Monday, March 2, 2015

Asking Questions (Part 3: with Secenump)

This post is the fifth in what will be my Explorations in Womanhood Series. Please understand that while I intend to write things that are consistent with church doctrine, this blog is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For this reason, I ask that you consider prayerfully interacting with anything published here.

Goddess Looking Up by J. Kirk Richards

"... and [she] shall mount up in the imagination of [her] thoughts as on eagles' wings."
D&C 124:99

There are two versions of this story. The first, a history passed down through the whites. The second, a tradition of the natives.

The story goes like this: My fourth-great grandfather had four wives, but his first wife, Eunice, was barren. The whole clan was living in Central Utah, trying to make peace with their new desert home and its hostile inhabitants. The local natives were warring amongst themselves. One particular skirmish had just ceased, and, as was often the case in those days, the victorious tribe had kidnapped the children of the losing clan, with plans to sell them into slavery to the Spaniards. But at the mouth of Provo canyon, Porter Rockwell apprehended these natives before they could sell their victims, and he purchased the children with a plan to save them.  He presented them to my fourth-great granddaddy, Joseph Stacy Murdock, who gave them to his first wife, Eunice, to raise. There were two. A boy and a girl. Supickett and Secenump.

The story goes like this: While the first hunters and trappers to arrive in Utah were remembered for treading lightly on the local natives and their traditions, the Mormon pioneers who arrived in 1847 built fences and began scattering the first people. These Mormon settlers would use violence and force when they deemed it necessary, and their leader, Brigham Young, instructed his people to take the daughters of Chiefs into their homes to protect them from attack. Secenump was a Chief's daughter. She was the daughter of Chief Arapene, one of a royal line of brothers that led the Utahn native peoples.

The story continues: Secenump was a Ute. She was raised by Eunice, and given a new name: Prenetta, named for Eunice's grandmother. She grew up to be well-educated, well-mannered, and well-loved by her family.

The story continues: Secenump was a Shoshone. Every month, her father, Chief Arapene, came down out of the mountains to visit her at the Murdock homestead. She grew up to be culturally white, culturally Mormon, and completely disconnected from her roots and from her people.

Where the story ends: Somewhere near her sixteenth birthday, a Gentile man living in the area took an interest in Secenump. This raised alarm in her large, polygamous, family. And so, feeling concerned, Joseph Stacy Murdock went to visit his personal friend, and prophet, Brigham Young. At their meeting, President Young counseled my fourth great-granddaddy to marry Secenump himself. Now, Joseph Stacy Murdock was not one to take prophetic counsel lightly. In fact, Joseph is the same guy who penned the words to "Come Listen to a Prophet's Voice."

Even though he had never disobeyed a prophet before, he couldn't go through with what Brigham had asked of him. So he went home and could not find peace over the issue. After two weeks, he went back to see Brigham Young. And when President Young again instructed Joseph to marry his daughter, this time Joseph returned home, and he did.

Where the story ends:


I'm not actually a direct descendant of Secenump's, although she did have five children with her father. I come through Joseph's second wife, a pioneer woman named Elizabeth Hunter Murdock. This genetic distinction didn't spare me any confusion though.

I remember when I first encountered Secenump's story. I was young—really young. Maybe nine, maybe ten. I was interested in family history at the time. After reading her story I didn't take up an interest in family history for another fifteen years.

I'm not entirely sure what it was that made this event so traumatic for me. Perhaps it was that I grew up on Shoshone Avenue, and being a very imaginative child it was easy for me to feel a sort of sisterhood with the historic Native American women of Idaho.

There was, and still is, something about Native American women. Their courage, their connection to sacred things, the freedom they had to roam, to act. I know that I run the risk of romanticizing Native culture here, but to me it is true that at the heart of Native life was a different kind of woman than you found among the European immigrants and pioneers.

And that was one kind of loss I sensed in Secenump's story. At nine, or ten, I was the same emotional little creature that I am now, and I felt that I instinctively understood the kind of pain that Secenump would have faced. Not just the pain of being displaced, of losing one's way of living. But the pain of longing for acceptance in a new home, but never finding it because the color of your skin always stood as a reminder to yourself and everyone else of what made you different. Perhaps, being a girl, she would have dreamed of love, of starting her own family. And the kind of aching, crushing—disappointment isn't the word—because it wouldn't have been a solitary moment of let down, and disappointment seems to imply something momentary; the kind of aching, crushing, blow that she was dealt in a marriage. This must have been what made her story hurt for me.

I reasoned in my young mind that the only way a sixteen-year-old girl would agree to such a union would be if she were forced into it.

And because we have no words of Secenump's, no history from her, or her adoptive mother, Eunice, there's really no way to know what she thought or felt. We do have these the words of her niece, Amelia Brittingham Murdock Witt, who wrote:

"Many times the girl's heart was made to ache, but Joseph S. Murdock was a just man and he tried so hard to see that she wasn't hurt too badly, knowing too well what she was up against."

