Mormon and Indian
The Northwestern Band of Shoshone of Brigham City, UT has the dubious distinction of being the only Mormon Indian tribe in the United States. "That's what they call us when we visit reservations," laughed Bruce Parry, executive director of the tribe. "Those Mormon Indians."
The Mormon church has always sought to convert Indians, since they are held in special regard to Mormons as the Lamanites, the lost tribe of Israel. According to Mormon theology, Native Americans/ Lamanites were those whom Jesus ministered to when he came to the United States after his resurrection. In a very real way, the presence of Native Americans is evidence of the veracity of the Book Of Mormon. Then why, however, have so few Indians converted to the Church of Latter Day Saints? Despite the scriptural sanctioning of Native peoples, Utah Indians and Mormons were often at odds when the LDS church first arrived in Utah in the 1840s. Both peoples were barely surviving at subsistence levels: the Indians because of their hunter/gatherer lifestyle and the Mormons because they had been kicked out of Illinois with little but the shirts on their backs. When the Mormons started to graze their cattle in the fertile Cache Valley where the Shoshoni lived, the Indian's food supply of grass was eradicated. In retaliation, the Indians periodically stole cattle and horses from the invading settlers, calling it rent to compensate them for the loss of their lands. Violence often broke out, and it was usually the Indians who were shot. Brigham Young's oft-quoted policy about Indians was that it was cheaper to feed them than to fight them, but this was not so often the case in practice. Despite theological ideas about Indians, the Indians were about as eager to convert as the Mormons were eager to have these "illiterate savages" join their fold.
But then violence erupted at Bear River in the
winter of 1863. Many members of the Northwestern Band were camped out
for the night, and a U.S. Militia group led by Col. Patrick Connor had
been authorized to put down those troublesome Indians. When morning
came, over 400 Shoshone were dead, mainly women, children and the wounded.
It was the largest Indian massacre in the history of the United States,
and the militia group had been led to their camp by a local Mormon.
Still, after the massacre, Indian legend has it that the spirit of the
Nefites, wandering apostles immortalized in the Book of Mormon, visited
the devastated tribe and told them to get baptized. Whether it was Mormon
spirits or the very real threat of being sent to the reservations, all
of the members of the tribe except one man were baptized within a few
weeks in 1873. (The hold-out actually wanted to become a Mormon but
he was afraid of water.) Converting to Mormonism solved a lot of the
tribe's problems. The church gave them land to farm, 1700 acres in Washakie,
UT, and thus saved them both from starvation and from being shuttled
to the reservation.
For over a hundred years, the tribe lived at
their Washakie, UT settlement and farmed alfalfa, hay and oats. It was
But the Mormon church was generous in its assistance. The LDS church
provided the Indians with new homes and a new temple where everyone
worshipped. Locals joked that the Indians had the longest church services
around because they each had to get up and confess all their sins. The
church gradually expanded the land from 1700 acres to 11,500. It was
never quite clear, however, who owned the land. Most of the Indians
received deeds to their homesteads, but many promptly lost the seemingly
useless pieces of paper or simply failed to have them recorded in the
local assessor's office. The church bought back various pieces of the
land from members of the tribe as they lost rights to it due to failure
to pay taxes or other legalities. In the 1960s, church fathers noticed
that only a few families still lived at Washakie. Many had left for
war-time jobs or to join the other; still others were on long visits
to relatives on nearby reservations. The church decided the land could
be better used and repossessed the few homes it didn't already own,
burning them to the ground. The Washakie Farm was sold in an auction
in 1972. Scott Christensen, an archivist for the Mormon church and the
author of Sagwitch, a book about the first Shoshone chief to
convert, has regrets about the way the church dealt with the situation.
Today the 415 members of the Northwestern Band have 184 acres left of their Washakie land: their cemetery. The tribal members are scattered throughout Northern Utah along the side of the Wasatch mountain range. Yet, despite the actions of the church, the members remain overwhelmingly faithful to the church. They have been Mormon for so long that there is little left to them of Shoshone traditions, only old superstitions about little people and giants. Now it seems as though economic development can finally happen for the Northwestern Band. They are in negotiations to buy the Bar S ranch, a 5600 acre ranch right next to their old Washakie homestead. Unlike the dry soil and sagebrush of Washakie, however, the Bar S has a modern circular irrigation system and a profitable cattle-ranching and hay-farming business. It also has a $23 million price tag. The Northwestern Band, however, refuses to ask the church for financial assistance, looking instead to HUD or Congressional appropriation. And it is likely that the government will help them. After all, they have some guilt from leaving the tribe in the seemingly not-so-capable hands of the Mormon church. What's next for the Mormon Indian tribe? A proposed smoke shop and casino on their desired land. Not so Mormon after all.
Mormon and Indian