I had a heart-tugging moment on Saturday while looking quite clearly out across the site of the Milk Creek Battlefield; after all, there were no windows around.
Back in 1976, I was awarded honorary membership into the Arapahoe and Shoshone tribes for a year’s worth of work.
What work was that? I was the first sports reporter to cover basketball, football and volleyball on the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming.
The newspaper I worked for then was the Riverton Ranger. The Wind River Indian Reservation has its headquarters at Ethete, which was mostly Shoshone Indians, but the little towns of St. Stephens/Arapahoe were the unofficial home of the Arapahoe.
As sports editor of the daily Riverton Ranger, I covered all the sports at Lander, Riverton, Wind River, Dubois, Shoshoni and the Wind River high schools—boys and girls. Never before, it seems, had the paper ever sent anyone onto the reservation for fear of problems that might arise, “particularly after dark,” I was told.
On Friday afternoons during football season and some Friday and Saturday evenings during the other seasons, I drove out to Ethete when there was a home game, or to one of the other smaller schools depending on who was playing which team. The publisher covered the Riverton team at home or on the road in the evening and I would also cover Lander, the other large school, in evening games.
I had the opportunity to meet and get to know several members and coaches for the Wyoming Indian High School teams. There was one player in particular who was a lot of fun to watch and he was dominant on his team, whether it was basketball or football.
His name was Jerry Antelope and he could run, run, run and catch and run some more after he caught the ball on the field or took a pass on the basketball court. He was also a prolific shooter on the basketball team, often taking and sinking shots from just inside half court line.
Subsequently, he was one of the very first if not the first Native Americans to play basketball for the University of Wyoming Cowboys in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). He didn’t develop into a college star as everyone hoped for, but I do believe he could outrun any WAC player on the court.
He once thanked me because, he said, he would never have had the chance to attend the University of Wyoming because there had previously been no press coverage of Wyoming Indian High School and the press coverage showed up on the UW campus because of the Riverton Ranger’s coverage.
I didn’t know if that had anything to do with my being awarded honorary membership into the tribes. I just thought that it was a simple gesture the paper should have been carrying out for years—letting all the people know there was another high school in Fremont County.
I was presented the honorary memberships at the Wind River Indian Reservation All-Sports Banquet, an event that happens each spring toward the end of school, and it covers the one high school and the various other schools on the reservation.
The two previous “guest speakers” before me at the all-reservation sports banquet were Jim Plunkett, the Hall of Fame quarterback for the Oakland Raiders, and Sonny Sixkiller, the record-breaking quarterback for the University of Washington Huskies’ football team. Both were Indians and both had advanced Native American sports nearly as far as Jim Thorpe, the U.S. Olympian who first became known as a magnificent running back and runner for Carlisle College in Pennsylvania.
(GM Gateway said, “Describing Jim Thorpe as a great athlete would be doing him a severe injustice. A better description would be calling him the greatest athlete of the 20th Century. This label will probably be debated by many, but Thorpe’s accomplishments speak louder than words. King Gustav V of Sweden told Thorpe: “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”)
Needless to say, it was quite an honor to be asked to speak at the banquet, and while I gladly accepted the honor to speak, I really didn’t have a clue what was ahead.
Also, to this day, I am not much of a public speaker. I have had to do it many times, never comfortably, but I haven’t been booed off a stage—yet. I would much rather use the written word.
This was, however, my first request to speak truly publicly, and I figured there won’t be many people there to see this young white guy in his 20s talk abut sports to young kids and high school athletes.
When I asked—after accepting the invitation—how many people are usually at the event, I was told “Usually 400 to 600 people.” Oops! Didn’t quite know what I got myself into.
When I arrived at Wyoming Indian High School the night of the talk, there was one car in the parking lot—and it was about 20 minutes before I was supposed to speak.
Panic set in immediately as I approached the single car, only to see that it was the athletic director at WIHS. As I approach, I started to apologize as I felt I had totally let down the schools on the reservation and that no one had come to listen.
After about three words, the athletic director stopped me in my tracks by telling me that they had never sold so many tickets and that the high school could not have handled the crowd so it was transferred to the reservation community center, “which holds about 2,000 people.”
You’re kidding me. I didn’t and still don’t want to talk to 2,000 people.
To make an already long story shorter, there was a crowd of about 1,300 people there to listen to me. That was by far the largest crowd ever for the all-reservation sports banquet. More than for Plunkett. More than for Sixkiller. More than for many other Indian speakers in the past.
We all sat down and enjoyed a great dinner, and then the introductions began. The tribal leaders of the Arapahoe and Shoshone were introduced. The principals of the schools, the coaches and a few other people.
It was my turn.
