I saw a movie yesterday. No, it wasn’t September Dawn. It was a little indie film by film maker Brian Patrick called Burying the Past: Legacy of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotion it evoked in me. I wasn’t prepared for the rage. I wasn’t prepared for the deep sympathy I felt for the Baker-Fancher party; the men, women and children who died in Southern Utah on September 11th, 1857 at the hands of Mormon settlers dressed as Indians.
I couldn’t help but identify with the women who were fleeing with their babes-in-arms as they tried to escape the blow or shot to the head, the blade coming to slit their throats while trying to protect their babies. I can’t help but feel the deepest of emotion and sorrow as I watched the dramatization of the men in the party trying desperately to protect their families.
For four days the wagon train was under assault by Piute Indians and Mormons. Men were dying from wounds, children and women were huddled in a make-shift ravine, no food or water in the scorching days, no warmth or comfort in the chilled nights. Finally, a white flag approached, carried by a Mormon who offered them respite and reprieve. The Mormons instructed the settlers to separate; they put all of the children under the age of about 8 in a wagon, and had the men and women and older children walk behind.
As they wearily made their way to what was hoped to be shelter and safety, the Mormon escorts gave the signal; each escort turned to the man beside him and shot him point blank. The women tried to flee, but they were no match for the bludgeoning, guns, rape and blades of their attackers. And this was all witnessed by their children, huddled in the wagon ahead. Over 120 people from Arkansas died that day, while 18 children remained alive. Eighteen until one man grabbed one young girl who was about 10 or 11 and decided she was old enough to tell the tale.
Then there were 17.
The horror of this event didn’t ever hit home for me. Sure, when I was a rebellious teen, I would cite the MMM as a way to piss off my parents. It was my excuse for not going to church, along with Sister Burton and Butterfield, who both disliked me intensely, and a myriad of other excuses so I could opt out of the fruitless and aggravating exercise. But I had never studied it; never really knew the history until yesterday. The history makes me ill.
I watched the film through until the end, as the descendants of the massacred wept at the site, sitting along-side members of the infamous Jonh D. Lee family, the official church scapegoat for the slaughter. But one of the elements in the final scene did not belong. That element was Mormon Church president Gordon B. Hinckley. Why was he such a canker for me and everyone else watching the film? Because he was not there to pay respects by doing the right thing: taking accountability for the Church’s complicity in the murders. He was there to cover it up. He was there to talk pretty, to use his well-practiced soothing voice to convey complacency and misdirection. He was there for PR.
He had the utter gall to say, in front of all of these wronged people, that Brigham Young had ‘nothing to do with the MMM.’ That contention is literally impossible. Being the territory governor, Brigham Young had to know something, if not everything about this event. He even signed a document giving carte blanche to the local Indian tribe to ‘do what they will’; he made sure the Indians were blamed. Hinckley spoke of ‘healing’ and rebuilding the broken pieces of the past through forgiveness. I was reminded of a person who recently admonished me to forgive HWSNBN, move on, try again. This came up for me because the concept of forgiveness is tricky; you can forgive, but sometimes it is lethal to forget. Is forgiveness just another word for forgetting? Is healing just another word for denial? In the Church’s case, yes, yes it is. And in my case, to forgive and forget would be lethal to myself–my Self.
The final exploit in all of this is the Church itself owns the site, the land where the MMM occurred. They have built a lovely monument surrounding it. It is as sterile and sanitized as a ward house; it is wrong, feels wrong, looks wrong, and is wrong. And the Church will not sell the land nor give it up to the descendants of the murdered; why? Because they would then have no control over what the white-washed, ambiguous and sterile plaque and grave-marker says. They would lose control. The Church’s worst fear.
I don’t think carrying around the anger and blame is part of the process of feeling and being wronged; at least not forever. But to forgive someone who cannot and will not be accountable for their actions is akin to taking a rattlesnake who has been injured into your care. You can care for it, heal it and when you go to set it free, it will turn on you and strike. When you ask “How could you possibly bite me when I am the one who cared for you, saved your life?”
His response? “You knew what I was when you picked me up.”
There is a difference between forgiving and forgetting; I don’t think they should go hand in hand, at least not all of the time. I think there comes a time when there should be no forgetting. Because if we forget the past, it is bound to strike when we least expect it.