With Pioneer Day around the corner, my heart turns to my many ancestors who made that long trek west to the Salt Lake Valley. And because of my work with BYU’s Native American Curriculum Initiative, where we partner with Sovereign Nations to amplify Indigenous art and knowledge into the classroom, I am also compelled to learn about Utah’s Indigenous peoples who lived in this region long before my people arrived.

When we meet with local tribal leaders to form our educational partnerships, we ask, “What would you like the children of Utah to know about your tribe?” The resounding answer is this: “We are still here.”

Too often we relegate Native Americans to the past and reduce them to old timey stereotypes. Much in the same way I, as a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, resent when people have asked what number wife I am, or if I have to wear a bonnet in public. No one wants to be misunderstood, seen as a snapshot of history or get consigned to a group simply because you share a common background.   

To honor the people who were already here when mine entered the valley, let’s explore some basic facts about the Native Americans in Utah that illustrate the diversity and unique cultures that still exist today. My guess is some of these may surprise you.

Our state is home to five groups of Indigenous people: Navajo, Shoshone, Ute, Paiute and Goshute. But within each larger tribal grouping, there may be “bands” or “clans” that are subgroups, often very distinct in culture and tradition while still sharing common language and ancestry with the tribe as a whole. 

From these five tribes, Utah has eight federally recognized tribal nations: Navajo Nation; Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation; Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah; San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe; Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation; Skull Valley Band of Goshute; White Mesa Community of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe; and Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. Three of our tribes (the Ute, Paiute and Goshute) each have two distinct federally recognized nations.

A parade honoring Native Americans and pioneers winds through the Fairpark Arena before the Days of ‘47 Rodeo on July 19, 2017.
A parade honoring Native Americans and pioneers winds through the Fairpark Arena before the Days of ‘47 Rodeo on July 19, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Adding to the confusion is Utah’s flag with an eagle that has six arrows in its beak, said to represent the six tribes of Utah. Which there were — in the 19th century. But in the late 1800s the Bannock were moved to the Fort Hall Reservation in southern Idaho.

You may be wondering at this point, what does it mean to be “federally recognized?”

When a tribe is recognized by the U.S. government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, through a long and difficult process, they are granted “tribal recognition and sovereignty.” Sovereignty allows for a centralized government that has the power to govern a specific geographic area, similar to a state’s powers.

Thus tribal nations have their own government that can determine membership requirements, enact legislation, and establish law enforcement and court systems. In the U.S. there are almost 600 federally recognized tribal nations, and more than 200 tribes that have not yet been granted federal recognition.

Learning about Utah’s Native people is one way to make space for our Indigenous sisters and brothers. Just as the mountains around us are built up of layers, so too is our rich and complicated history. In fact, the Rocky Mountains are a collection of discontinuous ranges, each with distinct geological origins that, over time, have evolved into one range, each contributing to their majesty.

Acknowledging the foundational role of Native Americans in Utah is not an attempt to ignore my pioneer heritage nor will it lead to returning the plot my house sits on to Native tribes. Each group who lives in our state, whether they arrived thousands of years ago, came in 1847 in a covered wagon, or arrived more recently as part of the 60,000 refugees who live in Utah, adds to its richness and beauty, like the mountain strata.

As we see the past more clearly, learn about the unique identities of each sovereign nation as well as the tribes from which they were formed, ultimately we’ll be able to say, “This is ALL of our place.” 

Heather Sundahl is a writer and editor for the BYU ARTS Partnership, Utah Women and Leadership Project, and Mormon Women for Ethical Government