I was introduced by the elder/president/chairman of the Shoshone tribe, and my introduction was short and sweet. And while I can’t remember the introduction word for word, my memory is pretty good and I captured the intent:
Something along the lines of: “Tonight we honor only the second white man to be the speaker at our annual reservation. Mr. Sean McMahon is here tonight as a guest of the Shoshone and Arapahoe people, and the reason is simple. For many years we have had great sports programs on the joint reservation here and never have we had local press coverage on a basis strong enough to get our athletes and the reservation itself the press they deserve.
“Mr. McMahon is here tonight for two reasons. The second is because we think he is a good sports writer, but the first reason he is here tonight is that he has shown us over the course of the past year that he cares about us. He has recognized the presence of the athletics on this reservation, he has diligently covered our sports teams, and he is the first reporter in any kind of memory who has demonstrated over and over again that he cares about out athletes and about those of us who live on this Wind River Indian Reservation.”
I was embarrassingly given a standing ovation before and after I spoke.
I had not done anything remarkable. I simply did what I thought was my job and covered the sports and some news on the reservation.
But what I had done was apparently remarkable to them. I recognized their athletes and I recognized that these were good athletes in football, basketball, volleyball and track at the school. That’s all I did.
But apparently that was more than had been done before.
Such was the vibe at the dedication of the Milk Creek Battlefield Memorial on Saturday in the hillsides north of Meeker.
For the dedication, Utes from the tribe at Fort Duchesne, Utah, were invited to take part in the ceremony.
Not only did dancers from Fort Duchesne show up for the event after dancing earlier in the day at Mountain Valley Bank’s Fall Festival in Meeker, but there were tribal leaders representing the three bands of Northern Ute Indians in Colorado and Utah—those from Fort Duchesne, who are members of the Uintah Utes, the White River Utes and the Uncompahgre Utes of Southwest Colorado.
Many of the tribal leaders spoke during the dedication.
There was no doubt that the tribal spokesmen felt great sadness for all the tribal members lost at Milk Creek, but their very clear message was two-fold:
First, much time has passed since the battle and that they regretted losing so many Indian brothers and ancestors, having to move away from the beauty of the area that they had lived in for many, many years; and, secondly, that is a great gesture on the white man’s part to remember the many Indian lives lost at Milk Creek and that now is time to move on in peace for the Indians and the white man and that friendship now is the most important symbolism created by the memorials. There is the long-standing Milk Creek Battleground memorial to the U.S. Cavalry troops lost in the fighting and the new Ute Memorial to all their warriors last at the battle.
(By the way, the Ute memorial, as dedicated on Saturday, is the only memorial on U.S. soil to be given permission to be built by a foreign nation. To this day, those who live on Indian reservations are considered to be living in sovereign nations.)
Like those members of the Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes I dealt with in Wyoming, so it is with the members of the Ute hierarchy that was in Rio Blanco County on Saturday. It means so much to them to be remembered, to be recognized and to be acknowledged for their past in the area.
Repeatedly, the elders asked of the white man there, “Please,” they would ask, “take care of our lands” and “please respect what this land means to all of us.”
They just want to be recognized for what they have done, as one elder said.
“We loved and respected this land. Now, you own this land around here with one difference being that when we were here, we respected the land because it owned us.”
A long list of local people should be thanked, starting with now-96-year-old Joe Sullivan, one of the first to recognize the significance of the area and also the spearhead behind the creation and construction of the memorials and nearby gazebo/pavilion at the site.
Many, many people played major roles in making the memorial a reality; many more people than I can name. But the fact is, the memorial is now in place for American Indians and whites to recognize that the past is the past and that now respect and recognition of each other is all that is important.
The memorials are a great gesture to never forget the ugliness that happened roughly 140 years ago and to make certain that the tribes and the whites move forward with understanding toward each other.
It was a quite stirring ceremony/dedication and it afforded the white man perhaps for the first time to see how the Utes feel about the past and look forward to the future.
Another great time was held earlier on Saturday with the Mountain Valley Bank Fall Festival, held on the bank property and along a closed Main Street between 4th and 5th streets in downtown Meeker.
Hundreds of children and adults attended the event, which was designed for family fun activities centered around helping Meeker’s non-profit organizations make money for their non-profit groups one last time before winter is upon us.
The food was wide in variety and most tasty, the games were fun and the kids kept those who ran the games quite busy.
There usually isn’t organized entertainment, but a large crowd gathered in appreciation for the dancing provided by the young Ute women from Fort Duchesne, Utah, prior to their appearance at the Milk Creek Battleground dedication.
Thanks to Mountain Valley Bank for what is the last day-long activity in Rio Blanco County before winter hits, and thanks also to White River Electric Association and the Eastern Rio Blanco Recreation and Parks District, both of which contributed to the success of the Fall Festival.
Hey Broncos! You may not always look good, but keep up the winning ways. The boys continue to excel on defense and to do enough on offense to win.