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Tribune: ‘Sham Battle’ Controversy Splits Town

Robert Gehrke / YouTube
Footage shot by Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke of the Wellsville sham battle shows white men and women in red body paint.

The fate of a Utah town’s controversial historical re-enactment is up in the air after city officials pledged to make changes to the event.

Wellsville’s City Council met Wednesday night to discuss the annual ‘Sham Battle,’ which includes white residents dressing up in red body paint and pretending to attack Mormon settlers.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner covered the meeting. She says the annual tradition has divided the town.

“There were some folks who said, ‘You know, I’m embarrassed that my community has this.’ There were other folks who said, ‘I put shoe polish on my face, and I’m going to keep doing that because I was a good Indian in this portrayal.’”

The council agreed to form a committee made up of former and current participants to discuss changes, but Tanner says the matter is far from settled.

“A resolution on this is a little up in the air,” she says. “There’s no sense when this committee will get together or when they’ll have a decision. There are no deadlines. Obviously, they hope to make changes before next year’s festivities.”

Members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation who attended the meeting said they want the play to be updated to more accurately portray the events of the era.


Read more of Courtney Tanner's coverage of the Wellsville meeting, or follow her on Twitter. 


Listen to RadioWest'sconversation the Wellsville "Sham Battle," and the long history in this country of white people dressing up and acting like Indians.

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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