As I've recently been revisiting this branch of my family tree I've been (a bit resistantly at times) trying to get to know my fourth great-granddaddy. And you know, I've amended one of my former conclusions. I don't believe that he would have coerced his daughter into a marriage. Although a bit of pride leaks out from behind clenched teeth as I write this, I have to admit that nothing I've read contributes to such a picture of this man. The Joseph Stacy emerging from the pages I've been turning really seems to be a kind, a thoughtful, and even a sensitive being.

I do wish I knew the specifics though.

In lieu of specifics, lately God has been providing me with a little of bit comfort. It started with Hagar actually. Secenump is a kind of Hagar, don't you think? Both are the exotic, the adopted, the stranger. Both were removed, disadvantaged, married, inseminated.

And it's funny, because my initial reaction to Secenump's story was exactly like my reaction to Hagar's. But there is one crucial difference. There's a safe distance created by 4,000 years. Yes, the biblical account of Hagar exists, and I'm sure Hagar, herself, existed in some capacity in the very distant past. It's not like her life really affects me though. It doesn't even have to effect me.

But when a story, such as Secenump's, is only four generations removed, and you know that without the people involved, you wouldn't be here, the tragedy, the confusion; it all takes on an entirely different kind of weight.

You're not given breathing room. You cannot ask, "But what if this is more story than history?" or, "What if this didn't happen the way everybody's interpreting it?" And it's not like you can just tune out the one Sunday School lesson that mentions her every four years. Every time you're reminded to "do" your family history, every time you think about the Natives who lived on the plains (which is quite a lot if you're me), you're brought back to face this strange, toxic, pulsating knot in your family tree.

But why does this matter?

For two reasons, I think.

The first is because I've realized that there are more than my experiences, or the stories of women that surround me that have created a climate, and a need for answers. It feels a bit Mulan to write this out, but I've realized that the stories that have more immediately, even physically created me have left bits of themselves in me. Hurts and pains and dispositions and inclinations, and yes, questions.

But the second reason is the one I've been spending the most time with recently. Remember the well from Hagar's story? The Living Water? I've been trying to find it in Secenump's life. Because if it's there for one woman, it must be there for another. God is no respecter of person's after all. And I haven't been able to find that water. At least, not immediately.

After her marriage, Secenump lost a baby, and then brought four more into the world. She died in her early forties, not long before one of her sons, Alma, was framed for a murder, scapegoated because of communal biases against Native Americans. Not too long after his release from prison, Alma was murdered himself, by a man motivated by upsettingly similar biases.

There's just not much going on here that's very redemptive. Or I suppose, there's not much going on here that is visibly redemptive.

As I've tried to apply my rule for asking questions, that touchstone in 1 Nephi 11, that "I know that He loveth his children. Nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things" idea, very slowly I've watched the veil of redemption being pulled back.

For one thing, is there not a kind of redemption that occurs when you are remembered?  When, even a hundred and fifty years after the fact, a little girl prays and struggles and cries and freezes over the life you lived? Isn't there something redemptive about someone, her perhaps, telling her truth about you? About her telling everyone that you must have been a woman who lived her faith day-to-day, who lived her faith simultaneously in spite of and because of opposition? And is there something redemptive in watching this same girl discover that she wants to be a woman who lives her faith like you?

I like to imagine, that if I were her, there would be something redemptive in that.

But I believe that there must be a bigger picture than that. Surely God would not call one of His (and Her) daughters to face so much and offer to her only the consolation of a girl 150 years her junior feeling some things.

No, no, no. Pains and sufferings are meant to be turned into things of light, of truth. Beauty for ashes.

And that's when a little idea begins to blossom. Because if Secenump really is a type of Hagar, then perhaps some of their redemption is similar. Hagar is the spiritual ancestress of the Muslim people. Some of the reason she was called to sacrifice what she did, was so that we could be a sacred link between her progeny and the ordinances of the Priesthood. What if Secenump could be the same?
She was one of the first Native Americans to enter the temple. Just behind Chief Sagwitch and his wife. But maybe it's not so much about the people who come after her as it is about the people who came before her. The Ne'we, the people from which sprang both the Utes and the Shoshones. And so I've wondered if perhaps her mission is largely playing out on the other side, if perhaps, she has an opportunity to be a bridge, a savior on Mount Zion for her people. An Ambassador.

That was my answer anyways.

And it's the kind of answer that reaches backwards. Back towards that little girl on Shoshone Avenue. But it reaches forward too. Because God has a lot of work ahead of Him (and Her), and I think that Secenump is on their team.

And so am I.


  1. Amber

    I found your blog via a friend. I am descendent of Joseph and Prenetta and grew up with the crazy stories as well. I have never heard her referred to as Secenump or that she was related to Arapeen. Do you have nay sources for those stories or were they just told through family? I am always looking for any info on Prenetta. Thanks for any info you have. You can reach me at

    Brian Murdock

  2. Very interesting thoughts, Amber. I love the way you explain your feelings intertwined with the story.