In The Primitive Church
(Note: This is not a formal review, but I’ve included the bibliographical information because I like this book a great deal and want people to know where to get it. I posted a review to AML-List Feb 11, 2011 and cross-posted it to A Motley Vision. My thanks to USU Press for the review copy.)
Title: Southern Paiute: A Portrait
Author: William Logan Hebner, photographs by Michael L. Plyler
Publisher: Logan Utah, Utah State University Press, 2010
Genre: Oral History
Year Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 196+xii
Binding: Cloth, or e-book
ISBN e-book 978-0-87421-755-1
Price: $34.95 cloth, $28.00 e-book
South Bend, Washington is about 70 miles southwest of Olympia. You take 8 toward Aberdeen, which becomes Highway 12, and turn off onto 107 at Montesano, which runs into 101. You go past a nuclear reactor on the way to Montesano (I don’t know if it’s ever been commissioned). 101 winds through 20 miles or so of mostly Weyerhaueser tree farms. You get out of radio range pretty quickly. I spent a lot of weekends there while Donna and I were courting.
One Sunday afternoon on the way back to Seattle I came back into radio range, or maybe I was already in Tacoma, and paused the dial on a radio preacher who was taking Pentecostals to task for using the spiritual gifts you read about in the New Testament, gifts that were only authorized to get the church started–not for continual use.
That gave me an inkling that there are divisions within Protestantism as sharp as the divisions between Mormons and other Christians. I again came across the sense that spiritual gifts are a bit scandalous in Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, when the father takes his son to a charismatic gathering, and I sense some of the tension over spiritual gifts in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain.
There’s also a glimpse of religious differences in the 30 oral histories collected in William Logan Hebner and Michael L. Plyler’s Southern Paiute: A Portrait, which has a variety of viewpoints about peyote and whether it has a legitimate religious use, or contrasting views of healing powers. “And it isn’t necessary these days with medical breakthroughs, with all the technologies we’ve got,” Lalovi Miller says (142). (The and connects that sentence with earlier comments on the dangers of power.) But, says Richard Arnold, talking about the need for a revival of power,
People will find excuses. It’s a whole different world now, or that was a hard life, that was a long time ago, now we didn’t have all this stuff we’re dealing with now, or it’s easier to pick up a phone or go to the doctor or whatever (179).
Come to think of it, though, hearing the radio preacher wasn’t the first time I’d come across the idea that practices in the primitive church were just that, primitive.
A bunch of us were talking with my high school English teacher after school one day and she told about a Catholic friend who said, “Well, your beliefs are just like ours were at the beginning,” the implication being, I suppose, “but we outgrew all that.”
It has long fascinated me that when Joseph Smith declared to John Wentworth of the Chicago Democrat our belief “in the same organization that existed in the _________ Church” (DHC 5:541) the adjective he used was not early or founding (fundamental), or something similar, but primitive (capitalized in current editions of Article of Faith 6).
I suspect Joseph wasn’t just looking for a more colorful adjective than early. Perhaps he was thinking about the power of primal things, the deep waters he was wont to swim in, but many won’t.
Hebner captures this tension people feel with the primitive well in this comment from the introduction to the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah section. The quote mentions two themes that come up throughout the book, the often troubled relationship between Paiutes and Mormons, and spiritual gifts and powers:
The Mormons’ scriptural role for Indians puts ongoing pressure on the Southern Paiute’s identity, dismissing their past as God’s curse and narrowing their future to white. However, the roots of Mormonism–personal revelation, visioning and dreaming–resonate powerfully with Southern Paiute spirituality. Joseph Smith made other white religionists queasy with his glorius immediacy, his claims for perpetual access to the divine. This is heady stuff for post-reformation whites accustomed to the distance and comfort of historical text (53).
We can believe in a story if we don’t have to live it, if we can abstract the mythic truths from the story itself, but what do we do when we come across someone who does live the story?
“Our custom, the way we do things, is almost like the Bible” (135), Evelyn Samalar says, which reminds me of a story about Watson the more-than-elementary supercomputer that beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. What kind of food category do grasshoppers belong to? Kosher, Watson said. Think of John the baptist and Elijah the Tishbite eating kosher and you can glimpse how Watson’s search algorithm (isn’t that a former US vice-president’s birth control method?) works.
But think about modern people “girt with a girdle of leather about [their] loins” (II Kings 1:8) eating that kind of Kosher and it brings to mind my least favorite passage from Mark Twain’s Roughing It chapter XIX (in Norman Dietz’s 15.5-hour narration, which I listened to in September 2010, not long before seeing Hebner quote it in Southern Paiute):
“I refer to the Goshoot Indians. From what we could see and all we could learn, they are very considerably inferior to even the despised Digger Indians of California; inferior to all races of savages on our continent; inferior to even the Terra del Fuegans; inferior to the Hottentots, and actually inferior in some respects to the Kytches of Africa. Indeed, I have been obliged to look the bulky volumes of Wood’s “Uncivilized Races of Men” clear through in order to find a savage tribe degraded enough to take rank with the Goshoots. I find but one people fairly open to that shameful verdict. It is the Bosjesmans (Bushmen) of South Africa.”
“Note that Twain compared them to another nomadic desert people,” Hebner says. “Many ostensibly civilized people are mortified by humans who eat bugs or lizards and wear loincloths, such as Aborigines and Kalahari Bushmen” (3).
