Arapeen, the Ute Prophet

By November 26, 2013

Filed away in the Brigham Young Papers at the Church History Library, there is a document that records the vision of a nineteenth-century prophet. That visionary, however, was not Brigham Young. Rather, it was Arapeen, a leading Ute chief during the Mormons? first two decades in the Great Basin. That the Saints believed that Arapeen had received a legitimate revelation is revealed in the language they used to categorize the document. John Lowry, Jr., the Manti resident who interpreted for Arapeen, and George Peacock, who acted as scribe, entitled the document ?Vision of Arapine on the night of the 4th of Feb 1855.? Later, after it had been sent to Young?s office in Salt Lake City, an unidentified clerk scrawled ?The Lord to Arrowpin? in the margins.[1] Arapeen?s vision provides a fascinating window into the Utes? hybrid religious culture that was in the process of formation in the years following the Mormons? arrival in 1847.


Wakara and Arapeen

Arapeen had cautiously welcomed the Saints to the Great Basin. Following the lead of his brother, the (in)famous equestrian and raider Wakara, Arapeen saw the Saints as valuable trading partners and potential allies against the Shoshones and other rivals. Although it is harder to document, it is also likely that Wakara and other Utes believed Mormons were conduits to supernatural power, or puwa, and that close association with these strange newcomers would increase their access to the unseen. Like many Native peoples, the Utes saw the world as inhabited by powerful non-human creatures and spirits who could manifest themselves to individuals through dreams and visions.[2] Dimick Huntington, a prominent Mormon interpreter who spent a great deal of time with Wakara, later reported that, prior to the coming of the Mormons, the Ute had a vision of ?the Lord sitting upon a throne dressed in white? and ?that there would come to him a race of white people that would be his friends, and he must treat them kindly.? Huntington, and likely Wakara himself, believed the Mormons fulfilled this vision.[3]

During the first years of Mormon settlement, Wakara, Arapeen, and other Utes met with Brigham Young and Latter-day Saints leaders, where they expressed their desires for friendship, trade, and to learn from each other. They often smoked ceremonial tobacco, which Utes and their relatives believed both facilitated access to puwa and symbolically connected people together as allies. In 1850, after hearing Latter-day Saint preaching, Wakara, Arapeen, and hundreds of their people accepted baptism, an act that likely held complex meanings for the Natives that may or may not have coincided with white Mormon understandings of the ritual.[4] Scholars of indigenous contact with European religions have called for a redefinition of the concept of ?conversion,? which conventionally has defined baptism as a gateway from one way of life to another, usually in a sense of progression from inferior to superior. Rarely, however, did Native proselytes see the need to abandon their own cultures and adopt wholesale those of the colonizers. Acceptance of a new ritual regime was simply one more channel to access puwa, not a replacement of it.[5]

Scholars such as Linford Fisher have suggested that ?affiliation? offers a more nuanced framework within which to understand Native interactions with Christianity than traditional definitions of ?conversion.? Paying attention to affiliation illuminates the ebbs and flows of conformance to accepted religious behavior far better than ?conversion? as a one-time event that results in changed behavior for the duration of one?s life.[6] Wakara and Arapeen may have accepted baptism, but their affiliation with Mormonism was irregular in the early 1850s. The changes in the land wrought by the American conquest of the West generally, and Mormon settlement specifically, undermined traditional Ute economies and cultures and led to the war that bears Wakara?s Anglicized name (Walker) in 1853-54. In January 1855, after the hostilities had ended and friendship restored between the Saints and the Utes, Wakara died and Arapeen was selected chief in his brother?s stead.

