Pageant offers peek into valley history

MEEKER I No one warned me. I stepped onto my back porch for a breath of fresh air my first summer in Meeker. A strange sound echoed off the surrounding hills and valleys. Coyotes? No. Was that … Indian drums and war whoops? Horses? Gunshots? Surely I was hallucinating. I went back inside and determined I needed more sleep.
When I mentioned the incident to a friend, she laughed and told me what I’d heard was the rehearsal for the Meeker Massacre.
“The what?” I asked. What kind of crazy place had we moved to?

Say “pageant” and the first thing you might picture is Miss America, but pageants have a much longer and more diverse history than contests of beauty.
Historical pageantry, or “symphonic drama,” is a compilation of music, dance, pantomine and dialogue that follows a series of historical events. Pageantry became popular in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of the most famous pageants is “The Lost Colony,” which began in 1937 in North Carolina. Residents of Roanoke Island wanted to share the story of the Lost Colony with the world before it was forgotten forever.
The Meeker Massacre Pageant began in 1938, sponsored at first by the local ladies’ auxiliary — a women’s social club. With the exception of a year or two during the Second World War, residents of Meeker have presented the pageant during Range Call every year.
Pageant director Ryan Stewart said the pageant started out as simple entertainment. “They would do something a little bit different each year, say, Ute dances, or a sketch about mountain men. It was kind of a composition of things.”
After a few years, and with the additional help of the sheriff’s posse and other community social groups, scripts were written. In the 1950s and ’60s, John Wix wrote a script and narrated it for many years. When he stopped narrating, he took his script with him, and a new one was written by Margaret King that is still used today.
The pageant reached a peak in participation and spectators in the 1950s. Elliot Roosevelt, a relative of presidents Theodore and Franklin, and a homeowner upriver, narrated the pageant for almost 5,000 spectators one year.
“There were 200-250 participants at that time. Now we have about 120,” Stewart said. All the participants are volunteers, ranging in age from 6 to 76. “We have some people who’ve been there well over 30 years. I think Patty Anderson’s been in it the longest at this point.”
Stewart’s history as pageant director spans 15 years. As an incoming high school junior, he had some “suggestions” to offer then director Sybil Barney.
“She asked me if I’d ever been in it, I said, ‘No,’ and she said, ‘Well, I suggest you start there.’” Stewart said. He started out as one of the Ute braves, worked cues in the arena the following year, and stepped in as pageant director the next. Participation is a little harder for Stewart these days, since he lives and works in Grand Junction, but he enjoys the process.
“It’s so cool to work with people from all different age groups, that’s the part that makes it rewarding for me.”
“Next year is Range Call’s 125th anniversary, so I definitely want to be here this year and next.”
Although the “massacre” of Nathan Meeker and 11 other white men by members of the Ute tribe is the climax of the pageant production, it is a fairly small part of the whole drama.
“Really, it’s not just about the massacre, I look at it as the story of the Ute people in northwestern Colorado and all the outside influences that came in — the Spaniards, the Powell party, the mountain men — all the influences that ultimately ended up in the Utes being shipped off to reservations,” Stewart said.
While the pageant has had its share of criticism in the past for historical inaccuracies and being politically incorrect, Stewart looks at it from a different perspective.
“It isn’t a historical re-enactment like you’d see at Gettysburg. It’s still entertainment. But I think we have a responsibility to make something educational out of it. At the same time I like people to understand it is for entertainment. If you aren’t going to look at it as a historical re-enactment, but as entertainment, I don’t think it’s all that politically incorrect.”
“The pageant, at least to me, makes the Ute people come out as the protagonists. And at the end, as the victims.”
“It still is entertainment … we have an opportunity to educate people about the history of the whole valley.”
This year’s pageant begins at dusk tonight at the fairgrounds.