The Peoples of Utah, ed. by Helen Z. Papanikolas, © 1976
“My Native Land,” pp. 11–13″
by Fred Conetah
I am standing on a high hill overlooking a vast amount of country and wondering if one of my forefathers stood here and saw the same country as I see now. If so, he saw a completely different kind of country. He saw the wonders of nature and how they were created for him. Nothing was overlooked, for if he missed certain things, part of his life was gone. He saw the mountains and knew that from those mountains came part of his livelihood. He knew in those mountains were the deer, elk, bear, mountain sheep, and the different kinds of birds, and in the streams, many of fish; he looked at the prairie and saw the buffalo, antelope, and other creatures meant to live in the lower area. He saw the many kinds of trees, brush, and plants that would become a part of him. This was his native land.
In order to make use of the things and creatures created for him, he had to come up with his own idea of producing crude weapons and the apparatus needed to harvest his own needs and those of his fellow tribesmen. He developed many kinds of weapons and tools to make his life easier. He made tools for the women to use at home and around the encampment, and he had to have the knowledge to get the right kind of materials to make them work for his purposes. He had to find the right kind of wood, bone, and clay to make his cooking and eating utensils; the right kind of stone to make into grinding stone, ax, hammer, or battle ax. The flint stone he knew would be good for knives, scrapers, spears, and arrowheads because of its keen edge and hardness. He had to know what part of the country would contain certain woods, flints, paints, and other useful items. He knew that wood, stones, and flints were located within the territory of his enemies, and therefore certain wood and stones were considered sacred by him. This was good for him because this was his native land.
I wonder, as I stand here, if he knew that he would be labeled as a renegade, savage, a blocker of another civilization, a hindrance to progress, and, someday be thought of as not even a human being by people of other races.
I wonder if he saw the dark clouds coming over the horizon, an atmosphere that would soon change or try to change his way of living or his beliefs. I believe the natives had the philosophy to accept anything that was true. Their faith evolved from the understanding that the Father was the creator of everything that was on this earth.
I know there was a conflict of beliefs when Christianity was brought by the strangers and the invaders. This was merely part of the movement to destroy the natives’ attitudes, beliefs, customs, and culture. The natives could not say God is Red, White, Black, or any other color. They only thought the Great Spirit was the color of the universe, which no people can claim. The native people could see this because his creation was tangible.
My people saw the explorer who was employed by an alien government to make geographical discoveries. They saw the white trappers and fur traders who first came into our country for economic reasons, then the woodsmen who followed and lived in log cabins with hunting, fishing, and small-scale farming as their means of subsistence. Then the farmers came to stay and built their schools, churches, town halls, and established an urban community.
The native land changed with the coming of these white people but more completely when the Office of Indian Affairs was established within the War Department in 1824. In 1832 Congress authorized the appointment of a commissioner of Indian affairs who reported to the secretary of war on Indian matters. In 1849 the office of the commissioner of Indian affairs was transferred from the War Department to the new Department of the Interior, where it has remained.
The policy was first to do away with the natives, confiscate their crude weapons, destroy their beliefs, tradition, and culture, and encourage them to adopt the white man’s ways; but the natives found it hard to accept beliefs and customs of any alien culture. They faced starvation. Their main source of subsistence had been the buffalo. After it was exterminated by the great white buffalo hunters, the natives were quickly reduced to poverty, making them dependent on government annuity goods and rations for their daily bread.
As I stand here, I can see it has been a long, hard road back toward the natives’ economic independence. We have moved from our tepees to better living and housing conditions. We are caretakers of the natives’ once-beloved, ever-dwindling land. The question now comes, as a descendant of that person who might have stood on this same hill a long time ago, whether or not I have forgotten his beliefs, traditions, customs, and culture. To truly understand our native land, we have to learn about our own people and the many great leaders and chiefs who were charged with taking care of the Great Spirit’s creation. We have to find ways to cope with the policies and restrictions that do not allow us to be free in exercising our lifestyle.