It was in this context that Arapeen visited Mormon leaders in Manti with an announcement that he had received a vision and that the Saints were to translate it, record it, and distribute it among themselves, ?that the mormons might all have it.? Arapeen had paid close attention to Mormon idiom during his prior periods of affiliation with the Saints, and when he dictated his account of the vision, he expressed himself using Latter-day Saint concepts of revelation. It is likely, however, that he continued to interpret his vision within traditional Ute notions of puwa as well. Arapeen reported that Wakara had appeared to him and encouraged his brother to ?cultivate good peace? with the Mormons and ?talk good to the Utes? (likely a reference to using his influence to maintain peace). After this initial vision, Arapeen then described hearing the voice of ?the Lord,? which revealed to the Ute leader that Wakara had died of natural causes (contrary to rumors of foul play), and that Arapeen was to succeed his brother as chief. The Lord instructed Arapeen to capture Utes who stole from the Mormons, and to whip and imprison (rather than kill) the culprits for their crimes. Rather than steal, the Utes should learn to raise grain. Recognizing that some Indians were ?bad,? the Lord instructed Arapeen that the Mormons were not to sell guns and ammunition to the Utes for the time being. The Lord also told Arapeen that natural resources?land, timber, water, horses, and cattle?belonged to God, not the Indians or the Mormons. As for affiliating with the Saints, the Lord told Arapeen that ?it was Good . . . for [him] to go to meeting.?

Many of these declarations reinforced the messages that Euro-American Saints had been preaching to Natives for the last several years. However, Arapeen also drew upon the language of revelation to create space for his people. At the Lord?s command, the Saints of Allred?s Settlement were to provide the Ute with a cow. The chief insisted to his interlocutors ?this is the Lords talk and not mine.? Even more boldly, Arapeen reported that ?the Lord Said that he often talked to Brigham and now he had come to talk with me.? The Saints were to record and circulate Arapeen?s vision: ?If the mormons throwed Away the Lords words the Lord would not go to there [their] meetings.? In the vision, Arapeen therefore used the puwa he had received to maintain autonomy, however limited, for Ute affiliates of Mormonism. Lastly, the Ute prophet testified ?that bye bye when all People was Good and at peace [the Lord] would come and live on the earth and not go Back.? Arapeen concluded his account of his vision thus: ?I saw three personages and there Garments where [were] white as Snow and as Briliant as the Sun and bye and bye all good People would Apear as they did.? This description likely reflected Arapeen?s understanding of Mormon teachings on the millennium and perhaps of the Three Nephites, topics that he perhaps first heard from Latter-day Saint preachers.

Arapeen?s Vision is a rich document, one that deserves more analysis than I have been able to provide briefly here. Although mediated by Lowry (the interpreter) and Peacock (the scribe), it provides a fascinating window into the hybrid religious cultures constructed by Arapeen and other Ute prophets who chose to affiliate with Mormonism in the nineteenth century. Through their hybrid religious cultures, these Utes could find solidarity with white Mormons while simultaneously and subtly challenge racial and ecclesiastical hierarchies. Lastly, this hybridity allowed Arapeen to pursue puwa through Mormon concepts of revelation.


[1] ?Vision of Arapine on the night of the 4th of Feb 1855,? Brigham Young Office Files, CHL.

[2] See Jay Miller, “Numic Religion: An Overview of Power in the Great Basin of Native North America,” Anthropos Bd. 78, H. 3/4 (1983): 337-54. I follow Stephen Van Hoak?s spelling for puwa. See Stephen P. Van Hoak, ?Waccara?s Utes: Native American Equestrian Adaptations in the Eastern Great Basin, 1776-1886,? Utah Historical Quarterly 67, no. 4 (Fall 1999): 309-30.

[3] D. B. Huntington, Vocabulary of the Utah and Sho-Sho-Ne, or Snake, dialects, with Indian legends and traditions, including a brief account of the life and death of Wah-ker, the Indian land pirate, 3rd. ed. rev. and enl.(Salt Lake City: Salt Lake Herald Office, 1872), 27.

[4] See Ronald W. Walker, ?Wakara Meets the Mormons: A Case Study in Native American Accommodation, 1848-1852,? Utah Historical Quarterly 70, no. 3 (Summer 2002): 215-37; Miller, ?Numic Religion,? 349.

[5] See Tracy Neal Leavelle, Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[6] Linford D. Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).



Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period From the Archives Race Ritual Theology


  1. Interesting post, David. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by stan — November 26, 2013 @ 10:07 pm

  2. David,

    I love this post. Thanks for sharing it. This vision makes stark what should be obvious to anyone who is studying the broad early Latter-day Saint revelations: What are the filters of a particular revelatory text? What cultural background influenced revelations? And what messages within the revelations were implicitly understood by the readers, though not explicitly stated?

    Comment by Robin — November 27, 2013 @ 12:59 am

  3. Very interesting, David. Jacob Hamblin enjoyed having visionary talks with Indians, such as the Navajo headman Spaneshanks. “He profesed to know something about . . . our faith by dreems and some thing he had seen,” Jacob wrote. And he said that Spaneshanks “believd Mormonism.” So Spaneshanks also accepted Mormonism through his dreams and visions. But you’re right–Indian baptisms did not mean typical conversions that Mormons were used to, say, in England. Linford’s model of affiliation, rather than conversion, is valuable, and Indians seeing Mormonism as an addition to their spiritual outlook, rather than a replacement.

    Comment by Todd Compton — November 27, 2013 @ 1:41 am

  4. Thanks, all.

    Robin, I had you in mind as I wrote this post. I think looking at Arapeen’s written revelation adds an interesting chapter in the history of Mormon revelations. I can’t deny that your work has influenced my thinking and questions on this subject.

    Todd, thanks for posting that quote from Spaneshanks. Although Navajos would have used a different word than puwa and likely thought of that power in different terms than did the Utes, I suspect that a similar dynamic was a play there in terms of how Navajo affiliates of Mormonism approached the new faith.

    Comment by David G. — November 27, 2013 @ 11:03 am

  5. Phenomenal stuff, David; this is really smart work on a fascinating topic. Even before I got to your fourth paragraph, I was thinking about Linford Fisher’s work on “affiliation.” It will be great to see the emphasis on the fluidity of identities and cultures that has dominated recent indigenous studies becomes more prevalent in. Mormon history.

    Regarding Arapeen’s use of Mormon revelatory language–how much of that do you think is due to his interpreter? I certainly don’t want to downplay Arapeen’s strategic/sincere discursive commonality, but there is certainly an interpretive filter at play, here.

    Comment by Ben P — November 29, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

  6. Thanks, Ben. Yes, there is a lot of great new work coming out, mostly from early Americanists, that helps illuminate Mormon-Indian interactions.

    I terms of parsing out Lowry’s influence from Arapeen’s original intent, you’re correct that we’re left with a conundrum. We don’t have a recorded transcript of the conversation that led to the production of this text, which I’m sure would illuminate a great deal (as Farina has showed us). My intent here with my discussion of Ute notions of puwa was to give us some tools to get at how Arapeen would have approached Mormon ideas of revelation, visions, and dreams, but these tools are admittedly limited.

    On the other side of the equation, we at least know Lowry’s name. In many cases, interpreters were relegated to the margins in “Indian texts” and very little was known about them. The Mormons were fairly good at noting who was interpreting in conversations and we can attempt reconstruct how good these interpreters were from other sources. The 1850s were the early days of Ute interactions with Euro-American settlers, so it was a key period during the development of Ute language written in Roman script. There were no dictionaries or grammars that standardized the language (as written in Roman script), and interpreters like Lowry instead would have learned Ute simply by talking with Utes and other white interpreters. But we have some tools, like Dimick Huntington’s publication noted in the footnotes, that can perhaps illuminate how whites were interpreting Ute in the early years after 1847.

    Comment by David G. — November 29, 2013 @ 1:35 pm

  7. I am always fascinated about the history of Mormon Ute relations, because it seems to be a sensitive or unspeakable subject. Utah has become known as the Mormon state but what happened to its indigenous peoples? How do the descendants of these indigenous people and Mormon colonizers renconcile their past, if they do? Todd Compton’s post also sparks these thoughts and questions. David, I am also intrigued by your use and emphasis on hybrid religious cultures. How do you define and conceptualize such hybridity?

