People and Culture
One of the oddest statistics about Utah is that it’s the most urban of America’s western states. Eighty-five percent of the state’s population of 2,785,000 citizens lives in urban areas, and a full 80 percent resides in the Wasatch Front area.
A relatively young population, combined with the Mormons’ emphasis on family life and clean living, has resulted in Utah’s having the highest birth rates and the second lowest death rate in the country. Racially, the state largely reflects the northern European origins of Mormon pioneers; in 2000 the state was 89 percent white. The state’s population includes Hispanics (9 percent), Native Americans (1.3 percent), Asians (1.7 percent), and African Americans (0.8 percent).
Utah’s Native Americans
Nomadic bands of Shoshoni occupied much of northern Utah, southern Idaho, and western Wyoming for thousands of years. Horses obtained from the Plains tribes—who had obtained them from the Spanish—allowed hunting parties to cover a large range. The great Chief Washakie led his people for 50 years and negotiated the tribe’s treaties with the federal government. The Washakie Indian Reservation, near Plymouth in far northern Utah, belongs to the Northwestern band of Shoshoni, though few live there now. Tribal headquarters are in Rock Springs, Wyoming, south of the large Wind River Indian Reservation.
This branch of the Western Shoshoni, more isolated than other Utah tribes, lived in the harsh Great Basin. They survived through intricate knowledge of the land and use of temporary shelters. These peaceful hunters and gatherers ate almost everything that they found—plants, birds, rodents, crickets, and other insects. Because the Goshute had to dig for much of their food, early explorers called the tribe Digger Indians. White men couldn’t believe these people survived in such a barren land of alkaline flats and sagebrush. Also known as the Newe, the tribe now lives on the Skull Valley Indian Reservation in Tooele County and on the Goshute Indian Reservation along the Utah–Nevada border.
Several bands of Utes, or Núuci, ranged over large areas of central and eastern Utah and adjacent Colorado. Originally hunter-gatherers, they acquired horses in about 1800 and became skilled raiders. Customs adopted from Plains tribes included the use of rawhide, tepees, and the travois (a sled used to carry goods). The discovery of gold in southern Colorado and the pressures of farmers there and in Utah forced the Utes to move and renegotiate treaties many times. They now have the large Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in northeast Utah, the small White Mesa Indian Reservation in southeast Utah, and the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation in southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico.
Six of the 19 major bands of the Southern Paiutes, or Nuwuvi, lived along the Santa Clara, Beaver, and Virgin Rivers and in other parts of southwest Utah. Extended families hunted and gathered food together. Fishing and the cultivation of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers supplemented the diet of most of the bands. Today, Utah’s Paiutes have a tribal headquarters in Cedar City and scattered small parcels of reservation land. Southern Paiutes also live in southern Nevada and northern Arizona.
Calling themselves Diné, the Navajo moved into the San Juan River area around 1600. The tribe has proved exceptionally adaptable in learning new skills from other cultures: many Navajo crafts, clothing, and religious practices have come from Native American, Spanish, and white neighbors. The Navajo tribe was the first in the area to move away from a hunting and gathering lifestyle, relying instead on the farming and shepherding techniques they had learned from the Spanish. The Navajo have become one of the largest Native American groups in the country, occupying 16 million acres of exceptionally scenic land in southeast Utah and adjacent Arizona and New Mexico. Tribal headquarters is at Window Rock in Arizona.
If you’re new to the “Beehive State,” you’ll find plenty of opportunities to learn about Mormon history and religion. At least half of Utah’s population actively participates in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; three-quarters of the population were born into the faith. Temple Square in Salt Lake City offers excellent tours and exhibits about the church. You’ll also find many other visitor centers and historic sites scattered around the state.
Members believe that God’s prophets have restored teachings of the true Christian church to the world “in these latter days.” They believe their church presidents, starting with Joseph Smith, to be prophets of God, and they hold both the Bible and the Book of Mormon as the sacred word of God. The latter, they believe, was revealed to Joseph Smith from 1823 to 1830. The text tells of three migrations from the Eastern Hemisphere to the New World and the history of the people who lived in the Americas from about 600 B.C. to about A.D. 400. The book contains 239 chapters, which include teachings Christ supposedly gave in the Americas, prophecy, doctrines, and epic tales of the rise and fall of nations. It’s regarded by the church as a valuable addition to the Bible—but not a replacement.
Membership in the LDS Church requires faith, a willingness to serve, tithing, and obedience to church authorities. The church emphasizes healthful living, moral conduct, secure family relationships, and a thoughtful approach to social services.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is by far the dominant religion in Utah; about 65 percent of the population belongs to the church. Most major Christian denominations are represented in mid-sized towns, and in Salt Lake City there are small Jewish and Islamic congregations as well.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition