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Groups want church to back historic landmark status

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MOUNTAIN MEADOWS, Washington County — Descendants of 120 people massacred at Mountain Meadows 150 years ago Tuesday publicly asked the LDS Church for its help in securing national historic landmark status at the site during a commemorative service held there.

Phil Bolinger, president of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation, presented Elder Henry B. Eyring of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Twelve with a letter he read from two U.S. senators from Arkansas — Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor — supporting the foundation's quest.

Bolinger also gave Elder Eyring a packet of additional support letters, which he said included requests from Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe and 55 members of the Arkansas State Legislature "requesting that the LDS Church cooperate in securing national historic landmark designation."

He said the packet also contained letters from descendants of more than 400 massacre victims, and a signed petition. Bolinger asked Elder Eyring to let LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley know that "his cooperation would truly help us close the book of the past and signal the beginning of the honest forgiveness we all seem to want."

Elder Eyring had earlier delivered a message expressing "profound regret" for the fact that local church leaders in Cedar City had planned the massacre and ordered LDS militiamen to participate in the slaughter of 120 unarmed men, women and children. He took the packet but did not offer any further remarks.

Harley Fancher, who is the secretary of MMMF, said he was disappointed "we didn't get the support of the church for the historical site designation and what I felt was a full apology rather than just a regret."

Fancher said he appreciates the church's efforts to help preserve the site but said his group will press on with efforts to make the Mountain Meadows Massacre ground a national historic landmark.

"The bottom line is, I have no animosity toward any Mormon," he said. "We're not anti-Mormon, we're pro-history, and we like the facts."

Patty Norris, who leads the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants group, said members voted Monday night to join the MMMF in its quest for a historic landmark designation. "We want to encourage the church to pursue this direction so the site will be protected forever. That's something we must be assured of."

Both Norris and Terry Fancher, president of the Mountain Meadows Association, told the Deseret Morning News following the ceremony that they took Elder Eyring's comments as an apology. "He was totally sincere," Norris said. "I believe it was an apology."

Fancher noted that Elder Eyring "was very emotional about it. I took it as an apology."

Fancher said board members of his group will vote in the near future on whether to support the other two groups in their quest to have the site designated as a historic landmark. He said he expects they will approve the move.

"But there's a distinct difference between that and federal stewardship," where the government would decide what occurs on land owned by the LDS Church. "We want to make sure that designation is not a precursor" to government control of the site, he said.

He praised the LDS Church for its work to protect the site and to work with descendant groups in creating memorials to the victims.

Burr Fancher, also a member of the MMMF, told the assembly the foundation has worked with Arkansas historians to bring the story of the massacre back to history books. Since 1953, there has been no mention of it at all in Arkansas history texts, he said, but "for the first time, a chapter on the Mountain Meadows Massacre will be included in the new Arkansas history textbook.

"There is a revival of interest in the history of the massacre," he said, noting a collection of materials that has been assembled within an Arkansas library to help facilitate research.

"We believe full light should be shown" on the massacre, "before full closure can occur. All stakeholders must follow their hearts in this. But the event cannot be relegated to the trash bins of history or covered up."

Burr Fancher said the Mountain Meadows site, where the LDS Church owns 125 acres of land, "must be secured for generations to come. This story belongs to the nation, and no single group has a lock on its interpretation," he said.

"Blaming the immigrants for their own deaths will no longer stand as a reason for the massacre. Education and information must replace stonewalling and evasion to make the massacre an open subject of Western history. Only then will true closure come."

Hundreds gathered at the site of the 1999 cairn monument erected by the LDS Church for the anniversary ceremony and watched as descendants of massacre victims carried banners with their family names behind a single covered wagon.

Horsemen carried Arkansas and U.S. flags as the entourage made its way from the upper Dan Sill Monument to the lower cairn memorial site. Bones of several massacre victims are interred there, and the church recently purchased a piece of land which is believed to contain many more human remains.

Church leaders have pledged to work with descendant groups in properly memorializing that site.

Lora Toms, a representative of the Paiute Tribe, also spoke during the ceremony, saying blame for the massacre was originally placed on her people and "this blame lives on today."

"People have to understand the cover-up, and the lies being told in our schools," she said. Leaders, educators and parents must step forward and share the truth of what happened, she said, rather than simply leaving it to Indian families "who have already endured so much pain."

"For most of 150 years no one had asked us our account. All through this we remained silent. Why? They knew where we lived, they knew who we are and where we came from. The answer is because they wanted us to believe a cover-up that I believe was not even a good cover-up at all."

She said her people, by nature, try to handle things within the tribe, and "you have to understand, we've been busy just trying to survive."

Toms thanked Latter-day Saints for helping them survive "when no one else would" but said part of the reason for their silence was fear, because they had long been dependent on Latter-day Saints.

"That was not the time (to speak)," she said. "Now is the time."

"Today we can all see we need each other to work through this story. We've been meeting with the LDS Church over the last year, and they've made real progress with their story. They've acknowledged that the only reason we were there was due to their influence."

Toms said she wants the discussions among all the concerned groups to continue. "I had hoped there would be more progress and something more we could celebrate today ... this is a sacred place, a sacred monument."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com