In July, I was visiting with a Navajo Mormon neighbor on another matter when she asked if I thought my eleven-year-old daughter might like to perform in the local Mormon pageant, The Voices of San Juan. I had never seen the pageant but said I thought that she would like very much to take part. Then my neighbor told me that my fair-skinned, blond-highlighted girl would be playing a Navajo toiling among other Navajos in a segment portraying “The Long Walk.” The idea of my very white daughter playing a Navajo in this reenactment of one of the most tragic events in Navajo history startled me, and I laughed out loud. My neighbor laughed, too. But she was serious.
I live in San Juan County, Utah, which contains a portion of the Navajo reservation and has a significant Navajo population scattered throughout. I hear the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo mentioned frequently, especially in wintertime when local schools stage a reenactment.
In 1863, James H. Carleton ( the same James H. Carleton, I think, who buried the victims of the Mountain Meadow Massacre in May of 1859 and erected the original marker on the site) ordered Kit Carson to convince the Navajos to surrender to the U. S. Army. When the Navajos proved resistant, Carson burned their crops and killed their flocks, starving many Navajos out of their traditional homelands. The Army then forced an estimated nine thousand Navajos to make a three-hundred mile march to Fort Sumner in the Pecos River valley. The trip took almost three weeks. Many Navajo men, women, and children died along the way.
Conditions during the internment at Bosque Redondo proved less than advantageous for everyone involved, and in June of 1868, after the signing of a treaty granting the Navajo people 3.5 millions acres of their original homeland, the Dineh — “The People” — walked back to their four sacred mountains. The story goes on from there, but that’s enough to provide some background.
I found the idea of my daughter playing a Navajo making The Long Walk difficult to wrap my mind around, but I let her do it. She practiced with the cast for a few days and then performed for three nights, including on Pioneer Day. As instructed, I braided her long hair every night. Out of curiosity to see how this was going to work, I attended the pageant on the third and final night.
Being a convert to the church and a new arrival to this area, I lacked the ingrained pioneer narrative to understand all of what I witnessed at the pageant. At one point, during the opening, international-flavored talent show, my daughter appeared next to me in costume, a dress made of fabric meant to simulate buckskin. Bright ribbons of Native American-themed trim decorated the dress’s neck and hem. White polyester or rayon yarn dangled from the arms forming “fringe.” Still, the overall effect was striking — and a little disturbing, since I really didn’t know what to make of the sight.
If my daughter’s Indian get-up proved difficult to take in, the pageant itself posed greater mysteries. Years ago, when I lived in the East, I made the obligatory pilgrimage with my Mormon youth group to the Hill Cumorah Pageant. I was able to comprehend the storyline, which followed the church’s overarching narrative in general. By contrast, the storyline of The Voices of San Juan Pageant meandered along a local narrative and through regional identities with which I’m unfamiliar. While the pageant was well-acted and visually engaging, and the setting — a high desert meadow bordered with a stooped canyon wall and thunderstorms flashing dramatically in the background — was quite pretty, I spent much of the evening feeling bemused.
The pageant opened with a slide show of local sights, mostly photographs of scenic grandeur, flashed across a large screen. A voice-over announced in Navajo and then English, “God himself will help tell the story if your heart is pure.” Hm, maybe that was my problem.
The body for the pageant’s narrative is built upon an unusual chasis: an elderly Navajo man on his deathbed telling his life’s story to his two sons and a long-time white friend kneeling at his bedside. The old man explains that he’s not afraid to die, but that he wasn’t always at peace with death. He tells how a white man who had been drinking and driving struck and killed his beloved wife. He says, “Pain choked out other feelings …. Black anger grew inside.” For a long time after his loss he loathed white men, even sending his kids to the reservation where white influence would not touch them.
He needed a job, he tells his sons and his friend, but everything he found involved working with white men. Finally, he took a job at a trading post. While working there, he fell ill, and only the white trader he worked for came to look in on him. At this point in the pageant, the light on the old man dims and audience members watch a younger version of the man act out elements of the the story.
The trader brought the missionaries to give him a blessing. While he was recovering, he had a dream. His great-grandfather came to him and told him to let his anger go. There are two ways to treat a rattlesnake bite, his great-grandfather said. You can pursue the creature until you kill it, which leaves your life still in peril, or you can get the venom out of your system with all haste.
When he fully recovered, the young man converted to the church. Then came the part of the pageant that I later understood to be one of the important themes of the pageant: Mormons and Native Americans share a common narrative — white authority abandoned and attacked them, driving both groups from their sacred homelands. The old man narrator relates how his grandfather appeared to his younger self during that same dream and told him how his great-grandfather had been forced to take The Long Walk of the Navajos to Fort Sumner. As this narrative within a narrative unfolds, spotlights light up the ground stage right and audience members witness Navajo men, women, and children walking along slowly, accompanied by a soldier escort. Some drop to the ground and die. My daughter said that angels came and escorted away those who died, but I was concentrating on finding her in the crowd and missed the angels. Finally, I saw her walking among the Navajos, her head bent down, her stride slow and laboured. On her back she wore a cradleboard. She looked quite forlorn.
The next segment portrayed Mormons making their own Long Walk. Jens Nielsen, one of the original settlers of the Bluff Mission in the southern end of the county, in company with one of his plural wives Elsie, faced trouble on the trek to Utah when his feet froze. Jens exhorted Elsie to leave him and save her own life, but she commanded him to get in the handcart and pulled him to the next camp.
During this scene, as Elsie pulls Jens along in the handcart, they cross metaphorical paths with the Navajos who reenter the stage once more toiling their way on the Long Walk. Neither group acknowledges the other. The Navajos walk in the opposite direction from the one they took earlier in the pageant, which suggests that, like the Mormons on the overland treks, they were journeying to their homeland. Elsie turns the handcart and takes up position at the end of the Long Walk procession, dovetailing the two narratives into a single shared storyline.
