Native Americans

Where roamed at will the fearless Indian band,
The templed cities of the Saints now stand.

The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close #37

In many ways, the Latter-day Saint exodus into Utah resembled the western expansion of other Americans.  Like others, they occupied Native American land, cut them off from sources of food and water, killed resisters, forced them into slavery and called on the federal government to remove the local population into reservations. When Native Americans did not allow them to occupy their lands, the pioneers conquered them by force. Provo was a major hub for the Timpanogos, and they were not easily displaced. Brigham Young called for an extermination order, and the local population was massacred. Similar massacres happened in Pleasant Grove, Skull Valley and Circleville.

We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid

Come, Come, Ye Saints #30

At the core of the conflict was the question of what rights the local population had to their own lands. Pioneers believed the land had been prepared for them, where no one was supposed to hurt them or make them afraid. They felt the land was theirs and that the native population had no rights to it. When conflicts arose, the pioneers believed they were justified in removing anyone who made them afraid. When discussing conflicts with the Native Americans, early saints relied on the narrative that the land now belonged to them, as well as the water, food and animals that were there, and that the Native American were stealing from them when they hunted, gathered and fished in their ancestral homes. If Native Americans protected their lands by killing the cattle that were destroying their food sources, the pioneers would kill them.

The early saints were called on to move to Utah, but that did not mean that God had already prepared the land for them. It did not mean they could just take it without anyone bothering them. Instead, God could have wanted them to come to a land that was not prepared for them. Maybe God wanted them to work with the locals to create a space for themselves through mutually beneficial arrangements.

Building new and firm foundations,
Pushing on the wild frontier

They, the Builders of the Nation #36

The Native Americans were the builders of the nation, not the early saints. They were the ones that tamed the wild land. They were the ones that showed the early saints the water and food sources. They should be given the credit, and we should be careful not to claim that the Mormons were the first to settle Utah.

The early saints did not recognize the contributions of the Native Americans. Native people knew how to fish, gather and hunt in a way that preserved the land and its precious resources. The saints over-fished and over-hunted, quickly depleting the natural resources the local population had worked so hard to preserve.

We cannot expect the early saints to have the same understanding of race that we have now. They were affected by the prejudices of the day. Since the last songbook, the Church has put out an essay discussing the prejudices and violence of the early saints against the Native Americans. We can honor the Mormon pioneers and all of the good that they accomplished while acknowledging that they were not the first ones in Utah and that they took land that belonged to other people. We can stop singing hymns that perpetuate the false narrative that God prepared the land for them.

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