Pioneer Day and Remembering/Forgetting Utah’s Indian Wars

By July 24, 2010

On Pioneer Day in 1941, the Provo branch of the Sons and Daughters of the Utah Pioneers erected a monument to honor the Ute Chief Sowiette for the aid he gave to Mormon settlements in early territorial Utah. The monument, which stands at the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum in Provo, has the following inscription:

PROVO WAS SETTLED BY MORMON PIONEERS

MARCH 12, 1849. EAST OF THIS MONUMENT A SECOND

FORT WAS BUILT IN APRIL, 1850. IT WAS HERE THAT

THE SETTLERS WERE THREATENED WITH MASSACRE BY

CHIEF WALKER AND HIS BAND OF INDIANS, BUT WERE

SAVED BY CHIEF SOWIETT’S STERN WARNING, “WHEN

YOU ATTACK YOU WILL FIND ME AND MY BRAVES DEFENDING!”

ERECTED BY GEORGE A. SMITH CAMP, SONS AND

DAUGHTERS OF UTAH PIONEERS, JULY 24, 1941.

(Photo courtesy of Manuel Villalobos)

In 1999, a wooden statue of Sowiette was added at the site:

(Photo courtesy of Manuel Villalobos)

The problem with the monument, as Jared Farmer argues, is that it probably depicts a scene that never happened. The earliest documented telling comes from local historian Edward Tullidge, who included it in his 1884 “History of Spanish Fork.”[1] The two people mentioned on the monument–Walker and Sowiette–were historical figures, although as portrayed in the story they are little more than literary representations of white stereotypes of the “blood-thirsty Indian” and the “good Indian.” Farmer however finds no evidence from contemporary sources that the scene occurred.

Regardless of whether Sowiette ever really stopped Walker from attacking Fort Utah, like all stories and commemorative monuments, this one tells us more about the people who tell them and erect them than the history they claim to represent. First, the monument commemorates a threatened massacre, without providing any context or causation, leaving the reader with the impression that Walker wanted to slaughter the white Mormons simply because he was “blood-thirsty.” Richard White calls this tendency among whites to cast themselves as innocent victims of “savage” Indians on the frontier the “inverted conquest.”[2] Second, although the monument reflects this violent context, the emphasis remains on Sowiette, the peacemaker. Just as white Americans have long honored the Wampanoags Squanto and Massasoit (coincidentally, a statute of Massasoit stands outside of the library at BYU) for aiding struggling Europeans in the seventeenth century, Sowiette allowed the builders of the monument to remember Utah’s early Mormon-Indian interactions without having to reconcile assumptions of white innocence with the violence that accompanied white settlement. And third, by remembering this (bogus?) event, the monument symbolically “forgets” the actual massacre/battle that occurred in 1849 near what is now Pleasant Grove, Utah, when Mormon militiamen fought a small band of Timpanogos Utes during an “extermination” campaign ordered by Brigham Young earlier that year.

Clearly, remembering those who call for peace and cooperation is a good thing. For too long, Pioneer Day celebrations in Utah featured reenactments of Indian raids, kidnappings, and battles, and the Sowiette monument does provide a nice reprieve from other, more explicitly violent, commemorations.[3] And currently, Utahns and tourists can celebrate Pioneer Day by visiting the Native American Village at This is the Place Heritage Park and attending the Native American Celebration at the Park. While I would not advocate a return to the Indian raid reenactments, I think there is some danger in allowing ourselves to forget too much the violence that marked early Mormon-Indian interactions. David Blight, the leading scholar of the Civil War in American memory, postulates that remembering divisive and traumatic events necessitates negotiating between two profound ideals–healing and justice. One serves to unite, while the other tends to divide. Blight quotes a William Faulkner novel that encapsulates this point (read this in a Southern accent): “men have done learned howta forget quick what they ain’t brave enough to try to cure.”[4] In 1941, when the Sowiette monument was built, Native Americans were the poorest people in the United States. They remain so today. Although that poverty stems from several factors, it is at root the legacy of the violence and trauma that accompanied the European colonization of North America. Some may question if a connection really exists between monuments and contemporary Native poverty, but as Ned Blackhawk has argued, “reconciling the dispossession of millions with the making of America [and more specifically here, the making of Utah] remains a sobering challenge, an endeavor that requires reevaluation of many enduring historical assumptions,” such as those embedded in the Sowiette monument and our Pioneer Day commemorations.[5] Until we are willing to reevaluate those assumptions and their consequences, the reconciliation between whites and Natives that the Sowiette monument celebrates will remain incomplete.

________

[1] Jared Farmer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape, 134-37.

[2] Richard White, “Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill,” in The Frontier in American Culture: An Exhibition at the Newberry Library, August 26, 1994-January 7, 1005, edited by James R. Grossman (Chicago: The Newberry Library, 1994), 7-66. For an excellent examination of Walker’s accomodations to Mormon settlement, see Ronald W. Walker, “Wakara Meets the Mormons: A Case Study of Native American Accomodation,” Utah Historical Quarterly 70, no. 3 (Summer 2002): 215-37.

[3] Eric A. Eliason, Celebrating Zion: Pioneers in Mormon Popular Expression, 32-33, 70-71.

[5] David Blight, “The Civil War,” podcast, available through the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

[5] Ned Blackhawk, Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West, 3.

