Researching community and conflict in Preston, Idaho

By Elizabeth Miller

It’s 7am and I’m standing in the parking lot of a Cabela’s – a hunting and fishing superstore – in the town of Farmington, Utah. There’s only one car in sight. My Uber driver is a bit concerned leaving me alone with the truck. But I was feeling fairly confident in what I was going to do next.

The white pickup truck belonged to Darren Parry, with whom I’ve spent the last twelve months conversing over the phone and via email as I wrote my MA thesis. Parry is the current chairman of the North-western Shoshone Nation, and when I travelled to Utah to undertake archival research in the archives of the Church History Library, I contacted Darren to see if we could meet in person. Eventually we decided that we would drive out to the town of Preston, Idaho so that I could inspect a series of monuments at an obscure roadside picnic spot on Highway 91.

The monuments are dedicated in remembrance of the Bear River Massacre that occurred at the site on January 29, 1863. The massacre occurred when the third regiment of the California Volunteers surprised the winter encampment before dawn; looking to arrest a band of Shoshone men who they believed had attacked and killed travellers on the Oregon trail and kidnapped a ten-year-old white boy. Initially, the Volunteers conveyed to the San Francisco War department that the assault at Bear River was yet another “battle” between infantry and unruly Indians on the frontier during the Civil War. Yet, a push to improve the visibility of frontier violence in Idaho’s public history in the 1970s showed this not to be the case and laid the groundwork for establishing the Bear River Massacre Historic Landmark years later. My paper for the 2019 ANZASA conference at the University of Auckland confronted this important moment in Bear River’s public history.

Darren Parry is a descendant of Chief Sagwitch, the surviving patriarch of the North-western band of the Shoshone Nation from the 1863 massacre. Sagwitch was one of the lucky ones.  Approximately 450 of North-western Shoshone men, women and children perished during the attack and many did not receive a proper Shoshone burial. Today several homes reside on the unmarked graves of Parry’s ancestors.

As a researcher of Indigenous histories, it was imperative for me to visit the Bear River Massacre site in person and meet with Darren during the course of my project. Academics are too often distanced from their historical subjects mainly because they are intangible. But history has real world consequences. I believe this is especially true of the field of Indigenous histories and that as a scholar within this field I should promote collaboration between the descendants of the people I study and write about, in order to infuse the historical record with the voices of Shoshone peoples who have all too often been silenced or erased.

The paper I presented at ANZASA 2019 was about Darren’s grandmother, Mae Timbimboo Parry. I first came across the fierce Shoshone matriarch in Brigham D. Madsen’s The Shoshone Frontier and the Bear River Massacre.[1] But I got to know her intimately after stumbling upon a series of letters within a vast collection of materials belonging to the late Idaho historian, Newell Hart. The letters revealed that Parry had played an integral role in changing the name of the confrontation from “Battle” to “Massacre” in the mid-1970s when she penned an article entitled “The Bear River Massacre” for the Bicentennial edition of the magazine, Trail Blazer.[2] Realising that the article was published during the height of Red Power agitation against the United States Bicentennial in 1976 I was curious to see whether there was a causal link between Parry’s article and the Red Power movement.

As such, I examined their exchange in more detail and looked widely across newspapers and Hart’s personal papers to establish whether Parry and other Northern Shoshones were radicalised by the Red Power movement. She was not, but many of her Navajo and Shoshone-Bannock neighbours were vocal of their objection to the National holiday. However, as I tried to read between the lines of her perfect cursive handwriting and read every interview I could find, I located something I wasn’t expecting; a three-page speech where Parry protested the US Bicentennial celebrations and explained her rejection of the National Holiday. I later found out that it was Hart, not Parry, that delivered the speech in at the Franklin County Bicentennial celebration in 1976. She had asked him to present the speech on her behalf in protest of the celebrations. This was a fascinating form of what the anthropologist Audra Simpson termed as “ethnographic refusal” and a lead I wanted to explore further.[3] I found that Parry used the Bicentennial to draw attention to the violent nature of the Nation’s founding and to demand the attention of fun-seeking Americans who were encouraged to look to their roots to reaffirm their sense of national identity.

Throughout research I came to know Mae Timbimboo Parry quite well and I hope that during the presentation of my paper, the audience does too. In every interview, every snippet, photo and quote I pieced together the image of a stoic, intelligent and assertive Shoshone woman who was passionate about her culture and tribal history. Finding the historical record to have depicted her as cold and withholding, the archives showed her to be warm, welcoming, and patient. My paper and the subsequent journal article I will write seeks not only to reveal Parry’s rejection of the US Bicentennial celebrations in Idaho, but to also contribute to the historiography a profile of the matriarch that does her justice.

I realised very quickly that Darren had carried on his grandmother’s tradition of sharing the story of the Bear River Massacre and taking the time to educate those interested in Shoshone history in a tangible way. As we travelled across Utah and Idaho Darren and I swapped stories. I learned that he likes chai lattes and that he has an anecdote for almost every stretch of land and tiny town on the way to Preston. When we stopped for lunch Darren showed me that potato chips tasted a whole lot better if they were drizzled with ranch dressing – something I haven’t quite been able to replicate since returning to Australia. I felt like I didn’t have much to offer Darren in return for his generosity, however I did give him copies of Mae’s letters and her Bicentennial speech. He didn’t know they existed and was glad to add them to his collection. We’re still in touch and share interesting things we find in our respective research, developing an exchange of our own.


Elizabeth Miller is a doctoral candidate at Macquarie University in Sydney. She recently completed her Master of Arts at Monash University on the topic of ‘Memorialising Native American Civil War Involvement: Visibility, Geography and Agency in 1920s and 1930s America.

Notes:

[1] Brigham D. Madsen, The Shoshone Frontier and the Bear River Massacre (Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1985).

[2] Mae T. Parry, “Massacre at Bia Ogoi” in Newell Hart Papers, 1860-1983. (Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections and Archives Division) Box 32, Folder 9.

[3] Audra Simpson, “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship,” Junctures, Vol. 9, (Dec 2007): 67- 80.