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Shoshone tribe seeks to restore the Bear River Massacre site

Posted at 4:43 PM, Sep 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-19 19:57:30-04

PRESTON, Idaho — The monument on the side of Highway 91 tells two versions of the same event.

On the one side of the monument erected by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, there is a description of "The Battle of Bear River," where soldiers and volunteers were fighting "Indians guilty of hostile acts against emigrants and settlers." On the other side, it tells the story of a village of 400 members of the Shoshone Nation who were massacre on a cold winter morning in 1863.

Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson took out her phone and took some photos of the roadside monument as she was shown around the Bear River massacre site by leaders of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, who announced plans to restore the lands they recently purchased to the way it was in 1863 and open it to the public as an interpretive site.

"It’s the site of one of the largest massacres of Native Americans in the history of our country," said Darren Parry, a member of the tribe's council and the author of a book on the massacre at Boa Ogoi, the Shoshone name for it.

The Bear River massacre was a dark part of the Utah territory's history. On January 29, 1863, hundreds of indigenous people were murdered by soldiers from nearby Fort Douglas. Historical accounts said the massacre was the result of increasing tensions between Mormon pioneers settling in the area and Shoshone people nearby.

"The narrative for so long has been 'The battle of Bear River,'" Lt. Gov. Henderson said. "That it was somehow a well-deserved attack on the Native Americans who were living here."

"It happened pretty much as a result of Mormon encroachment," said Parry.

The accounts of the Bear River massacre by the survivors were passed down from generation to generation. Lt. Gov. Henderson heard some of them during her visit to the site.

"Women with babies on their backs who had to jump into the river to save themselves and their children," she said in an interview with FOX 13. "A group of them were huddled on an embankment trying to save themselves, to hide from the soldiers. One of them had a baby that started crying and she ended up drowning her own baby in order to save the rest of the women and children that were there and not give away their location. That happened just right over here."

The Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation purchased the land in 2018. Now, they are working to remove Russian olive trees and restore the area to the way it was at the time of the massacre. The bodies of those who were killed remain buried here, underneath a field where cows graze now. The tribe has been working with Utah State University on restoration efforts.

"We can restore the plants we used to eat, the medicines we used to use and we can cultivate them ourselves and show people how we used to live here," said Brad Parry, the tribe's vice chair. "Some of our goals are the return of the Bonneville trout, the return of the trumpeter swan, more bald eagles. That can only be accomplished by doing this restoration."

There are plans for a visitors center and nature trails so people can visit and see native plants, grasses and animals. The state of Utah contributed $750,000 to the efforts — even though the site is technically in Idaho.

"Utah has been fantastic in coming and assisting us," said Dennis Alex, the tribal chair.

They have also received money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the tribe welcomes public contributions at a website they have set up here.

Lt. Gov. Henderson called for Idaho political leaders to help the tribe.

"I hope that Idaho also steps up to the plate and gives some money to this project, this very worthy project so we can remember this history," she said. "And the Shoshone people can have their story finally being told."