nation” shirts and traditional beaded necklaces. A Hopi and Chemehuevi man carried a staff that he made with an eagle head and feathers fixed to the top with red, white, yellow and black ribbons to symbolize all races.
In the end, as the group spoke on Main Street with a silhouette of mountains behind it, Parry added: “I hope this isn’t us versus them.”