Penthouse Retrospective

by Jon Stewart and Peter Wiley Originally Published: June, 1981

Mormon Roots | 40 Years Ago This Month

The close relationship between the church and the government is most apparent in the recent history of what has happened to Indian land, which, besides children, is the Native Americans’ last great resource. Though once thought worthless, Indian land today is among the most highly valued real estate in the West, thanks to this nation’s voracious appetite for uranium, coal, oil and oil shale, tar sands, and the water required to mine and process those resources and to supply the ever-growing cities.

Despite Brigham Young’s paternal admonition that it was “less expensive to feed and clothe than to fight them,” there has never been a time when the Lamanites have been welcome in the new Zion of the Saints. True, the early Mormon settlers tried, with little success, to convert the neighboring Shoshoni, Bannock, and Ute — even experimenting with placing the reluctant heathens on church-owned farms. But for the most part, the fast-growing body of Saints in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake had no room for anybody who was not of the faith. In fact, in 1857 Brigham Young — was able to marshal fully 1,100 Mormon militia to guard the mountain pass east of Salt Lake against a U.S. Army expedition, mounted by President Buchanan, which was seeking to install a non-Mormon governor over the Utah Territory. The territory, as far as the Saints were concerned, was a semi-independent kingdom.

By 1865 the Utah Indians, battling both the Mormon militia and the U.S. Cavalry, had been defeated militarily, cut off from their traditional hunting grounds, and wracked by white man’s diseases. The chieftains signed a treaty with the government, negotiated in part by Mormons, in which they were forced to cede their vast landholdings in exchange for reservations in remote areas. The Ute, once the most feared warriors in the Rockies, were assigned to about 2 million acres of majestic but arid land in the Uinta Basin in the mountains of eastern Utah. In one generation they had been reduced to a few pathetic bands of stragglers, their number reduced from 4,500 to about 800. In roughly the same period, the Mormons — infused by a constant flow of new blood from England and Scandinavia — grew from about 50,000 to more than 110,000.

The residue of bitterness is still felt on the Ute reservation today. A young woman tribal employee in Fort Duchesne, the tribal headquarters, tells us that “a lot of things are not recorded in the histories that you read. I remember my grandmother telling me about how her people, who lived in central Utah, would be invited to big feasts by the Mormons. Then the Mormons would slip poison into the Ute’s food. There were lots of stories like that.” Fact or fantasy, such oral history may reveal more about the tone of Mormon-Indian relationships than do most written histories.

As the plows of the Mormon settlers overturned more and more soil, the original 2.5 million acres that had been granted to all the Ute bands dwindled to about 360,000 acres by the early twentieth century. Lost in their own land, the Ute died faster than their children could be born.

And so it continued until the 1930s, when President Roosevelt brought about an “Indian New Deal” under the leadership of Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior, and John Collier, who became commissioner of Indian affairs. Sincere and well-meaning for their time, they imposed on the Indian tribes the greatest gift they could conceive-formal, elected government.

For decades Washington did not know how to deal legally and officially with the various Indian bands. How could the U.S. government or, more to the point, certain U.S. corporations execute treaties, land leases, and mineral-exploration contracts with unelected leaders of informal, unofficial bands of Indians? Thus, in order for the tribes to reap the harvest of federal and corporate royalties, on the one hand, and in order for the government and the corporations to reap the Indian land and minerals, on the other hand, the New Deal bequeathed the wonders of elected, representative tribal government to the often reluctant tribes.

Despite the inherent ironies of the new benevolence in Washington, the period marked a turning point for the Ute, whose new BIA-approved government received $1.2 million for a million acres that had been appropriated for a national forest. Their future seemed assured, their land base slowly began to grow again, and for the first time in 80 years Ute births began to exceed the number of Ute deaths.

And then the second critical event of the twentieth century occurred for the Ute. The tribe hired young Ernest Wilkinson, an enterprising Mormon attorney whose Washington, D.C., law firm had gained a reputation for its expertise on Indian law issues and would go on to become an energetic official representative of the Mormon church. The tribe wanted Wilkinson to press its other land claims before the government.

Ernest Wilkinson proved so adept in his new role that he established a pattern that Indian-claims law still follows today. Before he could get on with the work of adjudicating Indian land claims-for he had his eyes on not only the Ute claim but also Indian lands throughout the country — Wilkinson had to engineer a neat little piece of legislation. Accordingly, the Indian Claims Commission Act, written in part by Wilkinson, was sponsored by Nevada Sen. Pat Mccarren and Utah Sen. Arthur Watkins.

This law, perhaps the most disputed piece of Indian legislation ever passed, called for the creation of an Indian Claims Commission, which would rule on the legitimacy of tribal land claims, then set the date when the land was lost, and finally determine the amount owed the Indians for the lost land based on the value of the land at the time it was taken, which was in most instances anywhere from 50 to 100 years earlier than passage of the act. Wilkinson would later boast in a letter to a Ute leader that “as your attorney, I spent considerable time assisting in the writing of that particular bill.” He would go on to call it “the biggest victory ever obtained by the Indians in Congress with respect to settling their claims against the government.”

All religions have roots in concurrent uplifting and occasionally horrific experience. The Mormon church followed Western settlers in general.