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Pioneers in every land: What the Book of Mormon means to Priscilla Yellowhead Tobey of Canada

Pioneers in every land: What the Book of Mormon means to Priscilla Yellowhead Tobey of Canada

Editor’s note: This month marks the 175th anniversary of the vanguard company of pioneers arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, in July 1847, after Latter-day Saints were driven by mobs out of the Nauvoo, Illinois, area the preceding year. The Church News this month honors achievements of pioneers crossing the Plains 175 years ago and also of Latter-day Saint pioneers of different times on every continent. Today: Priscilla Yellowhead Tobey of Canada. 

A poem inscribed on buckskin hangs on the wall of the cottage where Priscilla Yellowhead Tobey lives in ​​Tobermory, Ontario, Canada. 

She penned the words 46 years ago — a few months prior to learning about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and the Book of Mormon. She titled it “What Power.” 

Who is it
That holds the power
To soften my heart
To open my ears
To take this shield
From my eyes
And let the light
Enter my heart
My mind
My very soul.
Where is the answer
Where do I search
I kneel
Upon my Mother Earth
And she whispers
In the dust. 

“I was searching. I needed something,” 75-year-old Yellowhead Tobey recalled of writing the poem. “Months later, I find the Book of Mormon. Where did it come from but in the ground? And then that poem made so much sense to me. Now I know what it is that will fill my heart, give me light, and [help] me become who I’m supposed to be and have the knowledge of who I really am.”

A Potawatomi/Ojibway native, Yellowhead Tobey has always believed in a creator. That belief was strengthened as she read the Book of Mormon and learned of her Father in Heaven and His Son Jesus Christ.

“When we have the Savior in our life, He makes us more than we could ever imagine,” she told the Church News.

Read more: Pioneers in every land — From Rio de Janeiro to the prairies of North Dakota, Sister Martins’ faith is felt by all

Yellowhead Tobey is a member of the Owen Sound Ward, Barrie Ontario Stake, and the only active Church member in Tobermory — a scenic harbor town on the tip of the Bruce Peninsula where Lake Huron meets the Georgian Bay. 

Locator map for Tobermory, Ontario, Canada.

Locator map for Tobermory, Ontario, Canada.

Credit: Aaron Thorup, Church News graphic

With five children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild, Yellowhead Tobey is a pioneer in her family and community. The gospel of Jesus Christ is part of her everyday life as she embraces her native heritage. 

Finding the Book of Mormon

Born in 1946, Yellowhead Tobey grew up in Honey Harbour, across the Georgian Bay from Tobermory. She was the third of eight children, with five brothers and two sisters. Her father was a trapper. The name “Yellowhead” comes from her paternal great-grandmother, Eliza Yellowhead.

Yellowhead Tobey’s parents were Catholic, and she grew up reciting Catholic prayers. But she struggled to feel God’s presence in her life.  

“From the time I was 13 until I was 30, I did not think that God existed. But I always knew I had a Creator. How else could we have been here, and where did the earth come from if we didn’t have a Creator? That was my nativeness. 

“Now, there is no difference between my native teachings and teachings from the Book of Mormon.” 

Tears fill Yellowhead Tobey’s eyes as she remembers the day she met the missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was a single mother with four young children at the time.  

“They stood in the doorway, and I can still feel what I felt when I saw them,” Yellowhead Tobey said of the missionaries. “They came in and answered my questions about God … and then they gave me a Book of Mormon and asked me to read it.”

The first passage she read was Moroni’s promise in Moroni 10:3-5. “When I read that, I just knew, there’s something here,” she said. The missionaries invited her to pray. She was baptized three weeks later. 

Yellowhead Tobey said she has read the Book of Mormon almost every day since she joined the Church in 1976. She has missed few Sundays of attending church. Even when the car broke down or she didn’t have gas, she would find a way to get there.  

“When we lived in Honey Harbor, more than one time in the middle of winter, I’d pack four kids up and hitchhike up to Midland, which was like a 40-minute drive if you had a car. We always had a ride with somebody. Somebody would always bring us home. … We always made it to all of our meetings,” she said. 

New beginnings

During the year after her baptism, Yellowhead Tobey didn’t have much support in her new faith journey. Relationships with extended family members were strained as she changed her lifestyle. 

“I wanted my kids to know a better life,” she said. So she made the difficult decision to leave home.

“I gave away everything I owned — everything — except my kids had three outfits, and I had three outfits. And they got to take one favorite toy. … I had a cashier’s check for $500 and I had $500 in cash, and an old car that I paid $65 for. That’s it. … We left and I said, ‘When the money runs out, that’s where we’re going to live.’”

They ended up in Provo, Utah. 

Yellowhead Tobey lived in Utah for 22 years before returning to Canada in 1999. During that time she remarried and had another child. That marriage later ended. Amid life’s challenges, she has always found strength in the pages of her scriptures to press on. 

