Jared Farmer is the author of On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Book Cover), a cultural and environmental history of Mount Timpanogos and Utah Lake. The book is an outgrowth of his dissertation at Stanford University, where he studied under the preeminent historian of the American West, Richard White. Jared’s work is a fascinating example of cutting-edge approaches to place, memory, religion, and nature. His first book, Glen Canyon Dammed: Inventing Lake Powell and the Canyon Country, examined the controversial transformation of Glen Canyon of the Colorado River into the reservoir Lake Powell. Jared has agreed to provide us with some tidbits from On Zion’s Mount.
Dear readers of The Juvenile Instructor,
This is an invited guest posting from Jared Farmer, assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of the just-released book On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard University Press). My book uses the linked stories of Mount Timpanogos and Utah Lake to examine the settlement of the Great Basin by Latter-day Saints and its effects on native peoples (especially Utes) and the environment. To give you a flavor of the work—and to generate some discussion—I have pulled out three argumentative passages:
From the introduction:
This book is about understanding home. It shows how settlers gave meaning to the lands they settled, and how their progeny developed an attachment to place—in other words, how nonnatives became neonatives. Utah offers a powerful case study because only here can we find a colonial U.S. population that speaks of having a “homeland” in the Native American sense—an endemic spiritual geography. They call it Zion. That the establishment of the Mormon homeland in Utah occurred in tandem with the diminishment of native peoples and places may be discomforting enough. But I must prod further. Mormonism, a religion indigenous to the United States, originally embraced American Indians as spiritual kin, or “Lamanites.” Metaphysically and geographically, this religion reserved a privileged place for natives. But prophecies, dreams, and intentions never quite become realities. In high relief, Utah history exposes an unsettling incongruity of U.S. history: the senses of place that make present-day Americans feel at home would not exist without past displacements.
By being typical and exceptional at the same time, Utah offers a valuable perspective on the United States. The religious element is of course distinctive, yet the main story of Utah’s formation—settlers colonizing Indian land, organizing a territory, dispossessing natives, and achieving statehood—could not be more American. Even so, the Great Basin, the Mormons’ region of settlement, remains outside the purview of mainstream American history. This relationship is best explained by geographic metaphors. The Great Basin is that large piece of North America that has no outlet to the sea. Its runoff flows inward, where it pools and evaporates. So it is with Utah history. Because of the LDS stronghold in Utah, and because of the LDS emphasis on history, the state sustains a steady flow of scholarship. However, the water lacks proper turbidity. It’s unnaturally pure because so many historians have filtered out non-Mormons and native peoples. Because of provincialism, scholars of Utah rarely push beyond the rim of their basin. They write for an audience of Mormons. History pools at their feet; their stream never reaches the ocean. Meanwhile, in the seaboard cities where opinion generally takes shape, most U.S. historians ignore Utah history and Mormon history. In their coast-to-coast historical surveys, scholars may occasionally glance down, may even notice a curious patch of blue—an inland sea of history. Yet whether through prejudice or indifference, they rarely descend for a closer look. They should. The Great Basin is the perfect place to be disorientated and reoriented.
And from the final chapter:
With its disproportionate focus on pioneering, the Mormon sense of the past is compressed and insular. Intentionally or not, native peoples have been pushed to the historical margins—the realm of footnotes and folklore. Utah Mormons preoccupy themselves with the narrative of getting to Utah. The pioneer trek is their “master commemorative narrative.” They have little incentive to think about what happened here before or even afterward. Notwithstanding the achievement of “making the desert blossom as the rose,” Utah’s territorial period was, from a strict believer’s standpoint, a debacle. Two cornerstones of Mormonism—the imminence of the Millennium and the sanctity of polygamy—wore away. After the forced Americanization of 1890, the LDS Church decided to place more emphasis on the miraculous past than on the miraculous future. Moreover, the historical emphasis was selective. The “First Vision” of Joseph Smith and the pioneer trek of Brigham Young emerged as the favored episodes for commemoration. Over the twentieth century, the Church did everything in its power to etch these episodes into collective memory. Simultaneously it did its best to erase polygamy from public consciousness. The laity abetted these efforts. As a consequence, the territorial period as a whole became indistinct. Indians faded out with the polygamists. The native peoples of the Great Basin are now doubly disadvantaged in Mormon memory: not only are the Lamanites forgettable because they didn’t live up to prophecy; they are associated with a prophetic era that most Latter-day Saints would rather forget. By contrast, pioneering is a supremely usable past.
To learn more about the book, see my publisher’s catalog: