American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Mormon Church

The interest of the Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in Native Americans can be traced to the Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830. This book of scripture referred to Indians as Lamanites and said they were descendents of an Israelite civilization that rose and fell on the American continent. The book also contained prophecies about the Indians' receiving great blessings once they joined the Mormon Church. The church has adopted and abandoned various programs over the years to carry out its perceived responsibilities to Native Americans.

Mormon missions to the Indians began in 1830. The earliest missionaries found some tribes receptive to their message, but Indian agents prevented them from making further inroads. Non-Mormons suspected that Mormons intended to enlist Indians in their bid to establish an empire in the West. This is one reason why Mormons were persecuted and eventually driven to Utah in 1847.

When they arrived in the Great Basin, the Mormons wanted land occupied by local tribes. They made peaceful overtures to Indian chiefs, but conflict erupted as converts to the church began settling in Utah by the thousands and encroaching on lands that Native Americans used for hunting and gathering. Some of the most tragic examples of this fighting were the Mountain Meadows Massacre (1857) and the Black Hawk War (1865–1868). Despite these clashes, the Mormons made some attempts to preach the gospel and teach farming to their Native neighbors. However, the cultural gap proved largely insurmountable and the federal government relocated the Utes, Shoshones, and Paiutes to reservations in the late nineteenth century.

Relations between Native Americans and the Mormons recommenced in the 1940s. The church launched Indian missions in the Southwest and northern Plains. The Mormon missionaries on these reservations did not preach but rather promoted economic development and provided instruction in farming and ranching. In the 1950s, the church launched two educational programs for Indian students. Indian Seminary was a church program that involved constructing facilities next to federal Indian schools. Seminary teachers offered a religion class that Indian students could take during their regular school day. By the late 1960s, the annual enrollment in Indian seminary exceeded ten thousand.

The second initiative, the placement program, by contrast, required Indian students to live in the foster homes of white Mormon families during the school year. Ultimately, 70,000 Native students participated, or about 10 percent of American Indian baby boomers. To participate in the placement program, Indian students had to obtain parental permission and become a baptized member of the church. The Mormons argued they were offering these students an education superior to that offered in reservation schools.

This program proved so appealing that, at its height in 1970, annual enrollment reached 5,000. However, evaluating the ultimate successes and failures of the program is no easy task. Critics charged the program with cultural genocide. More often than not, the students were taught that their Indian traditions were sinful and that their salvation depended on embracing Mormon beliefs and lifestyles. For most of the students, these pressures to assimilate interfered with the development of their tribal and Indian identities. Many returned home after only a year or two. A smaller percentage earned decent grades in high school, went on to obtain college degrees, and returned to their reservations with valuable skills.

Many graduates of the placement program were attracted to Brigham Young University (BYU). The enrollment of Indian students at BYU swelled to more than 500 during the early 1970s. The story of George P. Lee (Navajo) illustrates recent policy changes within the church. Lee enrolled in placement for seven years, served a mission for the church, and then earned his doctorate at BYU. In 1975 Lee became one of the highest-ranking leaders in the church. By the mid-1980s, the church was shifting its resources and programs from Native Americans and their reservations to the peoples and lands of Central and South America. Lee felt that the church had abandoned its responsibilities for Native Americans and was excommunicated in 1989 when his criticisms became public.

Sterling Fluharty


Further Reading
Jones, Sondra. 2004. "Saints or Sinners? The Evolving Perceptions of Mormon-Indian Relations in Utah Historiography." Utah Historical Quarterly 72, no. 1: 19–46.; Mauss, Armand L. 2003. All Abraham's Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.; Whittaker, David J. 1985. "Mormons and Native Americans: A Historical and Bibliographical Introduction." Dialogue 18, no. 4: 33–64.
 

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