Saturday, February 4, 2023

An appearance of Jesus to some Ute Indians in 1920

In my June 2021 posts "Synchronicity: The locusts of Joel, and the traveling man" and "Cucurbits from an alien land," I mention this story I heard from Stan Bronson when I was a Mormon missionary stationed in Moab, Utah, in 1998.

This anecdote from Greenfield-Sanders also reminds me now of a story I heard a long time ago about a Ute Indian's encounter on the road with a person he took to be Sinawava, a tribal deity known as "he who leaves footprints of light." I heard this secondhand from Stan Bronson of Blanding, Utah, a historian of the Ute tribe. (Bronson believed that Sinawava is the same person as Jesus Christ.) As I recall, Sinawava also asked the Ute which direction he was traveling and expressed approval of the answer. I think Sinawava was also carrying some watermelons, which he offered to the Ute -- recalling an incident in one of Strieber's books where alien "visitors" show up at Michael Talbot's door with a bag of pumpkins. My memory of the anecdote is a bit hazy, so I suppose I should try to track down Mr. Bronson, if he's still around.

I tried unsuccessfully to track down Mr. Bronson and eventually gave up.

Although I wrote Sinawava, thinking that was the standard spelling because of the Temple of Sinawava in Zion National Park, I actually remember Bronson pronouncing it Sinawav, without the final vowel. Here's what I remembered about what he said about Ute religion in general: The Ute word for their own tribe was Nuch, and Nuchach (whence Utah) was the collective term for mankind. The Ute homeland was called Avikan. They had two main gods: Tavwach, meaning "man forever" or "endless man"; and Sinawav, meaning "he who leaves footprints of light." Bronson believed that these were the names under which the Utes knew God the Father and Jesus Christ. The devil was called Apugat, "evil one." I heard all this described orally, only once, 25 years ago, but those names at least have stuck with me. Oh, and the Ute name for the Earth was Tuvwup. (In all these ad hoc transliterations, ch is pronounced as in church, and the vowels have their standard Continental sounds.)

Apparently gods with names that are variations on Tavwach and Sinawav are common to many tribes in that area, and the Temple of Sinawava is actually named after a Paiute god. Some online sources identify Tavwach and Sinawav with Wolf and Coyote, the latter being the typical "trickster" god, which seems totally inconsistent with Bronson's interpretation. Other sites have Sinawav as the creator god and Coyote as a separate character. I guess the names have attached themselves to a wide variety of characters and/or have been very differently interpreted by people with different presuppositions -- Mormon beliefs about the Indians' Christian ancestors in Bronson's case, generic "Coyote" stories in the case of some others.

Today, I searched for sinawav footprints of light -- spelling the god's name without the final vowel, trusting my memory over the blokes who make the plaques at Zion National Park -- and found more than I had hoped for: a transcript of a 1999 address by Bronson himself closely paralleling what I had heard from him the year before: "Cross of the San Juan Mission." I had remembered the Ute names perfectly, it turns out, but had rather garbled the watermelon incident. The person they encountered was not Sinawav per se but Jesus Christ in his own person, complete with crucifixion scars, and he wasn't carrying the watermelons. The Indians were on their way to buy watermelons when they met him, and he said when questioned that he liked watermelons. Here is the story.

Ute Indian oral histories by Avikan White Mesa Jim Mike (Chee Maik), his daughter Pochief, and his son Billy . . . state that in August, about the year 1920, Jesus Christ appeared to Jim and three other Ute men as they traveled on horseback from their camp at southeastern Utah's Sand Island on the San Juan River to buy watermelons from the settlers in the little Mormon town of Bluff, headquarters of the San Juan Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The account, told in its entirety to this writer in 1986 by Pochief and Bill Mike, states that Jim Mike, his son Harry, his son-in-law Jack Fly, and another unnamed son, were approaching Bluff when they met a bearded man with long un-braided hair walking barefoot toward them in the sandy roadway. The man spoke, calling Jim Mike by his secret Ute name. Jim responded, saying, "You must be Jesus." The man smiled and pointed to himself. Jesus Christ was known to have been a somewhat frequent visitor among the Ute people; therefore, as the four men dismounted from their horses they were anxious to begin asking questions which members of their clan had been told to ask the next time any of them saw Jesus. During the ensuing conversation with the Creator, Christ held his hands out to the four men, showed them the Marks of the Crucifixion, and declared in the Ute language, "I want you to know -- you would not have done this to me here."

Later, the story is told again in more detail:

Many of the Utes have been righteous enough to be personally ministered to by the Creator, himself, as was the case with Jim Mike and his sons as already told in part at the beginning of this writing. In 1970, while interviewing Jim Mike, this writer had the privilege of hearing the century-old Ute Indian member of the "Mormon" Church testify, saying, "I saw Jesus, and he called me by my Secret Ute Name." Jim Mike had also seen Jesus a number of years earlier, when as a young boy he was in a group of Utes who saw Christ at Cross Canyon, near Sleeping Ute Mountain, Jesus told all who saw him at that time that they would live to be 105 years old and that then they would pass away. Jim Mike died in 1977 at the age of 105.

