It’s Pioneer Day! Time to read On Zion’s Mount

07.24.2013 | Blair Hodges

Happy Pioneer Day!

I was recently preparing to interview BYU professor George Handley for an upcoming episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, and at his recommendation (made throughout his excellent book, Home Waters) I picked up Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape in order to learn more about the Utah landscape I grew up in. Most Mormons are familiar with our heroic tale of brave pioneers who forged their way through the rough wilderness where they found a barren desert, toiling to make it blossom as the rose. I’ve heard the stories my whole life. As Farmer’s work shows, these stories simplify a much more complex history of migration and land use. On Zion’s Mount focuses chiefly on the Utah Valley region and Mount Timpanogos. He shows how Mormon settlers’ initial attention to Utah Lake—a beautiful fishing location—was shifted to the mountains as Indians were displaced, the lake was polluted, and national enthusiasm for mountaineering and hiking increased during the early twentieth century. One of the most interesting sections discusses the folklore surrounding “Timp”—the legend of an Indian woman who, as the story goes, threw herself from the peak, leaving the outline of her body visible along the entire range’s ridge. Many local hikers, BYU students, and traveling Mormons have heard the tale, but what is the truth behind it? Farmer delivers.

On Zion’s Mount covers so many interesting subjects, including the politics of place names, Indian lore, cultural memory, and folklore. Farmer frames the book in a way that makes a local story relevant to the story of the American nation. As a review published by BYU Studies suggests, his tone may occasionally seem cavalier to Mormons who are sensitive about protecting their honored heritage, but he does his best to honor the history of the now-forgotten Indian-Mormon relations. It isn’t always a pretty story, but it’s an important one, as former Church historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen emphasized:

Regardless of how one views the equities of Indian-Mormon relations in those times, the end result was that the land and cultural birthright Indians once possessed in the Great Basin were largely taken from them. It is important to acknowledge and appreciate the monumental loss this represents on the part of Utah’s Indians–that loss and its 160-year aftermath are the rest of the story.

Here’s an excerpt from the final chapter of On Zion’s Mount. Here, as throughout the book, Farmer emphasizes that the stories we tell about our landscapes also tell us interesting things about ourselves—our hopes and values. While you might quibble with some of the observations in this broad concluding statement (for instance, “forced Americanization” overlooks the perspective of Mormons who welcomed changes, and identifying the fading of Millennial expectation and plural marriage as a “debacle” ignores other important Mormon belief and practice), you should read the book to see how Farmer himself provides more nuance to this broad outline.

Perhaps one fitting way for book nerds to celebrate this holiday would be to purchase Farmer’s book and dig in. It can remind us that our history is often more complex than we would ever guess:

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.

I didn’t give you any time to prepare for this, of course, but you can check the preview on Google Books here. If you’re still not convinced, see a few other discussions of the book here, here, and here.