Frank W. Warner and the History of Mormon Native Writing

By November 12, 2014

Although recent scholarship has done much to understand Native conversions to Christianity in early America, asking intriguing questions about indigenous agency and adaptation within colonial contexts, little has been written on Native converts to Mormonism. Part of the hesitance, at least for nineteenth-century historians, stems from the nature of the source material. There are, simply put, few “Native texts”—written accounts drafted by indigenous converts to Mormonism that reflect their viewpoint—prior to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[1] From the 1850s through the 1880s, thousands of Native peoples accepted Mormon baptism in the inter-mountain American West and the Pacific Islands. Few if any of these converts could read Roman script, meaning their experience with Mormonism was largely oral in nature. They heard about rather than read the Book of Mormon and Mormon beliefs about the Lamanite ancestors of indigenous peoples. The corollary to this point is that few if any Mormon Natives could record in writing their own interpretations of church teachings, meaning historians are left with accounts of Native words that have been filtered through white interpreters and scribes. That said, some indigenous converts such as the Ute Arapeen, although unable to read or write English himself, used ingenious techniques to turn writing to his own purposes as he navigated the world around him that was rapidly being transformed by Mormon settlement.

Bennion, "Captivity, Adoption, Marriage and Identity," p. 209

Frank Warner (Bennion, p. 209)

The next generation of Mormon Indians, however, grew up in a society that emphasized and implemented education as a civilizing and assimilating tool. Although operating within the confines of the dominant culture around them, Natives of the era also used education for their own purposes. One such individual was Frank W. Warner (1861-1919), the son of Shoshone Chief and Bear River Massacre survivor Sagwitch. Sagwitch and other Shoshones converted en masse to Mormonism, within the context of the first Ghost Dance movement of the 1870s. The Shoshones reported receiving visions of three white-clad men telling them to join the Saints. Additionally, becoming Mormons allowed Sagwitch and his people to remain in their ancestral homelands in southern Idaho and northern Utah, rather than resettle at the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho. Frank Warner was just two years old when he received seven wounds at Bear River in 1863. He survived and was adopted by the Warner family and assumed their surname. Warner was educated at Brigham Young College in Logan, Utah, and worked as an educator. He served multiple missions for the church and married twice, both times to white Mormon women.[2] The following excerpts come from Warner’s 1914-1915 journal, housed at the Church History Library, containing an account of his mission on the Fort Peck Reservation among the Sioux and Assiniboine in Montana. The following four excerpts from the journal provide a window into ways that a Mormon Indian was interpreting the Book of Mormon and reconciling his Mormon and Native identities in the early twentieth century.

[4 December 1914] I started out this morning with some scriptures[.] This is my real work. I visited a house of Lamanites John Adams [?] by there was about 15 in the house I talked to them on the book of Mormon quoted some scripture. Showing such conditions that that would bring eternal salvation unto the Lamanites showed them their fallen condition, and how the dark skin came upon them, and they must do in order they may that dark skin may fall from, & I told them the great blessings in store for them, I left a Book of Mormon with them & they promised to read the same. I told them if they would read it with full purpose of heart, and in simplicity and humbleness that when they had read they would be convinced that it was true, and a history of the American Indians. I talked to them for 4 hours straight. It gave me pleasure to talk to them.

[13 December 1914] Elder Anderson spoke on duties and blessings, which awaited the Lamanites. He exhorted them to dilligence.  I took up the subject which delt on the blessings <illegible> attended the people in the days of the Book of Mormon the time when there was no Lamanites or any other itis on the continent, when all the people lived in perfect harmony & love when all kinds of wickedness, was not in the land. They had all things <in common>

[14 December 1914] While at the agency I got in conversation with a graduate from Carlile Penn he was an Indian. I talked to him on the evidence of the Book of Mormon. I showed him my reasons for the hope that I had for a resurrection. I also made it clear to him in regard to Lehi and his travels, and the disobedience of Laman & Lemuel and the cause of the curse that now follows us in the Indian race.

