Fate of Utah event with redface Native American portrayal handed to committee

Friday , September 22, 2017 - 5:45 PM

MARK SAAL, Standard-Examiner Staff

WELLSVILLE — It may not be what either side wanted, but it’s precisely what you get when everybody’s talking about the importance of compromise.

On Wednesday evening, the Wellsville City Council voted to create a special committee to examine the community’s controversial Founder’s Day “Sham Battle” — a mock cowboys-and-indians fight that includes white re-enactors painting their faces red to portray Native Americans warring against Mormon pioneers and U.S. soldiers. That committee will be made up of City Council representatives, as well as residents of the community.

After the meeting, Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, said he was disappointed in the council’s decision but believes it will eventually do the right thing.

Parry, who lives in Farr West, said he was a bit surprised with the mayor’s suggestion to form a committee, since no one had mentioned that idea in conversations between the tribe and city officials over the last couple of weeks. Parry was hoping the council would have simply voted on Wednesday to eliminate a re-enactment he calls an unfair and inaccurate portrayal of Native Americans and their relationship with white settlers. 

“It was a little bit of a disappointment to me that they didn’t just say, ‘Let’s get rid of the Sham Battle,’” Parry said. “It’s like the government saying, ‘Wink, wink, trust us, we’ll do the right thing.’ And we’ve heard that before.”

Robert Lucero, a Cache Valley resident and executive director of the Ute Indian Tribe Political Action Committee, said at least there’s a healthy dialogue on the subject. But he too was disappointed.

“It seems like the sentiment toward (the Sham Battle) was too strong to get rid of it tonight,” Lucero said.

Parry has been invited to be a member of the new committee, although he says he won’t be attending its first meeting.

“I think at that first meeting they need to be able to speak freely, without worrying about offending me,” Parry said.

Inside a standing-room-only council chambers on Wednesday, Parry addressed city officials, telling them the “outside world” has gotten an inaccurate picture of their small community.

“I don’t believe that you good people of Wellsville are racist,” he said, reading from a prepared statement. “I believe you have a strong sense of family and community. You love this land just as much as we do. Your traditions are important to you, as they are to us.”

Native Americans are calling on the city to eliminate the Sham Battle, and Lucero admits he’s been “a bit startled” at the inability of some in the community to see what’s wrong with the event. 

“You have to be careful with this cowboys and Indians junk,” he said. “Look at it this way: Redface is blackface.”

Parry says he was heartened by a statement Wellsville City released earlier this week, addressed to “Dear Citizens.” The statement said the city was working to review and make changes to portray an accurate representation between Mormon pioneers and the Shoshone people.

The statement said council members “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.”

The city also said it meant no disrespect to the Shoshone and that, “We apologize if we’ve offended anyone.”

At Wednesday night’s meeting, one council member, Carl Leatham, apologized to Shoshone leaders for his participation in the re-enactment in past years.

“That meant a lot to me,” Parry said of the apology. “He said for 18 years he played a native.”

Although tongues remained civil at the council meeting, Leatham admitted the last couple of weeks have been rough.

“You can’t believe all the hate mail I’ve received — ‘You’re a racist!’ ‘You’re less than human!’ ‘What’s the matter with you people?’ ” he said.

The Sham Battle has taken place nearly every year at Wellsville’s Labor Day community celebration since the 1930. Still, many people — even those living in Cache Valley — had never heard of it until this year, when a Salt Lake Tribune columnist brought it to readers’ attention.

But for others, it’s been a bone of contention for decades.

Loralee Choate, a 25-year resident of Wellsville, learned about the event just a couple of years after she moved to the town.

“I have hated this event for 23 of the 25 years I’ve lived here,” she said. “There’s a lot of things to be proud of here in Wellsville, but this is not one of them.”

The problem, according to Choate, is the Sham Battle doesn’t tell the real story.

“It’s a point of pride that we were the first settlement in Cache Valley,” she said. “But what’s not mentioned is that we settled on someone else’s land.”

Resident Colleen O’Neill spoke up during the citizen input portion of the council meeting, urging council members to listen to the Shoshone critique of the event.

“I find the Sham Battle offensive,” she said. “It’s disrespectful of people, and it’s time we end it.”

Outside the city offices, Wellsville residents Ed Christensen and brothers Eric Brenchley and Jerrimy Brenchley said they’ve been playing American Indians in the Sham Battle since they were young.

“We were poor, so my grandma use to put shoe polish on my face and then threw me out there on the field,” Christensen said.

The three men want to see the event continue, insisting it has nothing to do with racism or bigotry.

Jerrimy Brenchley said the Sham Battle is an important tradition in the community.

“Our fathers did it, and their fathers did it,” he said. “It’s been a part of us since before we were born. Most people look forward to the elk hunt; a lot of us look forward to the Sham Battle, too.”

Eric Brenchley would like to see the Shoshone get involved in the battle. “How cool would it be if they were involved in it, too,” he said.

Parry said, actually, his tribe would love to be a part of Founder’s Day going forward, and he offered to bring in Shoshone dances, music and culture.

Kaylene Ames, the City Council member responsible for the Founder’s Day event, said she is only interested in a “historically accurate portrayal” of the relationship between the whites and Native Americans.

“I haven’t seen the Sham Battle. Ever,” said Ames, who has lived in Wellsville for 17 years. “The first time I saw it was the recent online video.”

And what did she think upon seeing that video?

“I thought that we were going to have a lot of work to do,” she said.

Ames says the council is trying to walk “a very fine line” between those who want to see the Sham Battle tradition continue and those who want to see it eliminated.

Scott Wells, Wellsville city manager, says he appreciated the frank conversations the city’s had with the Shoshone tribe.

“Tonight, something was said that we all need to meet in the middle,” Wells said. “I don’t know what the changes would be, but the reality is with the public outcry we need to look at the Sham Battle.”

Still, Mayor Thomas Bailey offered assurances to those who would see the reenactment continue.

“This is the beginning of a process,” he told the audience. “This is not the end of anything.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272 or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.