Utah's Saddest Legacy Is The Black Hawk War

by Author Phillip B Gottfredson

Psychological shock and severe distress spanning more than two decades was for the Snake-Shoshoni Timpanogos Nation far outside their usual range of experience. The senseless deaths of thousands of their men, woman and children, whose only crime was being indigenous to the Americas, was a horrific tragedy that has been forever indelibly etched upon the minds and hearts of their descendants.

The Black Hawk War is Utah's most tradgic legacy. Not only do the Timpanogos people of Utah suffer from "generational Trauma" because of the horror their ancestors experienced, but also Mormon people, those who's ancestors committed serious atrocities against Native people - they too are looking for healing, how to deal with their own generational guilt is a reality for many people I have spoken with. These people agonize in silence, many not knowing why.

The Legacy of the Black Hawk War in Utah begins with no reconciliation with Utah's Timpanogos Nation. This remains an issue for both sides, as people continue to struggle with the harsh realities of a war that took place over 150 years ago. For generations more than a thousand live in absolute fear of the Mormons should they speak of the atrocities of the past and even the present.

The 10th District Court ruled in 2015 that the Uinta Reservation is a Sovereign Nation that the State of Utah has no legal jurisdiction over what-so-ever. "They don't listen." Tribal members of the Timpanogos told me, "they continue to arrest our people. They take children, property, whatever they want."

Utahan's are generally aware of the tremendous struggles their ancestors endured while coming to Utah. Of their devotion to God, humility and raw courage. My ancestors where among those of whom I speak. Scores of books and journals attest to the extraordinary accomplishments made settling in Utah territory. But it is disturbing so few have even heard of the Black Hawk War and the horrific sufferings of the Timpanogos, the untold numbers of deaths of children, women, and men, and as a consequence --- most don't give damn about the Timpanogos.

Virtually no one considers generational traumas, such as war, genocide, oppression, poverty, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, death or loss of parents or siblings, which have not yet been grieved and healed by individuals, families and communities. In Utah the effects of unresolved trauma due to the war are carried into the next generation. Understanding generational trauma is key to understanding ourselves and the Native American Indian. 

As the legacy of the Black Hawk War continues unresolved, those people who are seeking truthful answers regarding the past, what they find is that the rhetoric in the victors accounts is brilliantly managed, filled with half truths, omissions, and denials. A one sided view as seen through the eyes of the victors and not the victim. The one question these accounts do not answer is the Indians side of the story. Even asking the question seems to cause a lot of people to bristle. "That's all in the past," I was told, "we just need to forget about." On several occasions I was told by people "we have given the Indians every chance to succeed, yet they choose to live off the government, and live in poverty." If I may be so bold to say I think we gave the Indian people every opportunity to fail. And I have yet to find any scholar who disagrees.

As I continue to learn from the Timpanogos what it means to be an Indian, often I heard them speak of the discrimination they face every day. Initially my response was to say that they have the same opportunities for a decent life as anyone living in America. Saying that often drew some angry responses. And the more time I spent with them the more I came to realize how ignorant I was about their lives.

A year or so ago leaders of the Timpanogos Nation gave me a tour of their reservation. On the surface it appeared that it was much like other communities, there were schools, government offices, good neighborhoods and not so good ones. A business district with some businesses flourishing, some that were not. But as our tour continued and we began to look beneath the veneer it soon became apparent that underlying it all was a culture still struggling for survival. Theirs is a society entangled in a mess of what are called "Indian Laws", laws that the Indians were not given any say in the creation of. (See Doctrine of Discovery)

Manifest Destiny, I am told by scholars of Indian law, is at the heart of all laws that the Federal Government uses to have continued dominion over the American Indian peoples.

Peter d'Errico, Legal Studies Department, University of Massachusetts/Amherst to me in an interview:

"Papal authority is the basis for United States power over indigenous peoples but this fact is not generally understood, even by lawyers who work with federal Indian law. This is due in large part to the sophistry of John Marshall, one of the greatest figures in the pantheon of the U. S. Supreme Court in 1801. Marshall borrowed from Papal Bulls the essential legalisms needed for state power over indigenous peoples. He encased Christian religious premises within the rhetoric of "European" expansion:

JOHNSON v. MCINTOSH, 21 US 543 (FEBRUARY, 1823) -- On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves so much of it as they could respectively acquire. Its vast extent offered an ample field to the ambition and enterprise of all; and the character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy. The potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity.