In 1983, this writer was asked by the White Mesa Avikan Ute people to serve as their historian. Then, in 1986, nine years after the passing of Jim Mike, the Old Holy Man's daughter Pochief, along with his son Billy, related to this writer the previously untold part of their experience. The account was told by Pochief, through an interpreter, with Billy concurring. As mentioned earlier, the incident related in the following story took place in August, sometime around the year 1920. The story goes:

"Our Father, Jim, our Brother Harry, my husband, Jack Fly, and our other brother (when questioned by this writer about the other brother, Pochief and Billy both said that they could not remember the other brother's name) were traveling on horseback from Sand Island where the Utes were camped, to Bluff City to buy watermelons from the Mormons. Just before they came to Cottonwood Wash, they met a man walking toward them in the sandy roadway. The man had long, un-braided hair, and a beard. He wore a robe with un-hemmed sleeves, and his feet were bare.

The man spoke, calling Jim by his secret Ute name. Jim answered, "You must be Jesus!" The man smiled, and pointed to himself. Jim and the other men dismounted from their horses and started asking Jesus questions. They asked, "Where do you live? Where do you sleep? Jesus pointed toward the sky. They asked, "Where are you going? " Jesus gestured down the road in the direction from whence the men had come. They asked, "What food do you like to eat?" Jesus did not answer. They asked, "Do you like watermelon and corn?" Jesus spoke in the Ute language and said, "Yes I do."

The men were fascinated by the feet of Jesus, because they were very smooth and clean, like pearly white, even though he was walking barefoot in the sandy roadway. They asked "Doesn't this hot sand burn your bare feet?" Jesus said, "It is not hot to me."

Jesus talked about other things, and then he held his hands out toward the men and showed them his crucifixion scars and said, "I want you to know -- you would not have done this to me here."
Jesus then went on his way. The men mounted their horses and rode on toward Bluff. As the crossed Cottonwood wash they met a Model T Ford, traveling in the same direction as Jesus.

The men bought their watermelons and rode back to Sand Island and told their wives about talking with Jesus. We (Pochief and the other women) said, "We want to see Jesus too! Let's go and find him!" We saddled our horses and followed the men up to the road where we found Jesus' tracks. We followed the tracks until we say where he got in that Model T Ford, so we followed the car tracks. We saw where he got out of the car and left the road and started walking cross-country. We knew it would soon be dark, so we galloped our horses as fast as we could go, following Jesus' tracks. Jesus was going so fast that he must have been flying, but still leaving footprints, because we knew that no one could walk over that much ground so fast. When it got dark, we camped and got up the next morning and followed his tracks some more. The footprints came to a little stream of water and crossed to the other side. As Jesus' tracks went across a small sand dune on the other side of the stream there was one last footprint and the tracks disappeared. Jim said, "Jesus walked up into the sky." We circled all around the area for a long time trying to pick up his trail again, but we couldn't find any more tracks, so we went home disappointed.

About two weeks later, Jim was out on Douglas Mesa (by Monument Valley) talking with some Navajo friends, and he told them about seeing Jesus. They said, "We saw him too. He came into our camp while we were having a 'sing' for our sick brother." The Navajos told Jim that at first they didn't know that the man was Jesus. They asked the man if he wanted something to eat, and he said "No -- but I can help this sick man if you want me to." The Navajos said that they wanted him to help their brother, so, Jesus put his hands on the sick man's head and said a prayer. Then Jesus told the people goodbye, and left the camp. The man got well, so the Navajos knew that it must have been Jesus who had come, so they followed his tracks trying to find him. They came to one last track and the footprints disappeared.

I think that's a much more interesting and evocative story than the garbled fragment I was able to remember! I especially like the image of Jesus hitching a ride in a Model T.

One odd discrepancy: "The men were fascinated by the feet of Jesus, because they were very smooth and clean, like pearly white . . . . Jesus talked about other things, and then he held his hands out toward the men and showed them his crucifixion scars." If they had been staring at his feet, wouldn't they have noticed the crucifixion scars there first?


Craig Davis said...

I have spent quite a bit of time in that part of Utah over the years. It has a strong draw for me and I always feel positive and at-home. Perhaps there is more to it than just liking dry air and desert scenery?

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...


Same here. Moab was one of the most pleasant places I’ve ever lived.

WanderingGondola said...

A remarkable story! The funny thing is that blog seems familiar... Think I looked at it sometime in the last several months, maybe reading up on the Cherokees or Hopi.

Ben Pratt said...

