First published in Earth Tones Journal, SLC, Utah, April 2019
Growing up in the “Mormon diaspora” — migrants from Great Basin Mormon settlements who relocated throughout the US for educational or employment opportunities — the romanticized stories of Mormon pioneers, and particularly the 1847 arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, are very familiar to me. My family, once a year when I was a child, would make a Walkaraian journey from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to visit paternal and maternal grandparents just north of Nuche’s Timpanogó (Provo–Orem). Mormon settlement of Utah had a remote, almost mythological feel as a personal origin story. To my younger self, settlement was ancestral, religious, historical, and, in backdrop to my cultural education on Pueblo lands, absent any mention of indigenous people.
The stories of indigeneity in Santa Fe are stories of resistance, persistence, presence, and people. Evidence of colonialism is everywhere, alongside historical and modern evidence of indigenous culture. Indigeneity existed and was evident in my environment, outside the ‘Lamanite’ theology of Mormonism evinced within chapel and home. In my mind, the two ideas of ‘Lamanites’ and Indigenous Peoples existed separately, cloistered off in separate spheres. Within the Mormon sphere, indigeneity was ready for redemption and remote, “in the mission field” of Latin America; in other words, not in Utah. On Pueblo lands, indigeneity and colonialism contested place everywhere — from the Pueblo Revival style architecture of my home to the Palace of the Governors built atop the Oghá P’o’oge Pueblo, from the frequent trips up US-84 (as far north as Abiquiu) to the runs down the P’osoge (Rio Grande), from the Cicuye/Pecos Pueblo southeast to the Ancestral Pueblo below the Pajarito Plateau northwest, from performing Agnus Dei in the elementary school of Tesuque Pueblo to the Dixon Orchard apples we bought on contested Cochoti Pueblo land. The stories I learned — Utah is White, not Indigenous Lands in the way Santa Fe is — I don’t think were just my mistaken and impressionable youth; evidencing this rhetoric of remoteness is a Feb. 9, 1967 sermon, where Apostle and future Church President, Spencer Kimball, said, “My fellow Indian students, it’s a joy to be with you… The Indian is a Lamanite. There are South American, Central American, Mexican, Polynesian, and other Lamanites…”
In worship, inside the only Mormon chapel in Santa Fe, on Pueblo lands, with a mostly White congregation with roots in Utah, I would sing the songs of settlement:
Firm as the mountains around us, Stalwart and brave we stand
On the rock our fathers planted For us in this goodly land —
And we hear the desert singing: Carry on, carry on, carry on!
Hills and vales and mountains ringing: Carry on, carry on, carry on!
This personification of land is abundant in Mormon settler mythology. This is foregrounded on the This is The Place monument. When I first visit, the monument is snow covered, so I can’t read most of the plaques. I can read the Hosanna stone:
Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!
To God and the Lamb! Amen! Amen! Amen!
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.
The land yearned for the Mormon settlers; this is a narrative I am very familiar with but had never seen so plainly. “The wilderness… shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice.” This is Manifest Destiny. That the monument was constructed of local granite from the “mountain of the LORD’s house,” the same granite as the temple and conference center downtown, is not lost on me; if the native peoples didn’t welcome the pioneers, at least the land did.
This is The Place, as a public and historical monument, has an air of being academic and non-religious. The bronze statues adorning the perimeter of the monument commemorate non-Mormons and their contributions to “opening the west.” On my return visit, the snow has begun to melt, and I read the plaques of these token gentiles. I think again of hymns I know well:
They, the builders of the nation, Blazing trails along the way;
Stepping-stones for generations Were their deeds of ev’ry day.
Building new and firm foundations, Pushing on the wild frontier,
Forging onward, ever onward, Blessed, honored Pioneer!
The images of the oxcart and children evoke melodies from even earlier years:
Here comes the oxcart, oh, how slow!
It’s pulled by an ox, of course, you know.
The wooden wheels creak as they roll along.
Creak, creak, creak, creak is their song.
Pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked.
They washed at streams and worked and played.
Sundays they camped and read and prayed.
Week after week, they sang as they walked and walked and walked and …
When pioneers moved to the West,
With courage strong they met the test.
They pushed their handcarts all day long, And as they pushed they sang this song:
For some must push and some must pull, As we go marching up the hill;
So merrily on our way we go Until we reach the Valley-o.
For a while, I am convinced of a false notion, forgetting that at its heart, the monument is Mormon rhetoric — the three men of the Mormon presidency are exalted several dozen feet above my head and Isaiah’s prophecy attributed to this land and the Hosanna Shout are emblazoned in all caps, carved in temple granite — it’s not simply about arrival and settlement, it is worship and assertion of prophecy fulfilled:
On the rock our fathers planted For us in this goodly land —
The rock of honor and virtue, Of faith in the living God.
They raised his banner triumphant — Over the desert sod.
Absent any mention of indigenous peoples in my settler Mormonism heritage, I grew up with constructs of two separate worlds: monocultural White (Mormon) Utah and pluricultural Brown (pueblo, neomexicanos, genízaros, and/or mestizos, etc.) Santa Fe. This is what struck me the most in my visit to This is The Place monument — how white-washed the heritage story is. This is not normal on Pueblo lands, where lands and places stand witness to coloniality, contesting monuments to Oñate with art, actions, words, and voices of Pueblo peoples.
