It takes courage for a little, white, Mormon girl to knock on the door of a Native American family’s house. Especially when she barely knows them. Especially when you live in the remote canyons. And especially on September 11, which is when Utahns remind themselves of a massacre that they wrongly believe was committed by Indians.
One morning there was a knock on our door. Grandpa and grandma had just returned from their early-dawn hike up the canyons. Grandpa opened the door to find our neighbor’s pretty little daughter with her border collie.
“Can you turn me into a Paiute and give me an Indian name?” she asked grandpa.
Grandpa laughed. Why would anyone want to be an Indian in Southern Utah? In this very area, Indians have been called wagon burners and baby killers ever since the Mountain Meadows massacre. The massacre had been committed by Mormons and falsely blamed on the Paiutes. Mormon militia had painted their faces and worn feathers to look like Indians, although the Paiutes never wore feathers themselves. They had dressed up to look like Indians with banners around their head, red paint and turkey feathers. They whooped and hollered, even though the Paiutes never had a culture of hollering.
Paiute elders have related the Mountain Meadows story to me numerous times. The oral histories I have heard from Paiute elders are sincere, strong, compelling and spoken from the heart. Indians know that the official Mormon accounts of the massacre are completely wrong. The massacre never even happened where the monument says it took place; rather it happened in the valley on the east side.
On September 11, 1857, not far from where we live, the entire Baker–Fancher emigrant wagon train was massacred. We live in Iron County and the perpetrators of the massacre included people from our very own rural town. Those killed were families from Arkansas, Missouri and other states bound for California who were slaughtered while they rested in Mountain Meadows, Utah. One of the men from the emigrant wagon had boasted to the Mormons that he had the gun that killed Mormon founder Joseph Smith, which was one of the factors that precipitated the massacre.
After a protracted battle, on the afternoon of September 11, the emigrants were persuaded to surrender with the promise of safe passage to my town. The men and older boys were separated from women and children. The Mormons didn’t want the attacks to be traced back to them, so after the unarmed emigrants had marched about a mile up the valley, all surrendering emigrant men and older boys were shot without warning. Then all women and children were shot. At least 120 individuals were massacred. Only 17 babies and children deemed too young to know that these were Mormons dressed as Indians were spared. While two curious Paiute Indians watched hidden from a distance, the attackers hastily and awkwardly buried the dead, leaving their bodies vulnerable to scavenging by wild animals. The hidden Paiutes were wondering which tribe of Indians was killing defenseless children and women.
As the perpetrators washed paint off their faces and cleaned themselves after the massacre, the Paiutes realized with horror that these were whites disguised as Indians. Knowing that the massacre would be blamed on them, the Paiutes rushed off to warn the others. And predictably, the entire massacre was blamed on the Paiutes. Indians in this region are a very superstitious people and don’t mess around with dead people, dead bodies or their possessions. The killers stripped the bodies of their valuables like rings or necklaces and collected the money boxes, gold, silver and jewelry of the wealthy Baker–Fancher party. All property of the massacred party, including cattle, mules, horses and chickens, was taken to the tithing office in my town and auctioned off to local Mormons. At least 17 surviving children were distributed among local families.
Even though the women, men and children were killed by guns and the Paiutes and area Indians didn’t have guns, local Mormons believed their church leaders and hated us for the massacre. For 150 years, they called Indians in the area wagon burners and baby killers. Insults were freely lobbed at us. The history sites, monuments, culture centers, schoolbooks and museums placed the blame for the massacre on local Paiutes.
Official Mormon history said the Paiutes had forced reluctant Mormons into the massacre. However, the Paiutes were hardly warriors; they were a dispersed root-digging people who could not even stop frequent slave raids from Mexicans, Utes and Navajos. Historians agree that the largest war party the Paiutes had ever amassed in history consisted of a mere 12 individuals. Yet the official Mormon account says that hundreds of enraged Paiute warriors had threatened the very existence of the large, well-armed Mormon settlements and had forced Mormon involvement in the massacre.
The consensus among historians is that deception was necessary to protect the direct complicity of Mormon prophet Brigham Young in the massacre and to protect their religion. The Book of Mormon also teaches that Indians are not the original inhabitants of America; rather we are the apostate Lamanites who had wiped off a white race called the Nephites who lived in America before the Indians. The Nephites were, according to the Mormon religion, a cultured, white people who were on God’s side. And the Lamanites are the sinful, dark-skinned Indians who had wiped off this entire white race in America that occupied this land before the Indian Lamanites arrived from Israel.
That didn't help, and Mountain Meadows didn’t help either. Store owners, cashiers, farmers, ranchers, local employers and others righteously treated us badly. After all, they believed we had massacred innocent white women and children at Mountain Meadows. Just like the Arabs are despised in America for 9/11, we were despised in Southern Utah for the massacre on 9/11 of 1857. For 150 years. Until as recently as 2007.
That’s when the Mormon Church expressed regrets to Indians and admitted that it was the church leaders and members who had committed the massacre and had blamed it on Indians. But this “regret” wasn't widely disseminated. And in private communication to its members, the church continues to strongly implicate Indians in the massacre. The church concedes that the Mormons killed the men but as of the present insists that Indians clubbed all women and children to death. However, forensic pathologist Shannon Novak and her team found bullet holes in the skulls of women and children, which ran counter to the church’s claim that the Paiutes clubbed them to death.
Indians continue to be hated in southern Utah today. Mormons are good people and I love them, but they still believe Indians committed the Mountain Meadows massacre. For 150 years, we weren’t treated well because of what the locals thought we had done. We still aren’t treated much better. Every single day Indians continue to suffer indignities in this region, whether it is someone mistaking us for an illegal from Mexico or the police being called to check out a “suspicious individual,” who usually happens to be an Indian walking home from work because he is too poor to afford a car. So why would anyone want to be an Indian in southern Utah, and that too a Paiute?
Grandpa gave this little girl a hug, grandma cooked her a traditional Indian breakfast, while I called her dad to tell him his daughter and their dog were safe at our place.
“Why do you want to be a Paiute, hon?”
Said the little girl, “After my mom died, no one wants to be friends with me at school. If you turn me into a Paiute girl, I can wear beautiful costumes at your powwows and dance like a butterfly. Then everyone in school will like me and will want to be friends with me again.” Then she added, “And because I love Paiutes!”
I smiled at her use of the word ‘costume.’ Grandpa hugged her again. “Hon, if I knew magic, I would happily turn you into a Paiute girl. But I don't know magic. And I am not Paiute myself. I am from a different tribe.”
Her face sank and grandpa couldn’t bear to see the sad expression of a girl who had recently lost her mother, so he continued. “But I can definitely show you how to be an Indian at heart and I can also give you an Indian name. You need to know three things to be an Indian at heart. First, take good care of the land and respect the spirit in the land, the mountains, the animals, the trees. Everything you see around you, whether it has life or it doesn’t, has a spirit, and must be respected. Second, take good care of your family, your dad. That includes your dog, who is also part of your family. Finally, be a good friend to Indians and the Paiutes. We can always use a few good friends like you in Utah.”
As the girl’s face brightened into a broad smile, my grandma added, “And you’re always welcome to dance at the next powwow which will be around Thanksgiving. I can teach you how to dance.”
The little girl couldn’t have been happier. “What’s my Indian name?” she asked, her eyes very bright and sparkling.
“Aputsini Tuxuvun, it means ‘pretty friend’ in Paiute,” said grandpa.
And then I walked Aputsini Tuxuvun home. The little girl pranced all the way.