Other elements of the pageant’s storyline reinforce this intertwining of narrative roots. For instance, the pageant depicts the scene from the Book of Mormon where Ammon enters the land of the Lamanites intending to convert them. Ammon, played by a young white man, walks down a path and up over a footbridge. When he crosses the footbridge, several Lamanites, played by Navajos, jump out and seize him. They take Ammon before King Lamoni (who appears in the Hill Cumorah Pageant, too). In the VSJ Pageant, Lamoni is played by the tall, handsome, part-Navajo-part-white son of the neighbor who invited my daughter into the pageant. The voice over during this segment follows the Book of Mormon account. Lamoni asks Ammon if he desires to dwell in the land among the Lamanites, and Ammon replies that indeed he does, “perhaps until the day I die.” Lamoni grips Ammon’s shoulder in a gesture of welcome. I’m familiar, of course, with Ammon’s encounter with King Lamoni, but the distinct San Juan County historical context — the one I’m not very familiar with — puts a different spin on the story, one I can sense even if I can’t quite fathom it.
Like I said, I don’t know enough about the local history to grasp all the under- and overtones at work in this pageant. What does strike me, however, is the generosity with which the Navajos who have converted to Mormonism share their original and identity-defining stories with the white culture surrounding them. Regarding Native American arts in general, folklorist Barre Toelken, in his book The Anguish of Snails (Utah State University Press: 2003), says that:
… much of the traditional art is already addressed to us [whites], aimed at us, and performed in front of us (in many cases because of us). It reflects our presence as well as tribal consciousness. So our considerations are not just another charitable exercise in understanding “the other” but an attempt to recognize our own presence in the picture, a picture that, despite this ironic inclusiveness, is nonetheless constructed and understood from a different set of assumptions than our own (38-39).
My job as a neighbor to many Native Americans and as an occasional teacher of English composition at a local college with a high Native American enrollment is to try not to assume too much. My belief that I often do assume too much probably played a minor role in my disquiet with my daughter’s “playing Indian” in the pageant. That, and I’m unsure how to recognize my presence in the picture.
The Euro-American Mormon narrative strain in the pageant — the one where the Mormon pioneer storyline blends so smoothly with the Native American one — is completely foreign to me, not only because I’m a convert to the church and my pioneer narrative operates more on a metaphorical level but also because the assumptions behind the Mormon take on their relationship to Native Americans are varied and complex. The only material about the Mormon stance toward Native Americans I’ve read recently comes from Shannon Novak’s House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (U of U Press: 2008). To my ear, the material she presents on the subject of Mormons’ attitudes toward Native Americans sounds notes of former doctrine that has passed into the cultural half-life of folk belief, so I don’t know how much of what she says is relevant to contemporary Mormon culture as displayed in the pageant. Nor do I know how representative of churchwide attitudes and beliefs are the local Euro-American Mormon attitudes toward Native Americans. Also, I’m no expert on how doctrine shifts nor am I myself a representative Mormon where the older beliefs are concerned. But Novak says:
Young’s warning [that if Uncle Sam invaded Utah he would rouse up the Indians in alliance against the army] reflected a fundamental doctrine of Mormon theology: the belief in a close genealogical link between Latter-day Saints and Native Americans, a link that destined the two races to unite against their “Gentile” adversaries…. Based on … scriptural premises, American Indians could be construed as “both a cursed and a chosen people”…. And indeed, from the earliest Mormon missions to the Ohio frontier, Indians were seen as benighted “children of the forest” who were nonetheless junior partners in the epic struggle to restore Zion (174).
On top of all my other layers of unknowingness, I don’t know anything of the origins of the Voices of San Juan Pageant. How or if such attitudes as both Toelken and Novak describe co-mingle in its script, I can’t be sure. Generally speaking, such narrative confluences display ironic tensions and harmonies that can be likened to those expressed in geological confluences, such as where two rivers come together, each with its own energy and origins. Mystery, surface and depth tensions, and grand spectacle are to be expected.
What I do think is that I will trust the invitation of my Navajo neighbor and allow my daughter to play a Navajo taking The Long Walk in the local Mormon pageant, should the opportunity arise again. Hopefully, my daughter walking, by invitation, a Navajo narrative path, won’t be assuming too much. Furthermore, she will get to walk a few hundred feet in somebody else’s moccasins, the meaning of which will dawn on her, and perhaps me, little by little each time.
A quick search on the Internet showed that, currently, seven Mormon pageants run during the year, most of them during high summer. They are the Hill Cumorah Pageant in New York (“Come feel the Savior’s Love”); the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, Utah; the Nauvoo Pageant in Nauvoo, Illinois; the Mormon Handcart Pageant in Nephi, Utah; the Oakland Temple Pageant in Oakland, California, which lds.org says has been suspended indefinitely; the Castle Valley Pageant in Castledale, Utah, which my son attended one year; the Clarkston Pageant, also called the “Martin Harris Pageant,” which starting this year will be performed only on odd-numbered years, and the Voices of San Juan Pageant, which appears to maintain a web presence only through comments visitors make on personal blogs, etc. Mesa puts on a Easter Pageant every year. Wikipedia describes some of the Mormon pageants as missionary tools and “faith-promoting family events.”
If anybody else knows of a Mormon pageant I haven’t mentioned, please add it in the comments. Also, I’d like to hear other people describe their pageant experiences in the comments. I’m very interested in knowing what you think of Mormon pageants and in hearing what role they’ve played in your lives. Or if you can supply greater insight into the origins or backstory of the Voices of San Juan Pageant, by all means, lay it on me; I need a crash course!