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Meet 3 little-known Utah women who’ve changed our state for good

These women used their power to make changes on behalf of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation

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Tribal historian Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, right, waves burning sage around Gwen Davis as Shosone Indian remains are laid to rest at the Washakie Cemetery near Plymouth, Utah, Saturday, May 25, 2013. The remains were returned from the Smithsonian and the state of Utah.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously wrote: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” As March is Women’s History Month, it provides an opportunity to reflect on why some women are willing to push boundaries and advocate for change, even if it means making waves.

Three local women come to mind who used their power to make changes on behalf of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, changes that have brought reconciliation through truth-telling, perseverance and bravery.

Mae Timbimboo Parry was the granddaughter of Sagwitch, a Shoshone chief who narrowly escaped death during the Bear River Massacre in 1863. When she was 13, she attended a ceremony in Cache Valley that unveiled a memorial to that event which had been erroneously labeled “The Battle of Bear River,” ignoring the almost 500 Natives who were brutally slaughtered. The monument and plaques were jarring to young Mae as they contradicted all the stories she had heard growing up about the tragic event. She committed to researching the story and figuring out what was fact and what was fiction, and then she would make sure that narrative was heard.

Parry went to college, trained herself in writing and research, and began to interview all the survivors and the documents surrounding the massacre. Eventually she had enough evidence to persuade the National Park Service to change the name from Battle to Massacre. Mae Timbimboo Parry’s advocacy took her all the way to Washington, D.C., where she was a part of the White House Council of Indian Tribal Affairs.

Her great niece, Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, currently serves as the history and culture specialist of her tribe and feels the legacy of her maternal line. Timbimboo-Madsen’s mother impressed upon her the need to tell their people’s story. Timbimboo-Madsen has worked to spread the truth-telling.

As part of the Native American Curriculum Initiative at BYU, we met with her a few years ago and asked “What would you like the children of Utah to know about your tribe?” She wanted us to share the true history of the Bear River Massacre and other important truths of her tribe. We have coordinated with Timbimboo-Madsen on lesson plans about her tribe (NWBSN). This January, we made good on that original ask and documented the commemoration ceremony and now are creating lesson plans based on what we learned about the Bear River Massacre. She went out on a limb by entrusting us with teaching her people’s history, but knew it was time to share her culture. Through Timbimboo-Madsen’s perseverance, her mother’s dreams to accurately share their history and culture are coming true. She believes that “being part of the history of Utah, we do have a story to tell. ... And I think it’s time.”

Alexis Beckstead never planned to make historic changes as a chapter president of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. But when she realized that the Shoshone felt the monument misrepresented their history, she did research and discovered how inaccurate the existing plaque was and felt it her duty to push for change, even if it meant taking down part of a monument that had stood for almost a century. She bravely went to the DUP board in Salt Lake, who supported the change. This January a new plaque was created that centers the Native people and what they experienced. We documented this ceremony too as a testament to the power of reconciliation.  

These three women are examples of commitment to truth telling and advocating for what they believed was right. Each challenged the status quo in advocating for the greater good and as a result, created a more accurate history. We are grateful for their willingness to speak up, make waves, and push for change. That’s behavior we should all emulate.

Brenda Beyal, a Navajo/Diné, leads the Native American Curriculum Initiative for BYU ARTS Partnership. In 2016, Brenda was honored by the Utah Education Network as an American Graduate Champion. Heather Sundahl is a freelance writer and editor for the Native American Curriculum for the BYU ARTS Partnership, the Utah Women & Leadership Project, and Mormon Women for Ethical Government.