No one expected much of the Shoshone and Bannock people in the late 1800s. Their way of life, following fish, game, and plants with the seasons, ended when they were pushed onto the Fort Hall Reservation and told they were now farmers. Some were unable to cope with a life they didn't understand. They received little help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The narrative of failure and talk of lazy, alcoholic Indians became the broad-stroke story for many settlers in the area. But what is often untold is the Shoshone-Bannock people's success despite the odds against them.
Some Tribal members embraced opportunity when they saw it. Ralph Dixey is one of those people who has fascinated me since I first learned about him.
Ralph Willet Dixey was born in Boise on July 4, 1874. Orphaned at age four, he went to Ross Fork to live with an uncle. In 1879, Ralph's uncle began farming on 160 acres near the Blackfoot River, where he put in a small dam to irrigate crops.
Ralph grew up learning about irrigation, farming, and ranching. In 1921 he and others on the reservation formed the Fort Hall Indian Stockman's Association. Most Indian cattle and horse owners, some 150, became members. Dixey served as its president for the first ten years of the organization.
The Association grew and cut most of its own hay, fenced grazing areas, developed watering systems, and purchased prime breeding stock. In short order, the stock they raised became well known for its quality. The Association commonly had about 6500 head of cattle and horses running on a range of nearly 70,000 acres.
Although the cattle buyers came from as far away as southern California, the Stockman's Association sold most of the beef locally, believing it would build goodwill with the white community.
Ralph Dixey was well known in Blackfoot for managing the Southeastern Idaho Round-Up and Livestock Show, which became a major part of the Eastern Idaho State Fair.
Dixey's leadership role on the reservation took him to Washington, DC, more than once to testify before Congress on behalf of his people. The press sometimes mistakenly called him Chief Dixey.
This stockman of some note was known for his horses and his horsepower. Dixey was a car guy. In 1917, he became one of the first owners of a Willys-Knight Eight in Idaho. Then, in 1919, he surprised everyone, including his wife, when he bought her a Stutz Bearcat Roadster so she could drive into town whenever she pleased.
Ralph Dixey was a man who straddled two worlds. Proud of his native heritage, he made warbonnets for Hollywood movies and recorded war dance songs to preserve them. At the same time, he was a successful businessman. Dixey died at age 96 in 1959.