I am tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
Someone told me they had read that Mormons asked the native people in Utah to sell the land to them. After the tribes didn’t agree to negotiate or sell, the saints decided to settle there anyway. What choice did they have? They had asked first.
They continued their narrative by saying the natives retaliated through plunder and theft, earning themselves a bad reputation. It seemed this person felt if the natives had agreed to enter into a negotiation and sell, nothing terrible would have happened to them. I believe this is bullshit. An inaccurate retelling of history, making it easier to feel nothing but pride at being an ancestor of a Mormon pioneer.
The land in the Salt Lake Valley, which Mormon pioneers like my grandfather settled, is part of the ancestral homeland of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute Tribes. Pioneer’s ownership was made possible by our participation in the genocide and forced removal of the indigenous tribes.
Before Brigham Young’s claim that God wanted us here, these tribes had lived on and stewarded the mountains and valleys. They used bows and arrows to hunt for birds, bison, and mammoths and fished in lakes and rivers. As large animals died, they adapted and relied on plant gathering for food.
The tribes developed irrigation systems for crops. Their cultural and religious rituals were held sacred. Jewelry, pottery, and petroglyphs remain today as evidence of their craftsmanship and art. Some lived in family groups in adobe homes they built.
There was peaceful trading between tribes, and at times there was war. Spanish and French explorers, priests, and fur traders arrived decades before the saints did.
Did the church view any territory as off-limits because it rightfully belonged to others living there? How did the vast acreage the church and its members take come to be in their hands? If tribes participated in the transfer of land ownership to Daniel Wood, there is no record of this in the journals I found.
The saints’ hunting, homesteading, and cattle grazing practices negatively impacted the indigenous people’s food supplies. In a familiar colonizer pattern, Brigham Young implemented a welfare program for the tribes that didn’t adequately replace what we took from them.
Daniel wrote about a few interactions he had with Native Americans. He mentioned coming upon a Sioux village with “half-breeds” in Missouri and selling cut prairie grass to them.
I cringed when I read the word “half-breed.” Half-breed is an offensive way to describe a person with a Native American and a white parent. Just like “mulatto,” is a derogatory word describing a person with black and white parents. Mulatto may have origins in the word mule, an offspring of a horse and donkey.
Historically words like “half-breed” and “mulatto” meant to categorize someone as less than pure, were widely used. It kept the original intent to label them as outsiders.
Ironically, Daniel was married to Peninah, who was a “half-breed.” All their children would fall under this nasty term he used as well.
I sang along to Cher’s best-selling song, “Half-Breed.” On the album cover, she sits bareback on a horse, wearing a two-piece leather outfit. Her long black hair reaches below her waist. Cher looked native, or at least how I imagined they all looked.
In the music video, ” Cher is sitting bareback on a horse. This time her two-piece costume is full of sparkles—an elaborate headdress with pink, orange, and yellow feathers cascades to the floor. She sings the lyrics,
“My father married a pure Cherokee. My mother’s people were ashamed of me. The Indian’s said that I was white by law. The white man always called me Indian Squaw.
We weren’t accepted, and I felt ashamed. Nineteen I left them; tell me who’s to blame. My life since then has been from man to man. But I can’t run away from what I am.
Half Breed, that’s all I ever heard. Half Breed, how I learned to hate the word. Half-Breed, she’s no good, they warned. Half-Breed, both sides were against me from the day I was born.”
Before emigrating, Daniel spent a day with a tribe he happened upon while out with some other Mormon men. This tribe invited Daniel and his companions to stay for the feast, which included “all kinds of birds and small animals.” To him, they were a united community enjoying celebrating together. Afterward, the tribe gathered for a meeting in “a large shed made of a bush.” To Daniel, they appeared very solemn. One at a time, tribal members stood and talked in the ” Indian language.”
Daniel stayed outside with a young tribal member who translated what those inside were saying into English. The translator said they were talking about the Great Spirit. Inside, one of them, possibly a medicine man or shaman, brought out a squirrel skin bag stuffed and ornamented with ribbons. The translator called it a “Google Bag.” The shaman took turns standing before the others, talking to them while holding the bag toward their heart. Each time, overcome, the person would fall to the ground. The translator said it was the Great Spirit causing them to collapse before rising renewed. After spending most of the day with them, Daniel described being ” pretty well entertained with the things we saw but could not understand.”
Once while emigrating, Daniel and the saints were traveling toward a fort. When they arrived, he was surprised to hear the soldiers tell them some natives had previously come by, alerting them that “a train of people” was headed their way. The natives included details of where the saints had been camping over the past several days. Daniel likened Indians to snakes in the grass, meaning they lie all around, but you see nothing of them.
At one point, he claimed there is “no dependence to be placed in them.” How did he come to his belief all Native Americans were unreliable? Did he believe this about his wife Peninah and their children? Or did their character and value increase because of their connection to his whiteness?