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Telling the stories of the Bear River Massacre

On the morning of January 29, 1863, near what is now Preston, Idaho, U.S. soldiers mounted an attack on members of the Northwestern Band of Shoshone who were camped along the Bear River. Caught by surprise and largely defenseless, the Northwestern Shoshone were massacred and nearly decimated. The soldiers killed an estimated 400 men, women and children in the deadliest slaughter of Indigenous people in the history of the American West.

Most of the stories told about the Bear River Massacre exclude Shoshone voices, said Darren Parry at a U lecture in the days leading up to the event’s 160th anniversary. Parry is the former chairman and current councilman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation and is the author of “The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History.”

Darren Parry

Parry’s lecture, titled History, Healing, and Re-story-ation, explored how history is told and who does the telling. He pointed to the monument at the Bear River Massacre site, which was erected to honor the soldiers who died and the Pioneer women who treated the wounded soldiers. Another monument to the soldiers stands at Ft. Douglas Cemetery near the U campus. Parry said the story these monuments tell have become the one narrative people hear.

“In constructing a monument like this, you create a false history,” he said. “It’s not a story about my people. It became a story about the brave soldiers and the Pioneer women who helped them.” Wording on the Idaho monument’s plaque characterized the massacre as a “battle” brought on by “attacks by the Indians on the peaceful inhabitants in this vicinity.”

“That narrative gives us one point of view from one generation’s perspective, and it reinforces the view that Indians were savages,” Parry said. He then gave the history of the Bear River Massacre from the viewpoint of the Northwestern Shoshone people, sharing devastating accounts passed down by the few who survived. “I’ve always believed that those who died at Bear River have a right to be heard,” Parry said. “As we preserve history, it’s important that all views are represented and respected.”

The lecture was hosted by the U’s Environmental Humanities graduate program, which prepares students for careers as environmental leaders and thinkers. Students study environmental justice, environmental leadership and stewardship. A goal of the Environmental Humanities program is to advance environmental justice in the West by promoting historically excluded scholars and frontline communities, and the program received a multi-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2020 to fund this work. As part of these efforts, the program selects a community leader to serve as practitioner-in-residence each semester. Parry was appointed to the role for Spring 2023.

A historian and storyteller, Parry is recognized for bringing attention to the importance of the Great Salt Lake to the Shoshone people. He has also played a critical role in his Tribe’s successful work to reclaim land at the site of the Bear River Massacre. The Northwestern Shoshone are now restoring the landscape with the wisdom of elders, ancestors and climate scientists, and they are building a cultural interpretive center to educate and enlighten visitors about the history of the Northwestern Shoshone Band. The Bear River is Great Salt Lake’s major tributary, so this ecological restoration and cultural healing work is an important piece in the effort to protect the Great Salt Lake.

Parry’s lecture explored Indigenous worldviews of humans’ relationship with and responsibility to the land. He said now is the time to combine indigenous values about stewardship with scientific research to create watershed policies that will help preserve the Great Salt Lake.

“Our human well-being is connected to the well-being of the lake. And the well-being of the lake is connected to the well-being of the watershed and the climate,” Parry said. “We are truly all connected and the actions that we take in the next decade will affect generations to come.”

Parry said he hopes people will continue to learn about the Bear River Massacre and listen to the stories of those who experienced the tragedy. It’s important that we respect the truth of what happened, he stated. “Sometimes history challenges us to think about an uglier past that we’d rather not have. But that’s the power of history. It connects us to our humanity and our inhumanity, and it offers us a way to move forward.”

Read “Tales from Yesteryear” to learn more about the Bear River Massacre and see a video of Parry at the site.