Women’s History Month is a great opportunity to explore how Utah women have impacted their communities, the state, and in some cases, the nation as a whole. One such woman is Mae Timbimboo Parry who dedicated her life to truth-telling about her people, the Northwest Band of the Shoshone Nation.
Mae was born in 1919 and attended boarding schools for three years in Southern California, hundreds of miles from her home in Cache Valley. The purpose of these schools was to assimilate Native children into mainstream American culture. Children like Mae were not just forbidden to speak their native tongue, but were punished if they spoke one word of their language or mentioned anything about their culture. Mae learned perfect English, made the honor roll, and kept her Shoshone close to her heart. If anything, she was more determined than ever to dedicate her life to her people, not distance herself from them.
When Mae was 13, she attended the unveiling of a monument created to commemorate what was then known as the “Battle of Bear River” near the site where more than 400 Shoshone men, women, and children were slaughtered by a group of soldiers from California in 1863. The monument valorized the US soldiers and villainized her people, contradicting everything Mae had ever learned about the massacre. Her grandfather was 12 years old when he narrowly survived that tragedy. Mae knew the stories. She knew that the monument only told a fraction of what happened that cold January day. While most people would have been upset by such a disconnect between the official recorded history and the oral history of one’s people, very few would do something about it. But Mae was determined that truth would prevail.
The process of changing history started in high school when she wrote down all the stories she could remember from her grandfather and the tribal elders. Next Mae attended LDS Business College, married a childhood friend, and started a family—but she never strayed from what she felt called to do: write down the oral traditions and personal stories of the Northwest Shoshone. This act of recording what had previously been only spoken provided a vital record of and for her people, preserving aspects of the culture and historical truths that may have otherwise been lost.
Eventually, Mae used her research to write a well-documented article about the events at Bear River. This account became the prevailing narrative of this event, and even caused the National Park Service to change the name from “Battle of Bear River” to “Bear River Massacre.”
Mae didn’t stop there. She advocated for the rights of all Native tribes. She was a part of the White House Council of Indian Tribal Affairs, and helped create federal programs that supported Indigenous people, like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act which helped return artifacts taken from Native lands.
Whether as a high school student, a mother, a tribal historian or cultural standard-bearer, Mae taught those around her to value history, engage in truth-telling, and honor the traditions of their people. Her life and legacy changed history, one story at a time.
Heather Sundahl is a freelance writer and editor who works for the BYU ARTS Partnership, the Utah Women & Leadership Project, and Mormon Women for Ethical Government, bringing diverse experience and perspectives to educational conversations. Recently moved from Boston, she lives in Provo, Utah with her husband, children, and cats.