Return of Ma?ii: Brigham Young and his Indian Farms

By November 14, 2013

This installment in the JI’s Mormons and Natives month comes from Corey Smallcanyon. He is a Dine’ (Navajo) Indian from the Gallup, New Mexico area, who grew up on and off the Navajo reservation. He works as an Adjunct Professor with Utah Valley University teaching United States History. His emphasis is in U.S. History, the American West, Utah history, LDS history, Native American and Navajo history. In his spare time he volunteers teaching Navajo genealogy to surrounding areas and spending time with his family.

Among the Dine’ (Navajos) Ma’ii (coyote) stands center stage as a trouble maker, wise counselor, cultural hero, and powerful deity. Ma’ii stories help establish a foundation for the ethical teachings for all children. Early traditional memory tells of Ma’ii who tried to steal the farm of Grandfather Na’asho’ii Dich’izhii (Horned Toad). Ma’ii came “wandering” upon Na’asho’ii Dich’izhii tending his farm and asked for some of his corn to eat. After much begging, Na’asho’ii Dich’izhii gave into Ma’ii’s demands, but Ma’ii was not satisfied and began taking more without permission. As Na’asho’ii Dich’izhii tried to take the corn away Ma’ii ate Na’asho’ii Dich’izhii. Upset with his predicament, Na’asho’ii Dich’izhii was eventually able to make his way out of Ma’ii, and triumphed by taking back his farm.[1]

As Jim Dandy, a Mormon Navajo traditionalist, states that Ma’ii is one of the most misunderstood animals, “He is neither good nor bad, just innocent and trying to understand how everything works,” although he admits his innocence creates problems for people.[2] The enigma known as Brigham Young falls into this dilemma of how to view his Indian policies and treatment of a group who considered themselves as “the People.”[3] As leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Governor of Utah Territory and Superintendent of Indian Affairs; this allowed Young to deal with Natives in three different capacities; which included the creation of a multifaceted program known as Indian farms.

Young oversaw near 100 colonies within the first ten years of reaching the Great Basin. His initial Indian policy was of peace and kindness; but that was overshadowed by his expansion onto choice Native lands, over exertion of limited natural resources, and exploitation of traditional sources of foods Natives relied on.[4] The solution to Young’s Indian Problems mirrored all other Americas with the removal of Natives onto reservations. The culminating issues resulted in armed conflict which was quite costly and fostered in officially his policy that it was cheaper to feed Indians than to fight them.

By 1850, the Trickster wrote Washington D.C. requesting the extinguishment of Indian title to the land, and the removal of Natives to locations outside of present-day Utah. He argued that “the progress of civilization, the safety of the mails and the welfare of the Indians themselves called for the adoption of this policy.”[5] Although his request was denied, mini-reservations were created around 1852 and called Indian farms. Many view these farms as a “policy of cultural integration”[6] to show Natives “a way wherein they could help themselves overcome their destitute condition and become self-sustaining,”[7] but also to monitor their semi-nomadic movement. Young’s Indian farms would be short lived ending around 1859 because they proved to be inadequate or failed completely.[8]

No longer does Ma’ii “wander” around trying to control the Dine’ or take their land. Now he offers a way for “the People” to live in two worlds. In June 2008, the Tuba City Arizona Stake called Larry Justice as its new leader.[9] As other denominations are hurting for converts, Justice helped introduce a modern-day Indian farm program in Tuba City, an area the Church has had a long turbulent history with the local Navajo and Hopi Indians. On October 30, 2013, the New York Times published an article about this gardening program, “Some Find Path to Navajo Roots Through Mormon Church,” written by Fernanda Santos. In 2009, the pilot program was launched and since then the Church has seen a 25 percent increase in membership. The program originally started with 25-30 Church members and has increased to 1,800 gardens with plans of adding 500 more in 2014 with at least 50 percent of the participants being non-Mormons. As a result the Church has plans to expand the gardening program into other parts of the world with hopes of converting indigenous peoples by teaching them “principles of self-reliance and Provident Living, through gardening.”[10] As Santos focuses on the gardening program, Justice stated that the Tuba City Stake has a “two-pronged approach–gardening and family history work,” which is discussed in Samantha DeLaCerda’s article in Church News, “Garden Project in Arizona” written in March 2012.

