Brenda Beyal and Heather Sundahl: Reclaiming the Bear River narrative

It took a long time for the truth to be told about the 1863 massacre of Shoshone men, women and children.

As part of our work with Brigham Young University’s ARTS Partnership, which helps bring the arts into K-12 classrooms across the state, we began the Native American Curriculum Initiative. Our goal is to integrate more indigenous content into our schools by working with Utah’s eight tribes.

In 2018, we asked Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, cultural specialist for the Northwestern Tribe of the Shoshone Nation, a simple question that would model our guiding principle to honor the Native voice: “What would you like children in Utah to know about your tribe?”

Her reply? “Tell them the truth about Bear River.”

Madsen is of course referring to the events of Jan. 29, 1863, when the deadliest massacre of Native Americans in modern history took place in Utah Territory, killing between 270 and 400 Shoshone men, women and children. There are many scholarly accounts that have sifted through contemporary historic documents and paint a clear picture of not only the events of that day, but of the tensions that lead up to it, most notably from Darren Parry, the great great grandson of Chief Sagwitch who escaped that day.

The basic facts are as follows:

Several bands of the Shoshone tribe have lived in Cache Valley for hundreds of years. When pioneers arrived, they brought with them cattle, homesteads, fences and beliefs about ownership of the Valley. The Shonones, pushed off their ancestral homelands and hunting grounds, began to starve. They did what was necessary to feed their families. Sometimes livestock were taken and wagons were raided.

In addition to tensions with Mormon settlers, the Shoshone wintered in the Bear River Valley which was becoming the crossroads for westward expansion. Travelers on their way to California and Oregon saw the Shoshone as a dangerous obstacle, and several skirmishes escalated the distrust between these two people.

On Jan. 29, 1863, Col. P.E. Connor led a detachment of California Volunteers as part of the Bear River Expedition. The Deseret News reported at that time, “With ordinary good luck, the volunteers will wipe them out. ... We wish this community rid of all such parties, and if Colonel Connor can be successful in reaching that bastard class of humans, who play with the lives of the peaceable and the law-abiding citizens in this way, we shall be pleased to acknowledge our obligations.”

Because the victors tell the narrative, for 100-plus years this event was referred to as “The Battle of Bear River.” In 1932 locals led by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers erected a monument to celebrate victory over the Indians and acknowledge the roughly 21 soldiers who died. The DUP added a plaque in 1953 that talks of an “Attack by the Indians on the peaceful inhabitants of this vicinity” and commemorates the support the wounded soldiers received from Pioneer women.

But narratives can be reclaimed. Mae Timbimboo Parry, great-granddaughter of Sagwitch, grandmother to Darren Parry and aunt to Patty Timbimboo Madsen, set out to do just that. She was 13 when she attended the unveiling of the Battle Monument. One can imagine her shock and confusion when she read the plaque describing the one-sided slaughter as a noble battle.

Mae got a degree in English and returned home, committed to being a storyteller of the lived experiences of her people. Her methodical research, fierce determination and commitment to the truth allowed her to amass enough documentation to convince the National Park Service of the terrible misnomer and the “battle” over what to call the Bear River Massacre was put to rest.

Monuments stand as witness, sentinels and standard-bearers, watching over and compelling us to remember. This Jan. 29, 89 years after the first monument was built and 158 years after the original event, the DUP will replace the old plaque with a new, more accurate one that acknowledges the documented truth.

The Shoshone tribe is buying back the land that will help them tell the story. They are building a new memorial that will testify one brick, one memory, one truth at a time, of what they suffered and how they endure.

Brenda Beyal

Brenda Beyal, a Navajo/Diné, leads the Native American Curriculum Initiative for BYU ARTS Partnership. In 2016, Brenda was honored by the Utah Education Network as an American Graduate Champion.

Heather Sundahl

Heather Sundahl is a freelance writer and editor for the Native American Curriculum for the BYU ARTS Partnership, the Utah Women & Leadership Project and Mormon Women for Ethical Government.