I don’t know if stories of indigenous encounters were purposefully left out of the canonical narratives of Mormonism because indigenous deaths by genocide were so damning, or if they were just seen as too peripheral to be relevant. When I returned, I had hoped to learn something from the Washakie plaque. All I learn is how good a friend he was to the Whites.
There are mentions on the uncovered plaques of all the White men who came before the Mormons, who’s knowledge of the lands was invaluable to the settlers. I saw no mention of how indigenous knowledge helped the settlers — or, undoubtedly, the White men who came before — navigate and survive these inhospitable lands. Washakie is not privileged with any contribution other than not driving us away. Not that we believed it was in their power:
We’ll find the place which God for us prepared, Far away in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid; There the Saints will be blessed.
And should we die before our journey’s through, Happy day! All is well!
We then are free from toil and sorrow, too; With the just we shall dwell!
But if our lives are spared again To see the Saints their rest obtain,
Oh, how we’ll make this chorus swell — All is well! All is well!
I enter the Visitor’s Center, looking for indigenous people, and I only see merchandise of infantile natives and children’s stories about the noble savage. Arriving downstairs, I am suddenly hit with the full force of Mormon rhetoric played out. Walking into a room with floor-to-ceiling wall murals of God’s green earth, grand panning-camera scenes of creation accompany a video presentation of origin story education; I instantly feel the power of Mormon temple rhetoric bolstering the stories being told here.
The narrator of the Mormon origin story tells me that “by early 1838 religious persecution drove [the Mormons] from the state and forced them to seek a new home. They went west and established themselves on new land.” Continually moving westward, “Brigham Young and his people turned their faces west, far to the west. They knew that somewhere beyond the Rocky Mountains was a place for them — a place where they could go, find freedom, build their cities, and no one could drive them out.”
As I hesitantly take a seat, realizing that it is more than likely manufactured by a company that supplies seats to the construction of Mormon temples, all pretense melts away. This is our rhetoric; this is Mormon mythmaking. “Prior to the arrival of the Mormons, this quiet wilderness was the land of the Native Americans — the Shoshone to the north, and the Utes and Navajo to the south. They had lived for millennia in these mountains as nomadic hunters and gatherers.” The precedent of millennia is washed away by the arrival of the Mormons, because how could it be otherwise. The land rejoices.
As if filming the Garden of Eden, beautiful sweeping shots of traditional hunting grounds in the Wasatch Mountains, absent any Indigenous Peoples, accompany the flowery rhetoric of the narrator; “As the Mormons entered what they called the Great Basin, they saw it ringed with high mountains — like pyramids towering towards heaven, some of which were beautifully snowcapped. The Great Salt Lake shimmered a dark silvery blue in the distance. The canyons along the west slope of the Wasatch mountains teemed with wildlife and crystal-clear streams.” This is The Prophesied Land.
On-screen I see reenactments of settlement, but not displacement, accompanied with photographs and artwork. “Those first years in the valley were a struggle for survival. Whether it was famine and drought, or crickets decimating their crops, or conflict with some native peoples, those first settlers paid a heavy price to build their mountain home.” The film cuts to images of crops, seagulls, and homesteads, but no images of conflict. I watch the video twice.
And that’s it. That’s the extent of any recognition of Native Peoples. This was the land of (qualified: nomadic) people for millennia until the Mormons arrived. How was the transition so rapid and painless? Perhaps the seagulls gobbled them up. At least it is more mention of the Native Peoples than I’ve ever heard in my Utah heritage narratives outside of Utah.
Oh, how we’ve made this chorus swell — All is well! All is well!
The land which White settlers throughout Utah occupy is contested. The waters, springs, and oases of the eastern Great Basin — ancestral lands in the valleys of the Markagunt, Pahvant, Wasatch, and Bear River Mountains — are just a fraction of the lands supporting families and sustaining the communities of myriad Nuche–Neme (Numic) peoples. I had not connected the dots, being educated about Spanish colonialism on Pueblo lands, that due to Spanish slave trade many genízaros and mestizos had deeper claim to Utah heritage than I had — colonial powers have disrupted life for the Nuche–Neme for over 400 years. Despite a history of violence and impoverishment, it was not until Mormon settlement that dispossession of lands was carried forward with devastating effect. This violence is not unique to Mormon settlement — it is property of all U.S. occupied lands — but the past is obscure, and it’s more comfortable for White men like me to forget these histories. All is not well and histories covey responsibility.[i]
As you consider debates over public lands, as your children sing the Utah state song (“Utah, This is The Place” www.utahstatesong.com) in public Elementary schools, or as you make your way throughout the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, pumping black carbon particulates into the valley air and filling your tanks with Sage Grouse endangering petroleum, enjoying the diminished beauty of Numic lands, if any Mormon Rhetoric reflects upon your thoughts, may it be:
If there still should be offenses, Woe to them by whom they come!
Measure given, large or grudged, Just the same you must receive.
Little motes are but a bubble When I think upon the beam.
[i] “Utah Valley’s record of Indian-white relations is far more extensive, intense, intimate, violent, and messy. Moreover, the pioneers of Provo were disobedient, even irreligious. Yet these may be the very reasons why the past is now obscure. It’s often more desirable to misremember or forget the past than to recall it through history. History conveys responsibility. Legends, by contrast, provide antiquity without any moral strings.” — Jared Farmer, On Zions mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American landscape, 2010, 365–366