Now for some examples of the Biblical way of doing things that Evelyn Samalar mentioned, or at least stories from Paiute elders that resonate with Bible stories.
And where to look for resonance and overtones but in songs? Elders throughout talk about the Salt Songs (Click here for a short comment and definition) and the places associated with them. Matthew Leivas, of the Salt Song Trail Project talks about the trail, then quotes his mother, “I don’t know how they were able to do that. They must have had some jimson weed to fly around, to cover all that territory in one night” (170). Reminiscent of Phillip’s way of taking leave of Queen Candace’s eunuch (Acts 8:27-39).
And thinking about this comment introducing Richard Arnold, “Turns out that the Indian medicine he had taken for his eyes was so effective that the doctor begged him for information about the medicinal plants, which Richard refused to divulge” (174) do I hear a gentle echo of Peter’s reply to Simon’s offer to buy the priesthood (Acts 8:17-24)? And maybe more than an echo in Evelyn Samalar’s comment about an Indian doctor who cured her headaches. “The doctors from up that way tried to get his ways, so he left” (135).
Reading Samalar’s description of the doctor filling his mouth with burning coals as he prepared to work on her, it’s hard not to think of Isaiah 6 (135).
Several elders talk of gifts as puha, which might be translated power but is fairly complex. “The wind bloweth where it listeth” (John 3:8) Jesus tells Nicodemus, and puha is like that, listing as it will.
Irene Benn talks about a healer passing away and “the spirit, I don’t know what it is, wanted Dad to take over.”
It also said, “Give me your first son. I’ll take him, then you’ll really have that, being a medicine man.” My father said, “No. I don’t want to do that, give up my one child or anybody.” So it didn’t stick with him, it got away from him (129).
“Those powers, they talk about how it’s handed down from generation to generation. But we were told that if you came from that line and it was handed down to you, normally it would destroy your own family,” Lalovi Miller says, introducing a similar story of the healing power offering to come in, but to take away a family member in return. “To be a healer, a medicine person, you stand alone,” she concludes (142).
If you feel about these stories you can feel some of “the distance and comfort of historical text” (53) slipping away from that altar on Mount Moriah. (I don’t know how long it was till I realized my Primary teacher wasn’t talking about Abe Lincoln–maybe my parents explained that it was a different Abraham.)
About the time I finished this book I was also listening to Rex Campbell’s narration of The Book of Enos and was struck as always by verse 20 about the Lamanites being:
wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey; dwelling in tents, and wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle about their loins and their heads shaven; and their skill was in the bow, and in the cimeter, and the ax. And many of them did eat nothing save it was raw meat;
Why does Enos complain about the Lamanites living in tents, using bows, and eating raw meat when his grandfather “dwelt in a tent” (I Nephi 2:15, 16:6) and ate raw meat (I Nephi 17:2,12) and his uncle was skilled with the bow (I Nephi 16:18-32)?
Maybe it simply means Enos is not nostalgic, or that he considers the Lamanites old-fashioned, clinging to past traditions. Maybe that raw meat didn’t taste quite as sweet in the culture’s memory as Nephi remembered it. It occurred to me though, while writing this, that maybe Laman and Lemuel, bereft of a prophet both by Lehi’s death and the splintering of his family, latched onto their memories of life in a tent in the Valley of Lemuel as a guide for their religious lives.
So maybe Enos’s distaste is the same distaste most contemporary Latter-day Saints feel for other-Mormons who practice plural marriage, people who can’t give up a practice once prescribed but now proscribed.
Mormon attitudes toward the Southern Paiute have often mirrored Enos’s attitude toward his cousins. Near as I can tell the Caliente band started when Charlie Pete “and his family came over here after that Mountain Meadows Massacre. Charlie saw it. He knew we’d get blamed, so they left Sham, came over here” (Darlene Pete Harrington, 119).
I mention this in passing, as an indirect way of suggesting where the Southern Paiute live, but I want to close by noting that if whites can see parallels so can Paiutes. I love McKay Pikyavits’ comment:
Another thing, the Book of Mormon is Indian religion. When Joseph Smith was back east he met with an Indian guy back there, asked about Indian religion, and he wrote it down. Then he made the Book of Mormon up. There was an Indian from back in Wisconsin told me (65-66).
And I love Arthur Richards’(the powerful dignified man on the dustjacket) story about hearing the Ten Commandments from a Mormon bishop as a teenager and remembering that he already knew them, had heard them “in Indian” (elders throughout the book call their language Indian) from an elder.
I told this to my kids; this woman is going to be yours for eternity. If we live together well on this side, we’re going to be together on the other side. This is a Paiute belief and also a Mormon belief.
And yet, Paiutes who embrace Mormon beliefs don’t always feel welcome. Consider this other comment from Richards:
I went through the temple with my wife, had all my kids sealed to me. It was quite a thrill. But we got the dirtiest looks I ever seen from some of the Mormons in that temple. I served in the bishopric. I’m still a Mormon, but I’ve retired (91).
That tent in the valley of Lemuel is larger than we think. There’s lots of room in this book too, lots of room to come in and enlarge our tents, to sit awhile and listen and look out on Paiute Mountain off there in the distance.