This is really fun. We stopped at the Bluff Fort historic site on a summer 2021 roadtrip, and that sparked a month or two of near-obsessive interest in the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition. My great-great-grandfather was a part of that esteemed company with his wife and several children, as were his parents and many of his siblings. The James Decker house built by one brother still stands there in Bluff.

Bronson states that the decision of the Hole-in-the-Rock party leaders to cross through the unknown wilderness rather than take the south way through Lee's Ferry and Moenkopi or the north route through modern Green River and Moab was irrational. It's fortunate that this is not central to his essay because that decision was actually well-motivated at the time, given the information they had, some of it being incorrect.

I found in my studies that no one had published a .kml file of the old pioneer route for use on Google Earth. I don't have one completed yet either, but I made a lot of progress!

Anyway, thank you for this.

I haven't been able to find anything confirming this notion of a geographic "spiritual cross" well-known to tribes across North America, whether in Utah or anywhere else. Have you heard of any such thing, or do you recall hearing of it from Bronson back in the day?

Craig Davis said...

It took a few days for my subconscious or maybe the Synch Fairies to make the connection, but once again I share a link to a typically odd Jimmy Buffett song.

Have you been able to see much of the Hole In The Rock trail personally? It is remarkable that they managed to navigate that terrain and even more so that none of them died along the way. One of these days I need to do the hike down to Register Rock.

Ben Pratt said...


It really is an astonishing story!

I know roughly where the original route corresponds to modern roads such as the eastern third of Utah highway 20, south on US-89, east on Utah 12, NE on Johns Valley Rd to Widstoe, then east on (?) 17 (Old Escalante Rd) over the mountain to rejoin highway 12 a few miles west of Escalante. I've been on all of those road segments except the detour through Widstoe, most of them many times.

But until summer 2021 we had never been farther east on highway 12 than Tropic, so later on that same roadtrip we drove the entire length of Utah highway 12 from Torrey so as to at least see the beginning of the 50-mile Hole-in-the-Rock road from highway 12 to Hole-in-the-Rock itself above the Colorado River (well, above an arm of Lake Powell nowadays). My understanding is that much of the road is hardly any better than the original pioneers left it, as that stretch was really only used to get back and forth between Bluff and Escalante for about a year. I didn't attempt any of it in my vehicle. I chatted with a woman coming out of it on her motorcycle. She had turned back due to the sand.

My father has expressed a desire to rent or borrow the appropriate vehicles and make the trip to Hole-in-the-Rock. I'll go with him, but I'm super interested in the rest of the trail as well. Coming out of the canyon of Cottonwood Creek across the Colorado from Hole-in-the-Rock there is a modern off-road trail that tracks the original pioneer road for about 10 miles before taking a newer route to Utah highway 276. That highway generally follows the pioneer route from east of Cal Black Memorial Airport to highway 95. From there the old route sort of parallels 95 eastward for a minute then parallels 261 southward but diverges SE (on a track that is visible on satellite images but unnamed on Google Maps) before joining "Snow Flts Rd"/237. 237, 235, and Comb Wash Rd (south of US-163) are pretty much the old route all the way down to the San Juan River at Comb Ridge (Stan Bronson's "spiritual cross"). Then the pioneer route goes right up the incredibly steep San Juan Hill onto Comb Ridge, crosses north of highway 163 again, heads east to cross Butler Wash, and finally joins 163 right where it meets US-191 near the Sand Island mentioned in the story of Jesus visiting the Ute Indians. From there it's just a few more miles to Bluff.

I haven't been on hardly any of that. Many years ago we drove south on Utah 95 and 261, including the very cool Moki Dugway. In 2021 we drove north on US-191 across the San Juan River and then through Bluff. That's it so far. Time to start planning!

Craig Davis said...


The HITR road from Escalante to Lake Powell is generally doable with a stock four wheel drive vehicle in good weather conditions. I would recommend against a vehicle without proper low-range gearing. Also, this section is typically wash-boarded and quite a tedious drive.

The 4WD trail from Cal Black to the hiking trail that goes down Cottonwood Creek is one of the most remote 4WD trails in the United States and requires a well built vehicle, good planning and significant 4WD experience. If I remember correctly, I have done it eight times. If you can figure out the logistics, it is really worthwhile for the scenery, the remoteness and the historical significance. As alluded to in my original comment, I have not done the hike from the end of the 4WD trail down to Register Rock, but would like to at some point.

The 4WD trail sections further east (Snow Flats, Comb Wash, San Juan Hill) are moderate and have easier access to civilization. I would still recommend a somewhat built vehicle, but the technical sections are much more manageable.

If you would like more detailed information about any the 4WD sections or planning advice, etc. just let me know.

Ben Pratt said...


That is a treasure trove of valuable information. Thanks a million!

Sync: Odin at the door, DD lemniscates, sideways eyeballs

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