As for the new Tuba City converts, Santos notes: Nora Kaibetoney (Dine’) states that even though Mormonism compels them to leave behind part of their Dine’ identity, the Church helps enforce Dine’ values of “charity, camaraderie and respect for the land.” Linda Smith (Dine’) stated that joining the Church “wasn’t about turning away and embracing an entirely different tradition; it was about reconnecting.” Sam Charlie (Dine’) also stated that he “went on the LDS Placement Program for four years and never learned how to grow a garden. It has been a wonderful thing to recapture this lost element of our culture.”[11] Justice told reporters that through the garden program, “Navajos connect with their heritage through the land.”[12] I wish there was more of an allowance here to navigate the use of the sacredness of land as a missionary tool among “Native” peoples.

These stories of Ma’ii are not just meaningless folklore. They have great worth to the Dine’ because they express, enhance and enforce the morals and customs of Dine’ society. A “wandering” Ma’ii is a representation of socially unacceptable behavior, but the eventual victory and good fortune of those whom “wandering” Ma’ii tries to trick, cheat or destroy just reaffirms the eventual triumph of justice and morality. As the 21st century Dine’ people try to understand Ma’ii, we become transitional and walk between two worlds. As many celebrate Native American Heritage Month, a unifying theme is a reminder to the world that we are still here. This message applies to Ma’ii and his Indian farms, past or present. As Natives learn to adapt to the 21st century, Ma’ii still is as ambiguous today as he always has been.


[1] Robert Roessel, Jr. and Dillon Platero, eds., Coyote Stories of the Navajo People (Rough Rock, AZ: Navajo Curriculum Center Press, 1974), 85-90; Margaret Schevill Link and Joseph L. Henderson, The Pollen Path: A Collection of Navajo Myths (Literacy Licensing, LLC, 2011), 48-49; also see, Shonto Begay, Ma’ii and Cousin Horned Toad: A Traditional Navajo Story (Scholastic Trade, 1992).

[2] Robert S. McPherson, Jim Dandy, and Sarah E. Burak, Navajo Tradition, Mormon Life: The Autobiography and Teachings of Jim Dandy (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2012), 183.

[3] The Shoshone call themselves Newe, meaning “People;” Goshute is a Shoshone word for “Desert People;” the Navajo call themselves Dine’ meaning “the People;” the Northern Paiute call themselves Numa and Southern Paiute call themselves Nuwuvi, both meaning “the People;” and the Ute call themselves Nuciu meaning “the People.”

[4] Young often championed for the needs of local Natives with sentiments like, “Before the whites came, there was plenty of fish and antelope, plenty of game of almost every description; but now the whites have killed off these things, and there is scarcely anything left for the poor natives to live upon,” but his actions usually ended up benefiting his members, which was his main concern. See Brigham Young, “Wilford Woodruff sermon on 15 July 1855,” Journal of Discourses, 9:227.

[5] Deseret News (Salt Lake City), 16 November 1850. Young again asked for the creation of Indian reservations in 1852, 1854, and 1861. President Abraham Lincoln signed an Executive Order establishing the Uintah Valley Reservation in 1861, which was finally signed by Congress on May 5, 1864. Eventually, other reservations would be established for the removal of all Natives in Utah. In 1863, the Shoshones and Goshutes signed treaties for removal, and after years of conflict between the Indians, Mormons, Utah and Federal governments, reservations were established for the Goshutes at Skull Valley in 1912 and Deep Creek in 1914. The Shoshone never received a reservation until the donation of land by the LDS church in 1960. In 1865 the Paiutes also agreed to hand over tribal lands and over years of conflict were given several reservations which included the Shivwits (1891), Indian Peaks (1915), Koosharem (1928), Kanosh (1929), and Cedar Band (1980). The White Mesa Utes signed over tribal lands in 1868 and never received a reservation in Utah and are unrecognized by the federal government. The tribe did purchase lands at White Mesa and some tribal members reside there. The Navajos also signed over tribal lands through the 1868 treaty and were given reservation lands in southern Utah in 1884. See Forrest S. Cuch, ed., A History of Utah’s American Indians (Salt Lake City: Utah State Division of Indian Affairs and Utah State Division of history, 2003), 67-72, 104, 113-19, 139, 141-65, 189-94, 243, 261, 288-90.