Steven T. Newcomb, Indigenous Law Institute and author of "Pagans in the Promised Land" said it succinctly:

"Indian nations have been denied their most basic rights ... simply because, at the time of Christendom's arrival in the Americas, they did not believe in the God of the Bible, and did not believe that Jesus Christ was the true Messiah. This is the basis for the denial of Indian rights in federal Indian law and remains as true today as it was in 1823.

Johnson v. McIntosh has never been overruled. "Christian discovery" remains the legal foundation for United States sovereignty over indigenous peoples' lands. But it is concealed, as most foundations are, because Johnson v. McIntosh acts as a laundromat for religious concepts. After Marshall's opinion, no lawyer or court would need to acknowledge that land title claims in United States law are based on a doctrine of Christian supremacy. From that time on, in law and history books, "European" would be substituted for "Christian," so that school child and lawyer alike could speak of the "age of discovery" as the age of "European expansion." - by Peter d'Errico, Legal Studies Department, University of Massachusetts/Amherst, American Indian Sovereignty: Now You See It, Now You Don't.

The arcane attitudes of white supremacy toward the Utah's Native people has prevailed for 150 years unchallenged. I am astonished that they have had little or no voice, ignored, shunned, kept out on the fringes of society and denied access to the most the basic fundamentals of equality and human rights. That they live in fear of telling their story, their truth, that there may be retribution for exercising their freedom of speech. It's within these things that we begin to see glimpses of the legacy of the Black Hawk War.

It is deeply troubling to me that discrimination has become institutionalized, it has become a tradition to trivialize, mock, and downplay the history of the Indian people in Utah, those who suffered the greatest loss in terms of land, life, culture, freedom, and dignity.

Devoting several years of my own to the study of the war, researching countless books and personal histories, conducting personal interviews, in 2005 I had the distinct honor of living with a Shoshone family in Oregon. There I learned by participation some traditions and life ways of the American Indian. Trying to understand the Indian people intellectually is not the same as learning from them first hand. Later I became personally acquainted with members of the Timpanogos Nation, of those I met descendents of Chief Black Hawk who have since been my close friends and mentors. Through these associations I was introduced to a plethora of people from various tribes throughout the western United states. I had the honor of being witness to and often participating in Native ceremonies, and observing ancient traditions. My path has led all the way to Guatemala, there I learned of the Mayans struggle for equality and learned that they too have suffered at the hands of white-man's supremacy like their counterparts in North America have.

But one of the most troubling things I learned about the Indians is how severely demoralized they are. After decades of repression by government and society it's a miracle they have survived at all.

Euro-Americans have for centuries forced upon the Indian their views, opinions, cultural and religious beliefs. The group called "The Other 49ers" put it well. I quote: "The Mormons brought with them a moral code, a new technology, and an economic system. Mormon's inability or refusal to accept Indian culture on its own terms is a conflict repeated countless times throughout the west. Coexistence, with each culture intact, was impossible; compromise seemed unattainable, for the cherished ideals of one culture were the unpardonable sins of the other."Mormons brought the ways of civilization with them, in their minds. Contrary to their desire for a enlightened sacred way of life, the world followed, and they gave into the kind of discrimination that they ran from."

Christianity is not a democracy. The church has always held firmly to the divine doctrines of authority and hierocracy.

The Mormons believed they had a divine obligation to convert the Utah's American Indians to Mormonism according to church doctrine, and in so doing the so-called "loathsome" Indians would become a "white and delightsome people" and would be forgiven of the sins of their forefathers. (Book of Mormon 2 Nephi 5:21-23) According to church doctrine, the nature of the dark skin was a curse, the cause was the Lord. The reason was because the Lamanites "had hardened their hearts against him, (God)" and the purpose was to punish them by making them "loathsome" unto God's people who had white skins.
"When the Timpanogos failed to assimilate into Mormon culture, the answer was to exterminate them." Historian Robert Carter  

In 1847 when Mormon pioneers entered into the land of the Timpanogos, the Timpanogos awoke to find themselves in an arena of an ongoing Christian supremacy. Settlers spurred on by President Polk's fanatical conviction of Manifest Destiny, and President Grant's mandate to leave the fate of the American Indian in the hands of Christian's. Christian's whose mandate was to "kill the Indian and save the man." While armies of the federal government were dispatched to punish the Mormon's for their illegal practice of polygamy, in the cross fire of clashing beliefs and bloody confrontations, it became a matter of who would survive and who would control the land.

