Book Review: Essays on American Indian & Mormon History
I chose to review this book because I knew the content would be new to me. I am a white middle-aged, middle class female who has lived my entire life in the eastern US. I do not have American Indian heritage and did not attend BYU. I am not a product of Mormon pioneers. My knowledge base, prior to reading this book was quite limited and in many cases biased, inaccurate and wrong. I now have a lot to think about.
Essays on American Indian & Mormon History is a scholarly work, an outgrowth of a seminar hosted by the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University in 2015. The book’s essay decolonize the relationship between American Indians and Mormon settlers and missionaries by examining the complex, inter-related history and culture.
Essays begins with a comprehensive introduction written by the editors followed by poetry and prose, effectively bringing personal stories to the forefront of the academic essays. The book’s essays are each written by a different author from a unique perspective. Part One consists of five essays under the collective grouping of Native Experience with the Early LDS Church, Interpretation of Mormon Scripture, and Literary Representations. Part Two includes six essays grouped under Native Mormon Experiences in the Twentieth Century.
The first essay, “The Book of Mormon as Mormon Settler Colonialism” by Elise Boxer slapped me right out of my naivety and indoctrination. Quoting, “The use of the Book of Mormon as a historical and religious text of Lamanite identity and history on this continent erases the way Indigenous Peoples view their own creation as a people, their connection to the land, and their identity as a people. Instead, Indigenous Peoples are made to fit into Mormon creation stories and religious belief system. The erasure of Indigenous Peoples and history by Mormon settlers is an extension of the larger American colonial project of removal and genocide of Indigenous Peoples” (page 4).
Many tribal nations have their own Indigenous creation stories explaining how their people came into being, existing since the beginning of time and connecting them to their land. “Failing to understand a people’s connection to land makes it impossible to understand their history and culture. When Indigenous Peoples have been depicted as immigrants to this continent, like the Book of Mormon’s depiction of Lamanites or American Indians as immigrants seeking religious refuge, the goal is to extinguish tribal tile to land” (page 10).
The essay shares creation stories from various tribal nations that I found amazing.The author urges us to make room for Indigenous voices and history even and especially if they challenge the current master narrative.
The second essay, “Other Scriptures: Restoring Voices of Gantowisas to an Open Canon” by Thomas W. Murphy opened my eyes to sacred narratives that were present in and around the Mohawk Valley of New York in the early 1800s. The opening paragraph notes the message in 3rd Nephi, where Jesus Christ reminds the people they have not recorded all the scripture and prophecy of their time, suggesting to us that perhaps the LDS canon is still open. Are their other histories of Indigenous People that belong in our canon?
This is a fascinating essay that brings Indigenous narratives to center stage discussing dreams, visions, seers, prophets, sibling relationships, and the Great Peace in parallel with BOM. The point is not to insinuate Joseph Smith copied these stories, but to explore the common ground that many seekers struggle with as they interpret their dreams and visions within the environment of their life.
An essay from part two, “The Indian Student Placement Program and Native Direction” by Megan Stanton was illuminating. This program began as a result of Helen John, a Navajo, who in 1947 asked permission to live in the backyard of a family so she could attend school. The family consulted the Stake President, who contacted Spencer W Kimball. Kimball was instrumental in spearheading the program in an attempt to improve the educational opportunities for Native children while also providing missionary opportunities. The essay explores the role the participants, their families, the host families and the church in the program that officially ended in 2000. It explains the role of the Indian Child Welfare Act, LDS Social Services and federal government. There were 70,000 students who participated. Originally children as young as six years old participated until the age was raised to eight, and then later to high school age. Interestingly one of the graduates of the program was George P. Lee, who went on to become a Seventy. As the program was winding down, he advocated to strengthen it in order to meet the Native People’s needs. He was ultimately excommunicated in 1989 for apostasy due to his criticism of the General Authorities in not advocating for the program. This program began during a complex period of history with economic problems and poor educational opportunities for Native Peoples. It separated children from their families for 9 months of the year and resulted in many students not feeling a part of either culture. Many children left the program after one year, but many returned year after year. It was a nuanced situation explained well in the essay.
Essays is heavy reading in a scholarly, academic way. There are 73 pages of Notes in the back, followed by a 28 page bibliography. It is thoroughly researched and referenced. I hope it finds its way into academic coursework. I read Essays slowly, essay by essay, taking time to adjust my world view. My take away message is distilled to a few thoughts:
If we accept the fact that there is no DNA evidence linking any specific group of people to the Book of Mormon then we cannot definitively state that any group is a descendant of Lamanites. If no group is definitely Lamanite then all groups must be respected as authentic Indigenous People with their own history that is separate from the BOM overlay.
Indigenous People have a story to tell that precedes colonization. They need not be the objects of stories told about them by others, but the subjects and authors and voices of their own history.
All people have common spiritual experiences in seeking the Divine, having visions, and transcending everyday life. When we see each other’s authority to claim such experiences as genuine we can stop hijacking their history to fit into our Mormon Master Story.
The relationship between Indigenous Peoples and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was and is a complex and nuanced association that must be unpacked thoughtfully in order to understand our interrelation.