Mass conversion, massacre vital in tribal history

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28 2002 12:00 a.m. MST

Shoshones, far left, perform with other tribes in the opening ceremonies of the Winter Games on Feb. 8.

Stuart W. Johnson, Deseret News

WASHAKIE, Box Elder County — For most people, "ghost town" is just another term for "abandoned village."

But for members of the Northwestern Band of Shoshones, Washakie, Box Elder County — 50 miles north of Brigham City on I-15 — may look empty, but it's hardly abandoned. Spirits from the past in Washakie still form a vital community.

"I've sensed them," said Mae Parry, Shoshone historian and matriarch. "I'm sure others have, too."

Tom Pacheco, a tribal member, remembers visiting the Washakie graveyard and asking his wife the name of the Indian woman he saw hovering near her.

"What Indian woman?" his wife asked.

Pacheco says he suddenly realized it was the spirit of his grandmother.

Years ago, the town of Washakie was the cultural center for Utah's Shoshones. Tribal scribe Willie Ottogary filed his famous newspaper reports from there. Trains came through daily. Children chased along the ditches. In time, however, the number of people in the cemetery came to outnumber the living. Because of World War II and other strains, the town was eventually forsaken. Today, a polygamous group has moved in.

But just west of the town, the Washakie graveyard is still alive in the Shoshone heart. The recent census claims there are 589 Shoshones living in Utah. The census, however, forgot to count the spirits of their ancestors.

William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize novelist, said the dead — like the living — settle into neighborhoods. Such is the case in the Washakie cemetery. Scattered here and there — with plenty of elbow-room between them — honored Shoshone families huddle in family groups — the Pachecos, Newmans, Ottogarys and Timbimboos. Some lie in parallel mounds near the roadway. Others are tucked into the small groves of sage or lie alone and vulnerable on the hillside. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason to the arrangements. But there is poetry. And there is also a sense of the sacred.

The Washakie graveyard is holy ground.

Holy places, in fact, are a vital part of Shoshone identity. And it's ironic the tribe that defines itself most by landmarks and landscape owns almost no land in Utah. Of its meager 187 acres, 75 acres are taken up by the graveyard itself.

That's a tiny patch of earth for a tribe that once spread across the entire Mountain West.

Originally known as the "So-So-Goi" (those who travel on foot), the Shoshones walked — and rode — their way throughout the West, settling over a five-state area. Some put down roots in the Wind River region of Wyoming, where Fort Washakie is now the tribal headquarters. Others ended up in Fort Hall, Idaho, under the leadership of Chief Pocatello.

Those who remained in Utah — the Northwestern Band — lived under the watchful eye of Chief Sagwich.

In his book "Sagwich: Shoshone Chieftain, Mormon Elder 1822-1887," author Scott Christensen calls Sagwich "one of Utah's most significant native sons."

He was a key figure when George Washington Hill, a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, baptized the entire tribe at a bend in the Bear River near Corinne. Sagwich was also a key figure when the U.S. Army, under the command of Patrick Edward Connor, killed 250 Shoshone men, women and children in the 1863 "Bear River Massacre" at another bend in the Bear near Franklin, Idaho.

Today, those two events — and two sites — stand in high relief in the Shoshone legacy.

"I think they were the two defining events in our tribal history," said Bruce Parry, executive director of the tribe. "In the early 1870s, every member of the tribe — except one — was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And the only reason he wasn't baptized was he was afraid of water. Somewhere between 200 and 300 Shoshones joined the church then."

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