PRESTON, Idaho — Waving a brown feather, Shoshone Ricky Hasuse blessed the site Monday where at least 250 members of his tribe were slaughtered by U.S. soldiers 140 years ago.
Hasuse blessed the land first in the tribe's native language as many of the Shoshone attending the ceremony wiped tears from their eyes. He later asked in English for the "Great Creator" to bless massacre victims.
It was the first time the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation performed rites for their ancestors since the Bear River Massacre on Jan. 29, 1863.
The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, and the Northwestern Band raised money to buy the grazing land between bluffs where soldiers from Fort Douglas, Utah, killed the Shoshone in retaliation for attacks on wagon trains.
Monday's ceremony will make it easier for Shoshone Patty Timbimboo-Madsen to visit the site in southeastern Idaho where the soldiers battled Shoshone until the tribe ran out of bullets.
Then, historians say, the battle turned to massacre.
"When your spirit goes, it should be sent off properly or you wander. Sometimes when people go up there, they hear cries of children, of women. So they're still suffering. They need to be let go," said Timbimboo-Madsen, who is the cultural and natural resource manager for the band.
"I've had experiences of being overwhelmed by a presence — like someone takes your breath away — and a sadness."
That sadness is accompanied by guilt for Timbimboo-Madsen, who worries that the bodies of tribal ancestors were not buried. Tribal history says that coyotes and wolves were free to chew on and scatter the bones over the hills of pastureland on which cattle now graze.
"It's been a thing that I'm ashamed of," Timbimboo-Madsen said. "Those people that passed on could never tell their story. They're calling out for someone to help them, to send them on their way."
During the winters preceding the massacre, the 600 Shoshone in the area used the Bear River land for a winter "warm dance" to bring good health and plentiful crops, Timbimboo-Madsen said.
Col. Patrick Edward Connor and his soldiers killed elderly men, women, and small children. Historians have put casualty estimates at between 250 and 350.
"He was more than ready to teach the Indians a lesson," said Ivan Wongan, director of economic development for the band.
One of two plaques at the site, placed there before the tribe took over the land, calls the conflict the "Bear River Battle" and says soldiers fought against Shoshones who were attacking "the peaceful inhabitants in the vicinity." But the other, placed in 1990, described it as the Bear River Massacre, "a military disaster unprecedented in Western history."
The Northwestern Band of Shoshone, based in Brigham City, and the Trust for Public Land purchased the 27-acre site from farmers for $55,000. The deal was completed Saturday.
"I always felt going up there that I was intruding on the non-Indian space," said Timbimboo-Madsen, who visits the site two or three times a year. Now, she is "able to freely stand on Indian land and tell them that we won't forget and we're sorry that they suffered but we're grateful to them."