[16 December 1914] The man asked us our business, we told him. He said he was a Catholic, and <said> there was nothing. After he had berated us at some length we drove in our wedge of the Doctrine of the Bible[.] We headed him off at every point. Then he let in on the traditions of the Lamanites and said the only converts we had was the old and the ignorant. I told that the Indian was no more full of tradition than the white man I pointed out some of them he said he knew these things as he had lived with Indians. I told him I was an Indian and had been all my life. We told him of his mistaken religion, and his doctrine. We headed him off at every point.

——

[1] N. K. Nihipali, a Native Hawaiian convert, apparently kept detailed journals for his missions in the 1880s and 1890s. Unfortunately, the journals have not yet been translated.

[2] Michael K. Bennion, “Captivity, Adoption, Marriage and Identity: Native American Children in Mormon Homes, 1847-1900 (MA thesis, UNLV, 2012), 191-92, 203-209.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Accommodation From the Archives Race


Comments

  1. Thanks for this David. I’m fascinated by this line of inquiry. Because historians so often use the written record in reconstructing the past, they often fall into the (false) assumption that history happened as the written record lays it out. Trying to recover the oral culture goes a long way in tempering this challenge and I think arbiters of the two cultures (oral and literate) like Warner reveal important insight into a more complex understanding of the past.

    Comment by Robin — November 12, 2014 @ 9:31 am

  2. Thanks, Robin. Indeed, the interplay between orality and textuality is an important lens that has been used to understand indigenous conversion to Christianity in colonial contexts elsewhere in early America, and that I believe is also a fruitful avenue of exploration for conversion to Mormonism.

    Comment by David G. — November 12, 2014 @ 11:39 am

  3. Wow, great find and great questions raised, David.

    Comment by Nate R. — November 12, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

  4. Thanks, David

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 12, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

  5. This is fantastic, David. Thanks for sharing it!

    Comment by J Stuart — November 13, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

  6. Thanks for writing the post! It really struck me how Warner understood the “curse” and the language relating to the curse and skin color. I wondered if there was any sense of pride in being the descendants of “Lamanites,” which some Native American converts developed later rather than emphasizing the need to escape the “curse” of skin and life in their rhetoric. How long is the source/journal? How was it preserved and placed in the Church collections? Does Warner have family still in the church who have oral histories relating to his experiences?

    Comment by Farina — November 13, 2014 @ 10:21 pm

  7. Thanks, Farina. Great questions. Yes, Warner’s understanding of the “curse” and skin color definitely stands out. He mentions “the great blessings in store for them,” although he does so right after he discusses what they needed to do to throw off the curse. Warner however was also very affirming of his indigenous ancestry, as the final excerpt shows. The journal covers two months, December 1914-January 1915, so unfortunately it’s not extensive. I’m unsure exactly how the journal came into the CHL’s collections. I think I’ve heard Sagwitch has many descendants who remain in the church but I don’t know much beyond that.

    Comment by David G. — November 14, 2014 @ 6:56 am

  8. The inimitable Ardis Parshall this morning has posted some fascinating excerpts from letters written by Frank Warner in the 1910s which shed a lot of additional light onto Warner’s ideas about the Book of Mormon, Lamanites, and healing. Check it out: http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2014/11/14/frank-w-warner-more-samples-of-mormon-native-writing/#more-26450

    Comment by David G. — November 14, 2014 @ 7:58 am

  9. David, this is really fascinating. Thank you.

    Comment by Christopher — November 14, 2014 @ 10:47 am

  10. Frank Warner’s missionary journal was passed down through his descendants and was donated to the Church History Department by his great-grandson, Jon Warner. Many of Frank Warner’s descendants are active LDS members. Jon Trent Warner, a great-great-grandson, was one of the first missionaries to serve in Bulgaria in 1991.

    Comment by Scott — November 14, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

  11. […] David G. pointed out in his earlier post, it is often difficult for historians to come to terms with how Natives interpreted and reacted to […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormonism, Pan-Indian Alliances, and Native Writing — November 24, 2014 @ 6:00 am


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