[6] Richard H. Jackson, “The Mormon Indian Farms: An Attempt at Cultural Integration” in Geographical Perspectives on Native Americans: Topics and Resources, Vol. 1, (Washington D.C.: Association of American Geographers, 1976).

[7] Frederick R. Gowans. A History of Brigham Young’s Indian Superintendency (1851-1857) “Problems and Accomplishments (July 1963), 39.

[8] Trying to find a solution to his Indian problems, Young attempted to settle Natives on farms established under the watchful eye of Mormon superintendents in 1852. This at least attempted to assist Natives in finding another source of food, but these farms would be short lived, by 1859, conflicts with non-Mormons hindered Mormon interactions with Natives. Federal Indian agents argued that Mormons were trying to influence Natives against the United States and recommend that Natives in Utah Territory then be placed on reservations within Utah Territory, where they could have legal jurisdiction over the Natives (see, David Bigler, “Garland Hurt: The American Friend of the Utahs,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Spring 1994), 149-70). After the Civil War, the conflict in Utah between the Natives, Mormons and non-Mormons brought about the creation of Utah’s first Indian reservation. It was soon found that Young’s Indian farms either proved to be inadequate or failed completely. The idea of Indian farms did pique the interest of the Indian agents and implemented Indian farms among a number of tribes. In part this eventually evolved into the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 (a.k.a. General Allotment Act), which divided Native lands into allotments for individuals with the hopes that Natives would farm their lands and become productive members of white society, with surplus Native lands ending up in the hands of non-Natives (see, Beverly Beeton, “Teach Them to Till the Soil: An Experiment with Indian Farms, 1850-1862,” American Indian Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 4 (Winter, 1977-78), 299-320).

[9] “New Stake Presidents,” Church News (1 November 2008).

[10] Aside from the embedded link, see See Allie Schulte, “Seeds of Self-Reliance,” Ensign (March 2011), 61-65.

[11] Allen Christensen, “Bountiful Garden,” Church News (October 2, 2010)

[12] Tad Walch, “Why are more Navajos joining LDS Church”, Deseret News (October 31, 2013)

Ed. This post has been updated.

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


  1. I appreciate your insights and Navajo perspective that features Ma’ii and the recent attention on the LDS gardening projects on the reservation. However, I am confused about what you mean concerning your “wish [that] there was more of an allowance here to navigate the use of the sacredness of land as a missionary tool.” Who and how would this entity “navigate the use of the sacredness of land as a missionary tool”? I think this comment is important and could be drawn out. I also wonder to what extent Navajos see “Ma’ii” in other people and entities, as you have done in this paper by directly referring to Brigham Young and the LDS Church as “Ma’ii.” Is the current gardening program of the LDS Church another seemingly “innocent” plot that will eventually lead to trouble and harm on the part of “Ma’ii”? What will this modern lesson of Ma’ii teach us? How can the LDS Church move away from being the Ma’ii, or should it even try? As you mentioned, Ma’ii is neither good or evil but he must be treated with caution.

    Comment by Farina King — November 14, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

  2. Farina, I mean that David gave me 1,000 word limit on the article…

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — November 14, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

  3. Thanks, Corey. This is a nice overview of the 19th century farming experiments and their fascinating 21st century coda. Do you see the recent gardening experiments as a potential redemption of Brigham Young’s initial vision, stripped perhaps of much (if not all) of the paternalism and settler colonialism inherent in the 19th century version?

