The burial site for the victims of the Mountain Meadows massacre has been discovered. That massacre was one of the heinous crimes of the 19th century: the Mormons ambushed and slaughtered a wagon train passing through Utah, killing about 120 people, and taking away a few children under 8 years old. It was very Biblical. To add cowardice and racism to their crime, the Mormons also tried to pin the blame on Indians.
It’s odd to me how the weight of history can add resonance to a location, and how so many of us are oblivious to it.
Bassett said he’s surprised that the burial sites weren’t discovered before now because the Army records are very accurate. The burial site for the women and children is within sight of Utah Highway 18, he said.
“Truckers were driving by honking at me,” Bassett said. “The location where the women and children were massacred is right in the middle of the highway, to some extent.”
Near where I grew up, in Auburn, Washington, there is a monument to the victims of an Indian massacre, by which I mean some white people were killed in conflict with local natives. It’s located along a busy highway, near the local airport, and I used to bicycle out that way, and the monument was a convenient resting place. I’d also think about how different the area had been 125 years before — it was a paradise for the natives, with rich forests and rivers full of fish, and here a few scattered strangers had settled, building cabins and farming, claiming the land for their own, and a few times tensions erupted into violence. The white victims got memorials and monuments. I always wondered where the monuments to the Indians were — in that conflict, a heck of a lot more of the natives died than the invading strangers, and of course, when I looked around on my bike ride, I saw teeming swarms of white people and no Indians at all. Where were they? Buried somewhere, no doubt, and their descendants confined to reservations, but they don’t get markers commemorating their destruction by people of European descent.
So I’m reading along, thinking sad thoughts about the past, and then I hit this statement and my brain got all confused.
“I know it’s stressful not knowing where your ancestors are buried,” he said. “Maybe if we can put this to rest by knowing where they are, it might create a balm to heal some of these wounds.”
Wait. I don’t know where most of my ancestors were buried at all, and I can’t say that I was at all concerned about them. The ones I knew, sure, I could probably even lead you to the spot on a hillside in Kent, Washington where their bones are decaying. And I’d rather you didn’t dig them up and wave them around in front of me, because that would just stir up personal memories of grief and loss. But the ones I didn’t know, that no one living has memory of now? Respect the fact of their past existence, but their bones have no capacity to make anyone grieve now.
I know that attitude is somewhat in contradiction to the unsettling observation of trucks now roaring past sites of old pain and death, heedlessly. We are always looking for an emotional acknowledgment of the burden of our history, even while we may see it as a pointless exercise, intellectually. Being human is a tangle.
But the other jarring side of that comment about it being “stressful not knowing where your ancestors are buried” is this: it seems to refer specifically to white ancestors. We need to know where and how dead white people from 150 years ago were buried, and we take it for granted that officials damned sure better treat those bone fragments with honor.
But once again, I have to consider the other side. Do we similarly take it for granted that Indian remains should be repatriated? My brain says there is no reasonable personal connection between old bones and living people, and if we can learn new knowledge by studying them, we should keep them in museums where they can be useful. But my brain also says an appreciation of and feeling for the humanity of history is important, too, and that we lose something important when we replace a sense of reverence with a pair of calipers and a DNA sequencer.
Still tangled. I don’t think I can ever be untangled.