Priscilla Yellowhead Tobey, an indigenous Latter-day Saint from Canada, is pictured in the early years of her storytelling.

Priscilla Yellowhead Tobey, an indigenous Latter-day Saint from Canada, is pictured in the early years of her storytelling.

Credit: Priscilla Yellowhead Tobey

“Things are not always perfect in life, but it’s not all bad,” said Yellowhead Tobey. “And when I would get really discouraged — I’d always tell God, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I just don’t want to, it’s too hard’ — and then I would always have the thought ‘Go to your scriptures.’”

She has learned much from the story of Enos, whose “soul hungered and … kneeled down before [his] Maker and … cried unto him in mighty prayer.”

And she has often felt her faith reassured while reading the Lord’s words to Oliver Cowdery in Doctrine and Covenants 6:22-23: “If you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart … . Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?”

In addition to reading the Book of Mormon daily, Yellowhead Tobey said frequently attending the temple has kept her faith strong. Her nearest temple is the Toronto Canada Temple, about four and a half hours away.

Miracles through service

In the 46 years she has been a member of the Church, Yellowhead Tobey has held a variety of callings, including serving as ward Young Women president four times. She has also been a counselor in a Relief Society presidency, Relief Society teacher and Sunday School teacher. She currently serves as Primary secretary. 

“Wherever I’m needed, that’s where I’ll be, and that’s where I’ll love,” she said. 

From 1998 to 1999, she served a yearlong mission at the Washington D.C. Temple. She described it as an experience that healed her heart and filled her with love after a troubling time. 

Years later, she served a records preservation mission in Montreal, Canada — where she again experienced healing.  

While serving in Montreal, Yellowhead Tobey suffered a stroke that left her unable to move her legs. Doctors told her she likely would not walk again. Determined to recover, she worked with physical therapists and received priesthood blessings from the mission president and other missionaries. 

“I would try and try and try [to walk]. … And eventually, I could move my left leg up two inches. I thought, ‘I’m going to walk.’ And I did. I walked, and I finished my mission,” she said. 

Recovering from the stroke and being able to walk again sparked a desire in Yellowhead Tobey to embark on a trek across Spain. 

“When I came home, I said, ‘I’m coming to walk the El Camino Trail.’ I walked across Spain. Because I knew that if I walked, there’s something more that I could do.”

In true Yellowhead Tobey fashion, she used the once-in-a-lifetime experience as an opportunity to share goodness. Along El Camino de Santiago — Europe’s longest and most storied pilgrimage route — she handed out nearly 100 small buckskin bags she had made. 

“I put a piece of turquoise in them, and I would hand them out all along the trail to different people. I would tell them to remember that when you die, you take no treasures that you’ve built in your life. You only take the ones that you’ve built within yourself — your good character, your love of family and friends, and memories.”

Priscilla Yellowhead Tobey is an avid storyteller and loves to write poetry. She has taught workshops on how to make native crafts, produced cultural programs and written plays about her heritage.

Priscilla Yellowhead Tobey is an avid storyteller and loves to write poetry. She has taught workshops on how to make native crafts, produced cultural programs and written plays about her heritage.

Credit: Priscilla Yellowhead Tobey

Using a gem to talk about a gospel principle with strangers is just one example of how Yellowhead Tobey shares what she believes — without reservation, no matter where she is. 

“Every day, every day — I don’t think there are any days that go by that I don’t have a chance to bear my testimony of God or some principle of the gospel. There’s always something,” she said. 

Seeing God’s hand

Like the small buckskin bags, Yellowhead Tobey loves to make native crafts, including dream catchers, moccasins, drums, medicine bags and smudge feathers.

Last winter Yellowhead Tobey was making a large order of smudge feathers when she realized she was 75 feathers short. She desperately searched and called everyone she knew, but no one had any feathers. She pleaded with Heavenly Father for help. 

Not knowing what else to do, she went inside, took a shower and ate breakfast. When she came back into the living room, she noticed a white bag on a rocking chair she never used. 

“I open the bag, and in there are 75 feathers. I said, ‘Heavenly Father, where did these feathers come from?’ And I just started crying.”

The doors had been locked and she was home alone. To this day, Yellowhead Tobey doesn’t know where the feathers came from. It was an inexplicable miracle and a reminder that God loves her. 

“Every day I say, ‘Life is good.’ It doesn’t matter what happens, life is good. And Heavenly Father has given me miracles I cannot imagine,” Yellowhead said. “I really feel that I’m not special, but that He’s very mindful of my heart and who I am … and how much I really need Him in my life.”

Statistics and history of the Church in Canada.

Statistics and history of the Church in Canada.

Credit: Aaron Thorup, Church News graphic

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