Summer Book Club: On Zion’s Mount, Chapter Nine

By August 30, 2018

Over the past nine weeks, we have made our way through Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard UP, 2008). In On Zion’s Mount, as we have learned, Farmer discusses the way Native and Mormon groups imagined and reimagined the geographical spaces among which they lived. Today we discuss chapter nine, “Performing a Remembered Past”; next week, watch this space for Jared Farmer’s response to our efforts here.

(Previous posts in the series: introduction; chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, chapter four, chapter five, chapter six, chapter seven, chapter eight.)

Unlike many of the posters in this series, I don’t have a personal connection to Mt. Timpanogos; the closest I’ve come is a couple visits to Sundance during my two-year sojourn in Utah. Reading On Zion’s Mount was my introduction to the cultural touchstone, and, as we have seen in Jared Farmer’s book, imagined landmark that is Timp. Central to Farmer’s book is the question of how, as he says in his introduction, “a mountainous space [became] the mountain-place called “Timp” (Italics original, 3). Chapter nine, then, turns to the practices–more specifically, the performances–that uphold Timpanogos’ usable past. This is a past that “concealed a double displacement—the literal displacement of the Timpanogos Utes, and the symbolic displacement of their lake,” as Farmer writes in his introduction (5).

In his introduction, Farmer marks the difference between landscapes and landmarks, explaining that landmarks are “legible feature[s] of the landscape where meaning is concentrated” (5). Landmarks are always created, they always require upkeep and maintenance, but they are not always manmade, as the history of Timp shows us. In chapter nine, Farmer moves to memory studies, discussing the forgetting and remembering that allowed Timp to emerge as a memory site. He discusses how local scouts played at being both Indians and pioneers as they ascended and descended the mountain, telling and retelling the legends associated with the mountain around campfires and on hikes. Eugene Roberts’ legend was performed and dramatized in other ways as well, including in opera—here Farmer goes on to describe the fascinating and “surprisingly rich history of musical Indian play” by which composers “represent[ed] and appropriat[ed]” native music for white audiences, sometimes with the cooperation of Indians (337). The ‘performance’ in this chapter’s title (“Performing a Remembered Past”) is thus partly literal, and Farmer details the many ways Timp’s usable past came to life on stage, through storytelling, music, and other such avenues.

Farmer then moves to discuss how “[t]he fake-folk Legend of Timpanogos” becomes folklore, as “[b]y the time Eugene Roberts passed away … his legend no longer belonged to him. It belonged to the ordinary people who retold the story” (357) on car trips, during hikes, youth camps, and family gatherings. They added details and forgot others, but all feature a girl dying. (As Farmer dryly writes: “[n]o death, no story” [358].) Farmer investigates what, exactly, gives this tale its enduring quality, concluding that it helps “explain local topography … while expressing the pride of place felt by local residents” (359). But he warns that it doesn’t just “explain topography; it creates it,” as people now see an Indian woman outlined on the mountain; to be able to do so is a mark of belonging, in a sense, and “may help even the newest resident to feel a bit like a native” (361). [1]

But folklore about Timp also allows the largely white population to claim Indians as “fictive kin” and to ‘honor’ their past (361). Here, again, Farmer turns to the stage, as he describes a local ballet’s annual performance of the Legend of Timpanogos that he claims is “almost as popular as The Nutcracker” and was also featured in the Winter Olympics (361). He highlights that for many residents of Utah County (largely white and largely Mormon), “the legend of Timpanogos constitutes the most memorable ‘knowledge’ about the Indians” Mormon settlers displaced (362). And the legend, as Farmer writes, “obscures the role of Mormons” in this displacement (363), highlighting again the role of forgetting in collective memory. Here, Farmer also discusses the changing place of Indians in Mormon thought, as Indian outreach programs ended and a shift quietly took place away from identifying Lamanites as the ancestors of American Indians, thus allowing Indians to fade from Mormon memory even more.

Any discussion of Mormon memory must, of course, mention the pioneers. Farmer takes on the Mormon tradition of playing pioneer in plays, and parades, and during treks, rightly noting that “[i]n Utah, pioneer worship is a civic religion” (371). This focus consciously or unconsciously “pushes” natives off the stage, as it were, and relegates them to “the realm of footnotes and folklore” (371). Anyone who studies Mormon collective memory recognizes the part that comes next: how the First Vision and the pioneer trek became the centerpieces of Mormon memory around which an institution could and would be built after the traumatic dismantling of the original celestial marriage system. Farmer takes this familiar scholarly narrative and quickly shows how that not only meant the erasure of polygamy from the Mormon story, but also Indians. Pioneers ‘win,’ in that sense, from both polygamists and Indians and continue to dominate Utah’s public memory.

As a self-proclaimed insider-outsider, Farmer continually moves from viewpoint to viewpoint in this book, and ends his work with a discussion of the ways Utes themselves make use of the usable past and tell and retell stories about Timpanogos themselves. The book ends on an ambiguous note, as Farmer remarks that “[a]uthenticity is as elusive as it is desirable” (378); it is impossible to trace the legend back to its ‘true’ source, nor does truth exist here in any meaningful way. The legend of Mount Timpanogos is what people make it to be.

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[1] Perhaps that helps explain my disconnect to Utah; although I lived in Utah for two years and moved away with sadness, as a Gentile and a European I never really did feel I would be allowed to claim it as home. Perhaps prolonged exposure to Mount Timpanogos was all I needed to prove to myself and others that I belonged. If I ever move back, I will have to test this theory.

Article filed under Miscellaneous Summer Book Club


  1. Thanks, Saskia! I wonder if the mountain creates the same cultural buy-in for transplants as it does for people born in Utah. I’ve kind of felt like it’s Little Sebastian-esque

    Comment by Jeff T — August 30, 2018 @ 8:24 am

  2. I lived in Utah for my undergraduate studies, and I remember hearing stories about the outline of a woman on the mountain. I remember thinking that it sounded wildly inauthentic. I wonder how many people believe the folklore they perpetuate. But maybe it doesn’t matter?

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 30, 2018 @ 8:35 am

  3. Lots to think about here, Saskia. Thanks for the great summary and insights!

    Comment by J Stuart — August 30, 2018 @ 1:12 pm

  4. Stapley–I think that’s exactly right, that it doesn’t matter. And Jeff, I’m intrigued by your Little Sebastian connection!

    Comment by Saskia — August 31, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

  5. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading On Zion’s Mount! Thanks for introducing me to it. I was in UT for a week this summer and tried book shop after book shop to pick up additional copies for family in UT. No one had it. Then….USU book store had used copies. They were in great condition and I bought a stack of them. I have mailed copies to lots of people and offered my recommendation to more. The information about Indian culture and how it has been abused has been eye opening to me from place names to stories to traditions all over the US! So glad I have read along with you this summer.

    Comment by Mary Lou — August 31, 2018 @ 2:39 pm

  6. Thanks for joining us, Mary Lou! We’ll post Farmer’s response to our book club next week… which I’m rather excited about. If you have any suggestions for future book clubs, feel free to send them our way!

    I’ve been thinking about buying a copy for a friend who I know helped develop Sundance, but haven’t yet.. good to know about the local bookstores, probably straight to Amazon for me.

    Comment by Jeff T — August 31, 2018 @ 4:50 pm


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