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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 19, 2003 - Issue 85


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Massacre Site gets Long-delayed Blessing


Shoshones perform rites for Bear River ancestors who died

Ricky HasuseWaving a brown feather, Shoshone Ricky Hasuse blessed the site Monday where at least 250 members of his tribe were slaughtered by U.S. soldiers 140 years ago.

Hasuse blessed the land first in the tribe's native language as many of the Shoshone attending the ceremony wiped tears from their eyes. He later asked in English for the "Great Creator" to bless massacre victims.

It was the first time the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation performed rites for their ancestors since the Bear River Massacre on Jan. 29, 1863.

The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, and the Northwestern Band raised money to buy the grazing land between bluffs where soldiers from Fort Douglas, Utah, battled the Shoshone in retaliation for attacks on wagon trains — until the tribe ran out of bullets.

Then, historian Brigham Madsen said, the battle turned to massacre.

"There was no contest because the Indians had no weapons, and the soldiers had these pistols," Madsen said.

Col. Patrick Edward Connor and his soldiers killed elderly men, women and small children among the snow banks that morning. Historians have put casualty estimates at between 250 and 350.

"He was more than ready to teach the Indians a lesson," said Ivan Wongan, director of economic development for the band.

The Bear River Massacre was the bloodiest in western U.S. history, Madsen said. Estimates of the dead are nearly double those of Wounded Knee, S.D., and Sand Creek, Colo.

Yet there is little mention of the Bear River Massacre in the history books. Madsen blames the Civil War for that.

"Who was going to pay attention to this little Indian massacre in Washington territory?" Madsen said.

Bear River Massacre SiteMonday's ceremony will make it easier for Shoshone Patty Timbimboo-Madsen to visit the southeastern Idaho site now that Hasuse blessed it.

"When your spirit goes, it should be sent off properly or you wander. Sometimes when people go up there, they hear cries of children, of women. So they're still suffering. They need to be let go," said Timbimboo-Madsen, who is the cultural and natural resource manager for the band.

"I've had experiences of being overwhelmed by a presence — like someone takes your breath away — and a sadness."

That sadness is accompanied by guilt for Timbimboo-Madsen, who worries that the bodies of tribal ancestors were not buried. Tribal history says that coyotes and wolves were free to chew on and scatter the bones over the hills of pastureland on which cattle now graze.

"It's been a thing that I'm ashamed of," Timbimboo-Madsen said. "Those people that passed on could never tell their story. They're calling out for someone to help them, to send them on their way."

One of two plaques at the site, placed there before the tribe took over the land, calls the conflict the "Bear River Battle" and says soldiers fought against Shoshones who were attacking "the peaceful inhabitants in the vicinity."

But the other, placed in 1990, described it as the Bear River Massacre, "a military disaster unprecedented in Western history."

The Northwestern Band of Shoshone, based in Brigham City, Utah, and the Trust for Public Land purchased the 27-acre site from farmers for $55,000. The deal was completed Saturday.

"I always felt going up there that I was intruding on the non-Indian space," said Timbimboo-Madsen, who visits the site two or three times a year.

Now, she is "able to freely stand on Indian land and tell them that we won't forget, and we're sorry that they suffered, but we're grateful to them."

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