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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Members of the International Children's Choir sing at the Days of '47 Sunrise Service in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

SALT LAKE CITY — Departing from typical Pioneer Day themes, the LDS Church historian and recorder spoke of Utah's 1847 American Indian population in his address Saturday at the traditional Days of '47 Sunrise Service in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

Elder Marlin K. Jensen borrowed a phrase from late radio newscaster Paul Harvey, saying he would give the "rest of the story" pertaining to the coming of the Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley, a story he said "is seldom given adequate prominence."

"When the pioneers arrived here, there was already a substantial Indian civilization and culture existing," said Elder Jensen, a member of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The pioneers no more "discovered" the Great Basin than Christopher Columbus "discovered" America, he said.

Elder Jensen cited this July 31, 1847, journal entry from Mormon pioneer William Clayton: "(The Shoshone) appear to be displeased because we have traded with the Utahs, and (the Shoshone) say that they own this land and the Utahs have come over the line."

"The truth of the matter is that the Mormon pioneers had 'come over the line' as well," Elder Jensen noted. "Perhaps only Brigham Young, with his prophetic gifts, could have foreseen at that time that the tiny trickle of pioneers who were then coming into the Great Basin would one day, in just a few years, grow into a mighty stream of immigrants."

Some 20,000 American Indians lived in the area now encompassed by Utah's boundaries, he said, including the Shoshone to the north, the Goshute to the west, the Ute in the central and eastern regions, the Paiute in the southwest and the Navajo in the southeast.

"Though often seasonally on the move to gather food, hunt and fish, Indians regarded the land to be religiously sacred and were strongly attached to it," Elder Jensen said. "The land and its bounty were critical to their existence."

Unfortunately, useful land was scarce, he said.

"From the day the 1847 pioneers first put their plows in the ground, settlement for them would mean displacement for the Indians," Elder Jensen said.

But the Mormons themselves were a displaced people, he said, referring to religious persecution that had driven them from Missouri to Illinois and ultimately to the West.

"Part of the appeal of the Great Basin as a place of settlement was its isolation and promise of refuge," he said.

Religious doctrine giving the American Indians a distinctive place in Mormon theology encouraged the pioneers to view them in a favorable light, Elder Jensen said, citing Book of Mormon teachings that American Indians were a branch of the House of Israel. According to LDS teachings, neither group would be able to fulfill its destiny without the other, he said.

"Brigham Young over time grew to become an important Indian ally," Elder Jensen said, noting that the church president, as territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs, exerted considerable influence over Indian-settler relations.

"On balance, it appears that in those early years, Indians got along better with Mormons than they did with other white people," he said. "Indian and Latter-day Saint relations with the United States government provided some common ground. At that time, government officials were concerned with the 'Mormon question' and the 'Indian problem.' So sometimes having a common enemy can produce a good relationship. Some Indians distinguished between what they called 'Mormonees,' whom they considered friendly, and other American settlers known as 'Mericats.' "

While American Indians made sincere and often heroic efforts to absorb the tide of Mormon immigrants and to peacefully coexist with them, "resources the Indians had relied on for generations diminished, and in time they felt forced to fight for their own survival," Elder Jensen said.

"Regardless of how one views the equities of Indian-Mormon relations in those times, the end result was that the land and cultural birthright Indians once possessed in the Great Basin were taken from them," he said. "What we can do, the least we can do from a distance of 160 years, is to acknowledge and appreciate the monumental loss this represents on the part of Utah's Indians. That loss and its 160-year aftermath are the rest of the story."

Music for the sunrise service was provided by three choirs: United Voices, conducted by Michael Huff; Sterling Singers, conducted by Kelly DeHaun; and International Children's Choir conducted by Kathy Sorenson. Highlights included the finale from "Promised Valley," the 1947 pioneer centennial stage production in Salt Lake City; and the combined groups' performance of "Thinking of Pioneers."

Also at the service, Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, was given the Today's Pioneer Award by the Sons of Utah Pioneers, whose Salt Lake Pioneer Chapter sponsored the service. Menlove was honored for her work at the Utah Legislature in having a road from Henefer to Salt Lake City designated as the Mormon Pioneer Heritage Highway.