    Comment by David G. — November 14, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

  4. Fascinating, Corey. Brigham Young as coyote captures how changeable he often seemed to be, as he dealt with Indians. Sometimes a comparatively enlightened white leader, at other times a typical leader who wanted Indians “out of sight, out of mind,” on reservations. It’s interesting how southern Utah started out as the Southern Indian Mission, but before long was the Cotton Mission. Something similar occurred in the Little Colorado Mission. Jacob Hamblin started Pipe Spring, Kanab and Pahreah as Indian farms, but as Brigham sent more settlers, they lost that focus.

    Comment by Todd Compton — November 15, 2013 @ 1:07 am

  5. Thanks for this Corey. Very interesting.

    Comment by Christopher — November 15, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

  6. Among my LDS Native friends, the New York Times article by Fernanda Santos spread across Facebook like a wildfire. The word ?Irony? came to mind. In the late 1870s-1900s, Mormon farms were one of the leading factors for the eviction of the Mormons and conflicts with local Navajo and Hopi Indians. But here comes Santos stating that today, Mormon farms were being used as a missionary tool. I wondered how this fit into Brigham Young?s creation of Indian farms. On top of that, originally the Church was not interested in proselytizing or converting the Navajos (and yes there are small instances were some Navajos are converted early on, but it is not a priority for them), the Hopi was their main focus. They even tried to get the Hopis to relocate to Utah, but were denied. The Church wouldn?t be focused on Navajos as a people until the 1940-50s with the beginning stages of the Indian Student Placement Program (ISPP). I think it would be interesting to hear from Larry Justice to see what exactly inspired him to bring Mormon Indian farms to Tuba City, and if he ever responds back I?ll post his response.

    As all of these things were floating around, family life continued on. At home, the winter time provides an opportunity for Navajo families to share certain stories, such as stories of Ma?ii. As I have been going over some of these stories selecting what to share with my children, Ma?ii sounded more and more like Brigham Young and his Indian policies. No matter what Church doctrine, Church policy or programs regarding Natives, they all have multiple agendas. The Indian farms of the 19th century were to help Natives become more ?civilized? and help them learn Euro-American farming techniques to help Natives become self-reliant because Mormons were over using Native food sources and plus Brigham Young wanted to keep tabs on where certain groups of Natives were. Here in the 21st century, Indian farms are used to help teach Euro-American farming techniques to help Natives become self reliant, many of which are Natives who survived the ?civilization? effects of Euro-American education (including the ISPP) and feel they lost part of their Native traditions and customs. It?s interesting; they now see these Indian farms as a way to reconnect with their Indianness.

    I think Robert S. McPherson?s work on the Navajos mirrors this article by looking at how Navajos have to adjust to a world where the dominate Euro-American culture is increasingly affecting their views on the world. In Navajo Land, Navajo Culture: The Utah Experience in the Twentieth Century, McPherson looks at land and its vital role and importance to the Navajos. How this differs from the Mormons would be interesting to look at. In McPherson?s other book, Sacred Land, Sacred View: Navajo Perceptions of the Four Corners Region, he pulls out some wonderful issues to consider, Just as Ma?ii stories are taught to teach, so is the land.

    Farina, you picked out one of my favorite parts of this article, ?the use of the sacredness of land as a missionary tool.? For the Navajos, the Land is here to help, teach, and protect. The land becomes incorporated into Navajo history, myth, culture, tradition, and religion. Navajo stories of good versus evil are played out through an incorporated structure of beliefs which is represented by the land. How this compares to Mormonism, I?m not sure, especially when they don?t have any ties to this land other than pushing their claim to the right of Mormon Manifest Destiny. But aren?t we all just an extension of nature anyways?

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — November 17, 2013 @ 1:46 am

  7. Interesting.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — November 17, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

  8. Fascinating post and comments, Corey.

    Comment by Stan — December 2, 2013 @ 6:49 pm


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