Ute Mountain Utes call for new look at 1923 violence in Bears Ears area, seek healing

Shaun Ketchum, foreground, on a hike earlier this spring with Native American youth on the Bears Ears area trail that a contingent of Paiute and Ute Indians used in 1923 while fleeing an outbreak of violence.

Shaun Ketchum, foreground, on a hike earlier this spring with Native American youth on the Bears Ears area trail that a contingent of Paiute and Ute Indians used in 1923 while fleeing an outbreak of violence. (100 Years of Silence)

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WHITE MESA, San Juan County — After more than 100 years, Native American leaders in Utah are pushing for another look at the controversial turn of events dubbed by some as The Last Indian War.

The broader Utah community "never approached the Ute people to fully understand their view of events of 1923," said Shaun Ketchum, a descendant of William Posey, killed in the violent turn of events, which unfolded between March 19 and April 29, 1923. Ketchum is a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, based in southeast Utah and southwest Colorado, and he's helping spearhead the effort.

Though he wasn't even born when the incident unfolded, resulting in the imprisonment of numerous Ute families over the six-week span 101 years ago, in an outdoor, public stockade in Blanding, it's seared into him. "It's still remembered. It's not forgotten. The wounds are still fresh," Ketchum said.

What exactly occurred is the stuff of myth, clouded by "yellow journalism" of the time, Robert McPherson wrote in a 2016 account of events on the Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement website. Ketchum, for his part, doesn't delve too deeply into specifics and instead puts the focus on what he says is the resilience of the Ute people in carrying on in the wake of the occurrence and their quest for healing.

Whatever the case, he and other Native American elders aim to renew discussion about the events that happened around what is now Bears Ears National Monument, an initiative they call the 100 Years of Silence project. It publicly launched March 23 with the opening of an art exhibit at The Leonardo, the Salt Lake City museum, and will continue into the summer with more planned talks, Ketchum said.

"Our intent is to tell the stories of trauma, but also feature the seven Ute artists and several elders who aim to help our community, our white neighbors and the country heal from this and similar events which many tribes experienced," Ketchum wrote last month in announcing the exhibit at The Leonardo. Events of 1923 have been called Posey's War and The Last Indian War, but he seeks a new name "that is both accurate and will allow healing to occur on all sides."

'They took care of the land'

According to McPherson's accounting, the events of 1923 unfolded after "two young Utes robbed a sheep camp, killed a calf and burned a bridge." They stood trial, then somehow escaped, prompting the creation of a posse to search for them as well as Posey. Posey, McPherson wrote, was seemingly dragged into matters as the "symbol of all degraded or troublesome Indians" given accusations that had swirled around him dating to the mid-1910s.

Newspaper coverage of the time, "in the finest tradition of hysterical, World War I-era yellow journalism," served to stir things up, with one newspaper headline reading, "Piute Band Declares War on Whites in Blanding." An account by author and historian Andrew Gulliford, published last month in the San Juan Record newspaper in Monticello, said that after the two young Utes escaped, locals "started rounding up all Ute Indians," regardless of their connection to the events.

"In reality, there was little to the situation beyond a massive exodus of Utes and Paiutes fleeing their homes to escape into the rough canyon country of Navajo Mountain," McPherson wrote. "Posey fought a rearguard action to prevent capture, was eventually wounded and watched his people get carted off to a barbed-wire compound set up in the middle of Blanding. He died a painful death a month later from his gunshot wound."

Joe Bishop's Boy, one of the Utes who had escaped, also died in the violence.

Ketchum describes the Ute people in starkly different terms than the characterization they got from white people back in 1923, central in his call for a rethinking of the events. The Utes, he said, didn't carry guns. "The Utes always loved the land. They took care of the land," he said.

Indeed, in part to help foster a more accurate understanding of what happened 101 years ago, he took some Native American youths on a hike earlier this spring along the trail that the Utes and Paiutes followed 101 years ago as they fled for safety. It had a somewhat unnerving effect. "Some of the kids, they felt they were back in that time, like they were being chased," Ketchum said.

Now he's hoping to convey the Native American perspective to an even wider audience. "We can think about the past, present and future together," he said.

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Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for KSL.com. He worked several years for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and has lived and reported in Mexico, Chile and along the U.S.-Mexico border.


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