Listen to this post
The following column appeared in the Herald Times before the Utes returned to the White River Valley and it caused many people to talk about the future of the Meeker Pageant. Some questioned my reasoning and tried to turn it into an “us vs. them” argument. Less emphasis on one word was what I had hoped would happen, but a few local residents took umbrage about that. They were sure that this view for compromise would only take away from the pageant itself. As a resident whose children participated in the show and who admires all of the volunteer efforts toward getting this “show on the road” each year, I never wanted to see the pageant discontinued. However, I did think that somehow less emphasis on the massacre/incident without ignoring history was needed. It was all in the presentation, really. Laurie Zellers and her volunteers have been working on it and it promises to be a real recognition of our local history. I commend them for their hard work.
This is not what everyone remembers.
“How do you re-enact a battle that no one won?” Roland McCook, Ute historian and preservationist, asked Meeker community members four years ago during a luncheon. Things were just starting to move forward toward healing the relationship between the community and the White River Valley’s original inhabitants.
“The whole story hasn’t been told, you don’t know the Indian side of it,” McCook said.
He offered his thoughts on the fledgling efforts to bring the two groups together, as well as his views on many different issues affecting the future of the region.
“You can’t get around the history of the Utes in this area, you need to know the details of their displacement.” McCook told the audience after taking a tour of the area. He was a little disheartened by the lack of any visible sign that this had been the White River Ute’s homeland before they were banished by the United States government in the fall of 1879.
As a descendant of Chipeta (who was instrumental in getting the agency women released by the Utes), McCook felt strongly that a forward-looking future was the only way to pull the two groups together.
He talked about how uncomfortable the Northern Utes felt about returning to the valley when he said, “The feeling is that Meeker has not forgiven, that it is still an issue.”
Since his visit to this community, valley residents gathered with representatives of the White River Utes for that first get-together held on the anniversary of Nathan C. Meeker’s death and hosted two powwows, so his viewpoint was well-taken. However the unofficial name of the pageant and description of the performance as a reenactment continue to be objectionable to the Northern Utes.
“From my viewpoint (and other outsiders) you can move past that, making connections in a positive way is possible and needed. The Meeker incident was distasteful, but it can be turned into a positive. The racetrack was trivial, some of the Ute Indians had walls up when Meeker demanded they move their cabins and kill up to half of their horses to create more cropland,” McCook also asserted during his visit.
Changing the stigma about the events that took place more than 130 years ago is only possible if Range Call organizers work together with the Utes to make the pageant remain true to their viewpoint, It would need to reflect the original inhabitants’ assertion that Nathan C. Meeker’s fate lay in the hands of a few individuals and was an incident rather than a massacre.
The traditional July 4th pageant is due for some changes once again. Started 72 years ago as a “portrayal of the historic events which shaped the White River Valley,” it became part of the annual Independence Day celebration. More than 150 participants brought LeRoy Purdy’s original script, “March of the Empire,” to life. Purdy noted in an interview for Volume II of the White River Historical Society’s “This Is What I Remember” series that he attempted to involve members of the Northern Ute tribe. He remembered that no one would participate, so he came home and enlisted local folks to dress up as the Indians instead. He didn’t say that the script called for a reenactment of the killing of the Indian agent and holding the women of the agency captive, but unless the “incident” (as the Utes maintain) could be presented differently, there is never a chance of getting participation from the Utes.
The original script was only used for three years because of World War II and was not a part of the Range Call celebration again until the early 1950s thanks to the efforts of the Meeker Chamber of Commerce and Sheriff’s posse. The original pageant script included Father Escalante’s viewpoint of his exploration of the area and depicted the original inhabitants as primitives. That script was rewritten and renamed as the Last Days of the Utes by Lenore Kyner and Elliott Roosevelt (son of Franklin) and was narrated by multiple readers until the 1960s. It wasn’t held the following year for some reason. The third revision, “Twilight of the Ute Empire,” was completed by John Wix and was directed by Dorothy Barrett. Many of the pageant participants were part of the local theater group.
Trying to re-shape a script that has already seen so many changes will not be an impossible task, but it will be time-consuming. After the first “culturally collaborative” event was held on Sept. 30, 2006, on the anniversary of Meeker’s death, an article in New West written by Josh McDaniel was posted on the Internet and included the note that the event organizers were spurred on to continuing to make a cultural connection as “the Utes have lost almost all connection to sacred sites on the public lands surrounding the town.” White River Forest Ranger Glenn Adams was quoted as saying, “That made my hair stand on end.”
Looking back at history takes an unblinking eye. Over the years, we have blinked far too often. If we are going to proceed past the first powwow as a step to heal old wounds, it is time.