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Shoshone tribe raising funds for cultural center at Bear River Massacre site

By Mark Saal, Standard-Examiner - | May 10, 2018
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Community members bow their heads in prayer at a memorial for the victims of Bear River Massacre near Preston on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. On the same date in 1863, hundreds of members of the Northwest Band of the Shoshone were killed along the Bear River in the worst single massacre of Native Americans in U.S. history.

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An artist's rendering of the new Boa Ogoi Cultural Interpretive Center, to be built near the Bear River Massacre site.

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An architectural rendering of the new Boa Ogoi Cultural Interpretive Center's amphitheater, to be built near the Bear River Massacre site.

The dream of a functioning homeland for the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation moves one step closer to fulfillment this week.

“This is the best thing that’s happened to us in forever,” said tribal chairman Darren Parry, of Farr West.

The small tribe is launching a fundraising project Thursday to solicit money for a $5 million cultural interpretive center. They plan to build it on land the tribe recently purchased in southeastern Idaho, near the city of Preston. The new Boa Ogoi Cultural Interpretive Center and surrounding interpretive trails will serve as an educational opportunity for visitors, as well as a meaningful gathering place for members of the small Shoshone band.

RELATED: USU Bear River Massacre researchers dig deeper at site without lifting a shovel

“We’re one of the few tribes in the United States without reservation land,” Parry said. “This is kind of a big deal.”

For Native Americans, their identity is closely tied to the land, according to Parry.

“So not having a land base or any land to call our own has been problematic,” he said.

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

The planned 6,000-square-foot center will include a lobby, exhibit space, multi-purpose room and more. The surrounding land will feature an amphitheater, a teepee village, interpretive trails, and some 500 four-foot by six-foot boulders placed around the site — one for each life lost in the Bear River massacre.

“As soon as we raise most of the money, we’ll begin breaking ground,” Parry said.

On the morning of Jan. 29, 1863, a group of 200 soldiers under the command of Col. Patrick Connor killed between 250 and 500 Shoshone Indians — including at least 90 women, children and infants. Although it hasn’t gotten as much attention as the massacres at places like Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, historians refer to the Bear River Massacre as the deadliest reported attack on Native Americans by the U.S. military.

“None of those bodies in the massacre were buried,” Parry said. “It’s sacred land to us.”

In late January, the tribe purchased 550 acres at the site of the Bear River Massacre for a reported $1.7 million. The area, called “boa ogoi” — “big river” in the native Shoshone language — was an ancestral wintering site for many Native Americans.

For many years, the only reminder of the incident was a plaque erected by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers near the site. The plaque takes a revisionist history approach to the site, calling it “The Battle of Bear River” and accusing “Bannock and Shoshoni Indians guilty of hostile attacks on emigrants and settlers.” Among the Indian dead, the plaque reads, were “about 90 combatant women and children.”

Every year on the Jan. 29 anniversary, about 500 people gather near the plaque to remember the massacre, according to Parry. He said once the interpretive center is built, the group will have a fitting home for the yearly commemoration.

“We won’t have to meet at that crappy DUP monument anymore,” Parry said. “And I think they (the DUP) would concur.”

Parry called the acquisition of the massacre site “a miracle.” He said the previous owner, Ralph Johnson, was never previously interested in selling the land.

“But at the end of the day, I felt the influence of some of my people on the other side that softened a few hearts,” Parry said. “The locals up there today say, ‘We still cannot believe you got that land from Ralph Johnson.’ There have been ranchers trying to get that land for the last 30 years.”

GSBS Architects, in Salt Lake City, designed the new center for “a small, small fee,” according to Parry.

“This amazing young architect designed it,” Parry explained. “She said, ‘What do you want?’ And I said, ‘Let me tell you what I don’t want. I don’t want people to drive into this beautiful valley and see a huge building in an empty field.'”

Baylee Lambourne, with GSBS, designed the center, with help from GSBS landscape architect David Garce. Lambourne said the unique design of the center — which tucks into an earthen mass — will blend in with its surroundings.

“The idea is because the building sits within a site that has such a tragic history and the Shoshone have such a connection to the land, we wanted to create a design that would be respectful to those values,” Lambourne said.

Garce, who is a member of the Catawba Indian Nation, from South Carolina, said GSBS has had a longstanding relationship with a number of Native American tribes in Utah and the surrounding region. He said the firm agreed to do most of their work pro bono.

“We believe in this,” Garce said. “We’re excited about the project and helping to tell their story.”

Garce said the site can be thought of like a Gettysburg, or some other Civil War battlefield. He said the idea is to return the landscape to the way it was in 1863.

One big difference in the last 155 years is that the Bear River has migrated considerably farther south than it was at the time of the massacre.

“We can’t change the flow of the river, but we can bring in willows and other native, natural shrubs and trees to reflect where the river was at the time,” Garce said.

He said they’ll also be working with Utah State University and government agencies to eradicate invasive species like Russian olive and phragmites.

Lambourne said the new cultural interpretive center and surrounding land will not only educate outsiders but also allow the tribe to reintroduce traditions from the past that members haven’t had an opportunity to practice for a very long time. For example, the tribe’s “warm dance” — which happened in early January of every year in an attempt to bring forth spring — hasn’t been practiced since the massacre happened. The new space will allow the estimated 550 members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation to practice such traditions.

“I just want to mention that this space not only tells the story of the catastrophic loss of lives at the Bear River Massacre, but the thriving Shoshone today, and their beautiful culture,” Lambourne said.

Parry concurs. Being able to tell their own story is important, he said, and an interpretive center is a vital part of that mission.

Explains Parry: “People can come from around the world to see how we lived, how the Mormons came, the competition for resources, the massacre, and then the conversion (of tribe members to the LDS Church). That’s what we want to use the interpretive center for.”

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.


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