For concise articles on Utah’s Native Americans and the major Indian Wars in Utah, see here.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Memory Race


Comments

  1. It has come to my attention that Marlin K. Jensen spoke on Mormon-Indian relations today at the celebration. Worth a read. Especially this part:

    “Regardless of how one views the equities of Indian-Mormon relations in those times, the end result was that the land and cultural birthright Indians once possessed in the Great Basin were taken from them,” he said. “What we can do, the least we can do from a distance of 160 years, is 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.”

    Comment by David G. — July 24, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

  2. I remember some of the re-enactments I witnessed as a child in the small UT town that I grew up in that included “wild Indians” burning a settler’s house to the ground followed by a white militia gunning down the “savages”. Didn’t think much of them at the time (just thought all the fire was way cool; what can I say? I was a 10 yr old boy). Posts such as this really put the problematic aspects of such stereotypes in perspective.

    Thanks for the post!!!

    Comment by MormonDeadhead — July 24, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

  3. Wow, ten years old? So we’re talking late 1980s? I thought the reenactments had died out in the 1970s.

    Comment by David G. — July 24, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

  4. So we’re talking late 1980s?

    Actually, the “Sham Battle” as they call it apparently still goes on today. The 2009 city newsletter has a contact number for those interested in participating.

    Comment by MormonDeadhead — July 24, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

  5. Excellent post, David. And such an awesome coincidence (?) that Elder Jensen on Pioneer Day chose to help us remember that some groups lost out when the Pioneers moved in.

    Here is an interesting little article about some controversy around the Sham Battle in small town Utah back in 2001 involving a Stake President named Lucero and his refusal to advertise the Sham Battle in ward programs.

    Comment by Jared T — July 24, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

  6. […] T: Pioneer Day and Remembering/ForgettingMormonDeadhead: Pioneer Day and Remembering/ForgettingDavid G.: Pioneer Day and […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Elder Jensen Spends Pioneer Day Address Talking About—Indians?! — July 25, 2010 @ 4:34 am

  7. Thanks for the post, David. The timing of this post with Elder Jensen’s comments worked out perfectly. Elder Eyring’s words at Mountain Meadows a couple of years ago, in which he offered “a separate expression of regret” to the Pauites “who have unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for what occurred during the massacre” seem appropriate to note here, too.

    For too long, Pioneer Day celebrations in Utah featured reenactments of Indian raids, kidnappings, and battles, and the Sowiette monument does provide a nice reprieve from other, more explicitly violent, commemorations.

    I spent this last week participating in a handcart pioneer trek with the youth in our Stake here in Virginia. While (thankfully, IMO) there were no staged attacks by “Indians” along the way (which I’ve heard of other congregations in the West doing in the very recent past), in a testimony meeting on the last night, more than one youth described the hardships endured by the Mormon pioneers as including “attacks from wild Indians.”

    Elder Eyring’s comments, together with Elder Jensen’s, and those combined with my own anecdotes from this weekend, provide at least some evidence that Mormon-Indian violence still maintains a prominent place in Latter-day Saints’ conscience at both an institutional and grassroots level (with the institutional church taking the more progressive and culturally-sensitive stance on the issue). It would be wonderful to see those institutional efforts trickle down to the rank-and-file membership.

    Comment by Christopher — July 25, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

  8. Thanks for this, David.

    This doesn’t directly relate, but your post reminded me of a monument Catherine and I saw last year. When traveling through northern new mexico, we found out that there was a monument dedicated to the Mormon Battalion. It took a while to track it down, but when we finally did we found a large obelisk made out of rock with an accompanying plaque. On the plaque it talked about how bravely the battalion marched through, fending off the vicious “savages” along there way (mind you, this monument was probably only a few miles from one of the local reservations). I think it was erected in the mid 20th century.

    If I was more computer literate, I’d add the photo I took of the memorial: since that time, someone has gone and (understandably) scratched out the “savages” on the plaque.

    Comment by Ben — July 25, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

  9. MormonDeadhead, Jared, and Chris: That’s crazy that the reenactments are still going on. I heard today that there is a small town not far from me in Texas that also continues to stage a mock Indian battle. I wonder how many other places still do this? I know there are annual reenactments of Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Bighorn, but I had assumed it continued because the Lakotas actually won that one, which, according to scholar Michael Elliott, provides a way for whites to participate in celebrations of the “Winning of the West” while avoiding the guilt that has increasingly become associated with the subject. But to stage a battle where whites win, that’s something that surprises me.

    Chris, thanks for providing the link to Elder Eyring’s statement. You’re right that it’s certainly relevant here.

    Ben, I wasn’t aware of that Battalion monument. Do you think you could send me the picture via email? The vandalism is interesting. Some of the markers on the trail leading to the outlook to Mountain Meadows similarly have been defaced, with someone scratching off “Indians” from the inscription that identified Mormons and Indians as the perpetrators. Although it’s impossible to know who did it or their motivations, I think we can safely assume that the vandal disagreed with the monument’s message and defacement was the most permanent way to protest it and provide a counternarrative of sorts. The Custer National Monument sports several bullet holes that similarly contest the stated intent of the obelisk.

    Comment by David G. — July 25, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

  10. Its hard to believe its taken this long for us, as a people, to recognize our own error in celebrating our new Utah home while destroying a culture, and people, dependent on local fishing, foraging, and farming techniques.

    I hope we can begin to tell the real story by educating our children and mending broken relationships associated with the western Utah migration.

    Comment by Corn Duck — August 5, 2010 @ 6:15 pm


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