Honoring their ancestors: Bear River Massacre interpretive center in the works, fundraising kicking off

This rendering shows a design for the Bear River Massacre interpretive center to be located near the actual massacre site in Franklin County. GSBS Architects

This rendering shows a design for the Bear River Massacre interpretive center to be located near the actual massacre site in Franklin County.
GSBS Architects

By Sean Dolan, Herald Journal staff writer

After three prominent members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation met with a team of Salt Lake City architects to review designs for an interpretive center at the site of the Bear River Massacre, Michael Gross dreamed of his grandmother.

“She came to me and she gave me a big hug in the dream, and I remember after that happened, in the dream, I felt great,” Gross said. “I felt like I had grandma’s approval.”

Gross, a tribal councilman, said he woke up and immediately texted his cousin, Darren Parry, the chairman of the tribal council.

“I think what we’re doing is the right thing,” he said, recalling the text message.

In January, the tribe purchased 550 acres of land where an estimated 350 to 500 of their ancestors were massacred on Jan. 29, 1863, by federal troops led by Col. Patrick Connor.

In the months since that land purchase, tribal leaders have been working with the USU College of Natural Resources to come up with a plan to restore the land to how it looked at the time of the massacre, including removing invasive plants and bringing back native species.

Now, tribal leaders plan to build an interpretive center near the massacre site. Gross, Parry and Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, the tribe’s cultural resource manager, recently took a trip down to Salt Lake City meet with GSBS Architects.

Before the meeting, Parry said he told the architects the tribe wasn’t looking for a big building sticking out in the middle of a cow pasture in Franklin County, Idaho. He said the tribe wanted something more subtle, with wood beams and large glass windows.

“I want it natural,” Parry said. “Use the natural light, use natural materials in the construction. That was the only guidance I really gave them.”

As Gross recalls from that meeting, it didn’t take long for the three tribal leaders to choose their favorite design.

“When they showed us a couple of designs that they had in mind, it was pretty unanimous pretty quickly,” Gross said.

Baylee Lambourne, an architect with GSBS who worked collaboratively on the design with a few others, said she wanted to create a structure that was respectful to the Shoshone people and their strong connection to the land.

“The building is tucked into the hill in such a way that at times it can be difficult to distinguish from the surrounding landscape,” Lambourne said. “The idea is to let the land remain the highlight of the space.”

A rendering of the design shows a humble structure sunk into the ground with a land bridge over top, filled with native grasses, with large outdoor plazas and an amphitheatre.

Lambourne said the design team calls the building, “Reverence.” Gross and Parry both said they think the name is perfect.

“That’s how we feel about the land,” Gross said. “It’s a reverent place for us. It’s a sacred place, but we do feel that people need to be educated.”

Across the highway from the site, a memorial established in 1932 by the citizens of Franklin County depicts the massacre as a battle fought against “Indians guilty of hostile attacks on emigrants and settlers.”

Parry said he wants the interpretive site to tell the whole story of his people. He is currently undertaking an informational tour of city council meetings throughout Cache Valley to share plans for the site, hoping that local leaders can then share that information with their residents. He said he wants to show that the tragedy didn’t define the tribe.

“A building that people can go in and learn the whole history,” Parry said. “Our tribe’s history in the area, the introduction of Mormon pioneers, how that changed our way of life and then kind of the whole story, including the conversion to Mormonism and who we are today.”

But, Parry said, if the interpretive center is closed, visitors will still be able to learn the history from information on the outside of the building. David Garce, a principal at GSBS and a landscape architect, helped put together a larger site plan to do just that.

Garce, himself a member of the Catawba Indian Nation who sits on board of directors of the American Indian Council of Architects and Engineers, said the site is peaceful and quiet with unobstructed views. As planned, the building will be a distance away from the actual massacre site. Walking trails would then meander around the field, leading to a recreated Shoshone encampment area with teepees.

To show the scope of life lost in the massacre, Garce said the plan calls for placing 500 boulders throughout the field, each representing one life.

“Once you see the immense number of lives-lost markers, it really makes an impact on you,” Garce said.

Part of the mission of GSBS Architects, Garce explained, is to provide professional design help to underserved populations. He said they have worked with Paiute, Navajo, Hopi and Ute tribes. When the opportunity arose to work with the Northwestern Shoshone, they jumped on the project. He said most of the design work on the project is pro bono.

The design might come cheap for the tribe, but the actual construction is another story. Parry said GSBS provided a cost estimate of $5 million. He is hoping to raise most of that from donations from Cache Valley residents and businesses.

“I just have a feeling that this is such a beautiful story — it needs to be told — that I think there will be a lot of people that want to be involved with it,” Parry said.

Gross said the fundraising effort will be a big task. He said he’s thought of putting on a benefit concert over the summer. With the land purchase and now the plans to build an interpretive center, he said it’s an exciting time for the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation.

“I feel like we’re honoring our ancestors by doing this,” Gross said.