We won't forget
"100 Years of Silence" draws attention to brutal incarceration of Utes

We won't forget

The La Sal range in northern San Juan County, Utah, an area with a deep history of Native violence and misinformation./ Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Shaun Ketchum Jr. / Writers on the Range - 05/23/2024

One hundred and one years ago, my Ute ancestors were forced to live within a barbed-wire camp in Blanding, a small town in southeast Utah. 

For six weeks, nearly 80 people were trapped in a cage, sleeping in tents and hastily constructed hogans. Only meager meals were provided, and the captors sometimes tossed food over the fence.

Like the infamous Japanese American prison camps during World War II, the only crime my relatives committed was belonging to a group of people that the white majority deemed a threat. There was no due process for Japanese Americans or for the Utes. 

Shaun Ketchum Jr.

But while Japanese American incarceration sites, including the Topaz Camp near Delta, Utah, have memorials to the victims, there are no plaques or interpretive displays in Blanding acknowledging the suffering my ancestors endured. 

In fact, the events that led up to their imprisonment are best known by misleading names like the “Posey War’’ and the “Last Indian Uprising.” My ancestor William Posey was a leader in the Ute Anikanuche Band who continued traditional hunting across the vast Canyonlands and Bears Ears region into the 1920s, long after many other Indigenous people had been forced onto reservations.

On March 19, 1923, two Ute men were convicted for the alleged raiding of a shepherd’s camp. After an altercation with the San Juan County sheriff, the two men fled and joined their families. 

They escaped over Comb Ridge into what is now Bears Ears National Monument. A posse of 50 armed white settlers pursued the Ute people on horseback and in a Model-T Ford. County commissioners also requested an airplane equipped with WWI bombs for use in the chase. Before a plane arrived, the posse found the families, forced them into trucks at gunpoint, then transported them to a barbed-wire stockade in Blanding. 

I tell this story because the jailing of Ute people 101 years ago had devastating consequences for my community, and healing is necessary even today. 

Two Ute men were murdered, including Posey. Ute children were among those shipped to Indian Boarding Schools, separating them from their families and cutting off traditional teachings. As a condition of release, prisoners in the camp had to sign allotment papers for small parcels of land that relinquished their claims to the large Ute reservation that had once been proposed for nearly all of San Juan County. 

These events were tragic but they were not a “war” or an “uprising.” Like the Long Walk of the Diné people in 1864, or the Trail of Tears that began in the 1830s, my Anikanuche ancestors were subjected to brutal settler violence in Utah, which had no similarities to a war fought between two nations’ militaries. 

Despite these injustices, my people carry on what we call a Legacy of Resilience, and last year the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa began telling our side of the story for the first time. 

I was selected to direct the “100 Years of Silence” project, and I’ve been working with elders, historians and artists to facilitate healing. We’ve hosted many meetings to listen to community members talk about this history. Seven local artists produced pieces now on display at The Leonardo Museum of Creativity and Innovation in Salt Lake City until May 28. On March 23, we hosted a public launch for the project with presentations from 18 Ute tribal members. 

Throughout the process, I’ve been inspired by the courage and wisdom of my community. Our collective effort aims to end a century of silence to usher in an era of recognition and empowerment for all sides.

As the 101st anniversary of the Anikanuche incarceration drew to a close last month, we hoped Utahns would begin to acknowledge the events of 1923. We ask that those awful weeks no longer be referred to as the “Posey War,” a term based on misinformation that spread as the events unfolded. The 100 Years of Silence project is currently seeking input from the White Mesa community to rename this series of traumatic events. 

Perhaps one day, a memorial could be installed on the site of the incarceration camp that is near the historic bank building that still stands in Blanding. As the Ute scholar Forrest Cuch reminded us at the anniversary, healing cannot occur until the truth is known and accepted. 

Shaun Ketchum Jr is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. He directs the “100 Years of Silence” project and is a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

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