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Standard Deviations: Wellsville misses chance for healing with ‘Sham Battle’

By Mark Saal, Standard-Examiner - | Sep 2, 2018

Talk about your shams …

Wellsville’s controversial Founders’ Day “Sham Battle” is going forward again this year, although this one promises to be much more white and delightsome than previous versions.

The Logan Herald Journal reported this past week that the battle will be held on Monday, however any mention of Native Americans will now be completely removed from the event. And the new bad guys at the battle?


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

Traditionally, the annual Sham Battle has featured 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. A Labor Day tradition since the 1930s, the event came under fire last year after Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke attended the battle and wrote about it, rightly calling for “an end to the tone-deaf dress-up escapade.”

The dust-up precipitated a standing-room-only city council meeting last September to discuss the future of the event. And at that meeting, the city formed a committee to address the issue. Farr West resident Darren Parry, who is chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, was to be involved with the group, but he wasn’t brought in until after its first meeting.

“They had one meeting without me,” Parry told me in an email on Friday, “and then when I met them for the second meeting … they had already decided that they would continue the sham battle but without the Native Americans in it.”

Which is not at all what I was expecting from the committee.

Last September, city officials were saying all the right things. The city released a statement apologizing it it had offended anyone, and insisting officials were working to review and make changes to portray an accurate representation between Mormon pioneers and the Shoshone people. The statement went on to say city 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.”

Oh, and this year’s sham battle now conveys that relationship and/or respect? Which is, what? To completely ignore the original inhabitants of the valley?

Parry has repeatedly said he doesn’t believe the folks in Wellsville are racist. But that argument becomes increasingly harder to make with this year’s changes.

The truth is, eliminating the culturally insensitive redface “battle” was the least the city could do.

No, really. The absolute least.

To hear city leaders talking last year, I figured they were planning on creating a more inclusive Founders Day celebration — one in which the original residents were invited to share their cultural contributions with the community. Who knew the solution to 80-plus years of demeaning an entire group of people was to now pretend that they don’t exist?

But the worst part in all of this? The revisionist history Wellsville is now trying to spin.

According to the Herald Journal article, Wellsville Mayor Thomas Bailey said a narrative will be read prior to Monday’s event that explains the history of the Sham Battle and why it took place, but Native Americans won’t be mentioned.

“The Sham Battle was set up for people to train just in case they had to defend themselves against any group,” Bailey is quoted in the newspaper. “It wasn’t only Indians; it was against any group.”

Like, what? Pirates? Klingons? Marauding Scandinavians?

To somehow insist the Sham Battle wasn’t always about playing Cowboys and Indians is disingenuous at best. Indeed, at last year’s city council meeting several residents told me they had fond memories of dressing up like Native Americans from a very young age.

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

“Our fathers did it, and their fathers did it,” another 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.”

And now the city is trying to insist that it never was about these redface stereotypes?

Parry is equally perplexed with Wellsville’s alternative facts to history.

“It is a little funny though that they’re saying that it was never about redface,” he wrote. “It absolutely was.”

I give city officials partial points for doing away with the offensive practice of Caucasians dressing up as Native Americans; in 2018, that sort of thing really is beyond the pale. But they missed an opportunity to begin undoing decades of damage when they opted to act like like it never happened.

Looks to me like Wellsville’s Labor Day Sham Battle is merely swapping redface for whitewash.


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