    Comment by Farina — November 30, 2013 @ 1:08 pm

  8. Farina, I suspect that there are differing opinions among contemporary Utes about the arrival of white Mormons in the 19th century, opinions that are largely shaped by how they see the church today. It’s probably complicated by twentieth century developments such as the ISPP. As for white Mormons, my guess is that few think about Indians when they think about Utah history. On Pioneer Day 2010, Marlin K. Jensen, then church historian, argued that

    It is important to acknowledge and appreciate the monumental loss this represents on the part of Utah?s Indians?that loss and its 160-year aftermath are the rest of the story. I feel it our duty now?from a distance of 160 years?to work until the rest of the story becomes an integral part of the [italicized] story; until Sagwitch, Wakara, Washakie, and Little Soldier take their appropriate places in Utah?s history books alongside Brigham, Heber, and Parley; until Utah?s history includes Indian history and July 24th commemorates everyone?s contribution to our state?s unique past.

    There was some push back against Jensen’s speech at the time (see comments on this post), but I don’t think many Mormons of European descent heard about the speech. It’s perhaps telling that the speech appeared in print, not in the Ensign, but in a relatively obscure historical journal.

    As for my use of “hybrid religious cultures,” I’m following Tracy Neal Leavelle’s usage in Catholic Calumet (p. 8). She uses the phrase to refer to the give and take, the contact and exchange, and the religious combinations that occurred between Catholic missionaries and Native peoples in early French America. I follow her lead in my discussion of puwa, as I suggest ways that Arapeen and Wakara would have understood and interpreted Mormon concepts of revelation.

    Comment by David G. — November 30, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

  9. This is a really interesting post, David. I’d like to sit down and pick your brain next time we have the chance. A while back I looked at the Catholic baptism of Natives in the Great Lakes region, and have always wanted a more accessible treatment. I consequently appreciate the pointer to Leavelle. Also the discussion of disparate conceptions of baptism between Natives and Mormons is a good reminder to not project our ideas onto early Mormons as well. And sorry I’m so late to this!

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 5, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

  10. Thanks, J. I hoped when I wrote this that you’d find the stuff on ritual interesting. I’d love to chat more when the opportunity arises.

    Comment by David G. — December 6, 2013 @ 10:48 am

  11. I’m coming to this late, but wanted to say thanks, David. This is really interesting, and I hope to see more scholars of Mormon-native interaction draw upon the framework and models of folks like Leavelle and Fisher.

    Do you have a sense how much Latter-day Saints’ reactions to Arapeen’s vision were conditioned by Arapeen’s own affiliation with Mormonism? Were Mormons ever accepting of visions by Native American prophets who were not affiliated with the LDS community?

    Comment by Christopher — December 6, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

  12. That’s a great question, Christopher. I’d say that yes, white Mormon reactions to Arapeen’s vision were conditioned by his baptism and ordination as an elder, and their own expectations of a “Lamanite Prophet” that would arise (although, admittedly, I haven’t found any evidence of white Mormons labeling Arapeen as such). As for perceptions of Native prophets who had not affiliated with Mormonism, I think the early Saints believed that Natives were “naturally” inclined toward dreams and visions, but the Saints were particularly interested in those Indians who had dreams or visions that paralleled or reinforced white Mormon beliefs. I’m not aware of early Mormon interpretations of well-known prophetic individuals such as Tenskwatawa or Neolin. My guess is that most early Mormons would have seen them much like other American settlers saw them–as “savage impostors.”

    Comment by David G. — December 6, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

  13. […] David G., “Arapeen, the Ute Prophet” […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormons and Natives Month at the JI — January 1, 2014 @ 3:58 pm


Recent Comments

Smb on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand is a wise and lovely man who deserves these kind words. I absolutely agree that his books were key entries in the scholar’s library…”

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand, your response made me unexpectedly emotional. Your work has shaped me as a scholar in many important ways, but your legendary willingness to engage…”

Ardis E. Parshall on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I've enjoyed these three discussions -- crowned by this response by Armand Mauss himself. It is so representative of his ability and willingness to interact…”

Blair Hodges on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thank you for your lasting contributions to Mormon Studies, Armand.”

Mirror on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “These have been interesting posts about a major work in Mormon Studies. If I may boil down my understanding of Mauss' thesis to a…”

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”