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Mormon-Indian Relations in Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

By: David G. - November 01, 2012

John Turner assumed a tall task when he decided to write a biography of Brigham Young, a larger than life personality who, after Joseph Smith, was the defining figure in nineteenth-century Mormonism. Young was a key participant in the church’s founding years and was the driving force behind the Mormon settlement of the Great Basin. As Amanda noted in her contribution to this roundtable, the sheer scope of Young’s life required Turner to not only familiarize himself with a mountain of primary sources, but also the extensive and growing secondary literature on various facets of the second Mormon prophet’s life and environment. She also fairly notes that no biographer (except, perhaps, Richard Bushman) can be reasonably expected to competently cover all parts of a subject’s life equally, which will doubtless leave some readers disappointed. Brigham Young’s engagement with and impact on the Natives of the Great Basin was one area that Turner sought to contextualize within a broader secondary literature and, for the most part, he was highly successful.

Although Turner sprinkles references to Native Americans throughout the book, he includes two extended interpretations of Mormon-Indian relations in Chapter 8 (207-18) and Chapter 12 (341-49). Drawing on recent scholarship by Ned Blackhawk, Jared Farmer, W. Paul Reeve, and others, Turner demonstrates that even before the arrival of the Mormons, the Great Basin’s Natives had already experienced European colonialism in the form of horses, diseases, and integration into slave-trading economies. Into this context, the Mormons arrived with distinctive theological beliefs about Indians, seeing them as descendants of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon, cursed for their ancestors’ wickedness and recipients of God’s promised blessings in the latter days. Turner describes Young’s vacillations between a policy of chastising Indians and seeking conciliation, as well as Mormon efforts to stop the Indian slave trade and purchasing Native children. Turner also examines the Bear River Massacre of 1863, the removal of many Utah Natives to the Uintah Basin, and the Black Hawk (Antonga) War (1865-1872). Turner concludes that

when he first came to the Great Basin, Young had envisioned a much different future for the region’s Indians. “Joseph committed to me the keys to open the gospel to every Lamanite mission,” Young had stated. That optimistic and expansive vision of Indian redemption had quickly foundered upon conflicts over Zion’s scarce resources and the daunting cultural gap between the Mormons and their prospective Indian converts. Thereafter, Young articulated a much more modest prediction that only a tiny “remnant of Israel” would embrace the Gospel. (348-49)

While Mormonism tempered how the Latter-day Saints approached their relations with Natives, in the end, the story of displacement and replacement by the new settler majority was nearly identical to other parts of the West.

Because Turner is a religious historian, he highlights important elements that other scholars might not have noted. For example, Turner compares the Puritans’ changing ideas toward Natives (from Israelites waiting to be saved to Amalekites needing to be displaced) with the Latter-day Saints’ own shifting views toward Indians (209). Turner also contextualizes Young’s 1850 experience of speaking in tongues during a meeting with various indigenous leaders–who claimed they understood Young’s words–within Young’s earlier encounters with ecstatic religion in the church. Specifically, Turner recalls Joseph Smith’s 1835 vision that that Young would speak to hostile Natives in their own language (214). Lastly, Turner pays close attention to Sally (Kahpeputz), a Native woman who was raised as a servant in Young’s household. Although Young claimed to have treated her like one of his own children, it is apparent that she was seen differently than his other (white) children. She eventually married Kanosh, an important Native ally to the Mormons, and as both were endowed, they were buried in their temple robes (215-16; 348).

Like other reviewers, I found Turner’s treatment sound, but it will likely leave some experts in Mormon-Indian relations wanting more or asking why he emphasized some points rather than others. I found it noteworthy, for example, that Turner devotes substantial space to physical violence between settlers and Natives (the Black Hawk War itself receives almost seven pages). Yet aside from one brief mention (210), Turner essentially ignores the more subtle tools of Mormon colonialism, such as missions, farms, and intermarriage. As Patrick Wolfe has noted, “invasion is a structure, not an event,” and these more “benign” forms of colonialism were ultimately more effective in the long run in removing Natives from their lands and encouraging assimilation.[1] Aside from this point, however, I found Turner’s analysis of Mormon-Indian relations to be thought-provoking and engaging.

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[1] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 388.

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7 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, David. I appreciate your take as someone well versed in the literature on the subject and look forward to others’ thoughts.

    Comment by Christopher — November 1, 2012 @ 8:03 am

  2. This is excellent! I really enjoyed Turner’s treatment of Native Americans, partially because I didn’t know much about it. Your statement about Settler Colonialism, however, is equally important and is actually really helpful for my dissertation. The third chapter of my dissertation is supposed to connect my work on Mormon missionaries to my arguments about Mormonism within Utah by examining Utah as a colonial space. I’ve been struggling with how to do that. Perhaps Wolfe’s piece will help.

    Comment by Amanda — November 1, 2012 @ 8:19 am

  3. Thanks, David; incisive and informative.

    Comment by Ben P — November 1, 2012 @ 9:18 am

  4. Thanks for the write-up, David. I know this is an area where I need to invest more time in and your criticism is helpful.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 1, 2012 @ 11:13 am

  5. Christopher, Ben, and Stapley: thanks

    Amanda: Wolfe has published a ton of articles on settler colonialism and he has some interesting ideas about intermarriage that you would probably like. He’s currently writing a book on settler colonialism in the US West, which is, I believe, a spinoff of a very ambitious project that compares settler colonialism in the US, Australia, Brazil, and Israel.

    Comment by David G. — November 1, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

  6. Good stuff, David, much appreciated.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 1, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

  7. I think you’re right; Turner has tried to take on a huge task by writing, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. Since Turner is a religious historian, in this aspect he does some great research in discussing the complex issues with the colonization of the American Mountain West.

    When looking at the general history of the Church and Native Americans, Turner does fine at bringing out some of the BASIC history to light, but neglects a whole mountain of historical, theological, political, racial, social and other complex issues that pop up due to Brigham Young’s role and interaction with Natives while acting as Prophet and President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Governor of Deseret and Utah Territory, and Superintendent of Indian Affairs of the Utah Territory.

    Instead of looking into primary work on the subject matter, he relies heavily on what others have said, which could be argued is the norm for most (not all) historians who write on the subject matter.

    The whole Noble verses the Ignoble Indian idea is not new. People brought their ideas, beliefs, biases, hatred, love, and whatever else they learned. There are fun Pioneer stories of men who had read some of the Leatherstocking tales and in their travels and encounters with Natives on the Mormon Overland Trail, they had romantic dreams of living out some of these Leatherstocking tales. Brigham Young coming to the realization that things weren’t going to work out can be argued happened pretty early, Young’s solution to his “Indian Problem” was to throw them on reservations, asking as early as 1850 (steaming from Battle Creek and Fort Utah problems) to move Indians out of present day Utah and finally his dream of a reservation coming true by 1861. Many of his ideas are not new, but it is fun to read how he describes Brigham Young dealing with these complex issues.

    This is just my perception…

    Turner’s Preface of describing Mormon history as “a hall of mirrors,” might describe his own historical work on Native-LDS history…..people who don’t know anything on the subject might be fooled by the illusion. I think that you are absolutely right, people who know more about what is going on are somewhat left with a feeling of disappointment. But you make do with what you have, and that happens to be Turner’s book.

    I don’t know if it is, but it seems to me that this review is somewhat apologetic for Turner’s work or maybe lack of work…

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — November 4, 2012 @ 1:33 pm