Through my studies I have come to the stark conclusion that:

It is our government that needs to stop holding the Indian people hostage and making them tenants on their own land.

It is we who need to stop blaming them for the actions of our ancestors.

It is we who need to respect their sovereignty.

It was our ancestors who invaded their country and wrecked their lives.

It was our government and our ancestors who made treaties with the Indian people and broke every one of them.

It was our ancestors who stole their children, and punished them for speaking their own language, physically abused them, and forbid them from practicing their religious beliefs. Carlisle’s founder, Capt. Richard C. Pratt, championed a disastrous approach to educating Native Indians that aimed to “kill the Indian, and save the man.”       

It was President Lincoln who set aside 5.6 million acres of land for the Timpanogos, known as the Uintah Valley Reservation, and it was our government who took back 4.3 million acres of that land, the best of that land, and put it in public domain, and did it without compensation, they stole it.

It is we who have dug up the graves of their ancestors, and sold the contents for profit, and put their bones on public display as a mere curiosity.

It is our public school system that ignores the Indians side of the story and omits their perspective from school curriculum, teaching us and our students a mixture of platitudes, half-truths, omissions, and plausible denials...

It's OK to speak of the injustices against our ancestors, but to point out the atrocities Indian people have suffered from the hands of our ancestors is deemed wrong.

It was our Christian ancestors who stripped them of their dignity, demoralized and dehumanized the Indian people to the point they were forced to depend upon our church and government for their very survival.

And it is we who have looked the other way and said nothing and remained silent saying, "it's not my problem, I'm just doing my job."

And in the end it is we who are ignorant and say "we have given the Indian people every opportunity to succeed, yet they choose to live in poverty, and live off the government..." and indifferently state: "it's their own damn fault...?"

I paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King, "Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at (Indian people) in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them."

Because Timpanogos history has been omitted from school curriculum, sanitized, and trivialized; consequently Utahan's, Indian and non-Indian, have a distorted sense of where they have come from. The dropout rate of Indian children in public schools is high, for it is then natural for the Native people to believe that their tragedy has little or no importance in the history of Utah. Even worse our children are being taught that genocide is acceptable when religion is the justification for doing so is simply outrageous! This is demoralizing and the source of resentment, and anger, which contributes to social divisions within society, and for many it undermines hope and prospects for a better future.

Many will say that prejudice does not exist, but in fact it does. Omission of their history is itself discriminatory. The seeds of racism were planted a long time ago, and like a noxious weed has become entwined into every aspect of society. Racism has become institutionalized and so appears natural in the social landscape. Those who say, "it's not my problem, I'm just doing my job," those who are aware but ignore man's inhumanity toward their fellow man are themselves agents in the on-going genocide of the American Indian people. Remember discrimination has to be taught, our children learn to discriminate from their teachers, families, and communities.

Both Indian and non-Indian who do not recognize names like Black Hawk, Walkara, Arapeen, Kanosh, Sanpitch, Tabby, and events such as the Black Hawk War, Fort Utah battle, Circleville Massacre, or the Bear River Massacre, and what they represent; have no sense of true history the reality of Utah's beginnings.

Stories of frightened children being taken from their homes and families and placed in distant Christian boardinghouse schools, where they were often physically abused, and harshly punish should they speak their own Indian language. Many died and were buried on school grounds in unmarked graves. Others were forced into slavery, while some were brutally murdered. Had this happened to white mans children there would be hell to pay! But because they were Indian we say, "that's all in the past, we just need to get over it?"

The demands Mormon settlers and the Federal government imposed upon the Timpanogos were extraordinary. Expectations for the Timpanogos to toss aside their ancient vibrant culture and traditions, sign over their land, and embrace an entire new way of living, punishing them for practicing their religious beliefs. Does this sound familiar? It should... these are the very same human injustices that made our ancestors leave Europe to seek freedom from oppression in America. Strange isn't it? It causes one to be suspicious of the motives of those who lead us here, and ponder the question, "what was truly in their hearts" that they could master-mind such a grand scheme.

I feel we have a responsibility to compassionately understand their pain and to not sanitize the Black Hawk War. The indigenous people of Utah are, all said and done, those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and we should see who they are and what they are doing. We need to experience their pain...to feel it. We owe it to the native Indians of Utah to feel it. Thousands of lives were lost in the war. Most never knew why, and now we don't even think about the war.

See our video collection that has been assembled to help further our understanding of the Native American perspective and the Black Hawk War in Utah.