Thoughts on Indigenous Mormon Studies

By November 25, 2013

We are pleased to have this guest post by Professor Matthew Kester who is the author of Remembering Iosepa: History, Place, and Religion in the American West (Oxford University Press, 2013), the university archivist, and an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University Hawaii.

My training as an historian of Oceania and the American West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and my role as the custodian of archival collections on Mormonism in Oceania, led me to write on interactions between Mormons and Kanaka Maoli, the indigenous people of Hawai’i. Both Oceania and the American West are regions where indigenous people experienced massive, disruptive political, social, and economic change, and Mormon missionaries and settlers played an important role in that change. I want to use this opportunity to reflect on what I feel are some of the more important themes in the study of Mormonism and indigenous people, and suggest some ways that they might be responsibly put to use. Important, because exploring these themes will increase our understanding of these interactions and the communities they created. Responsible, because they do so in a way that represents indigenous people as full historical subjects, and as active historical agents who negotiated (and continue to negotiate) disruptive periods in their history on their own terms, at least within the confines of the larger power structures imposed by colonization, settlement, and in many cases, the erosion or loss of political sovereignty and self-determination.

The first theme I would like to address is comparative indigeneity. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, through its missionary efforts, continues to expand into Africa, East and Southeast Asia, and other areas of the world with substantial populations of indigenous people. This allows the opportunity to compare the experiences of indigenous people and Mormons outside of the context of sacred texts and narratives that can and do shape our understanding of these encounters.  There has been a great deal of scholarly work done that compares the experiences of indigenous Mormons in regions where indigeneity is understood, by Native and non-Native people alike, within the context of the Book of Mormon narrative. We know far less about the encounters between Mormons and indigenous people outside of that narrative. In places where indigeneity is a potent political and cultural identity, do those identities interact with the religious narratives of indigeneity found in Mormon sacred texts? How are religious and indigenous identities negotiated outside the context of “Lamanites” and “Nephites?” Such studies may yet serve for fascinating comparative perspectives on Mormonism and indigeneity globally.

The second theme I would like to address is identity. Latter-day Saints exhibit an intense concern with indigenous identity. In many ways, however, it is an interest in the ancient identity of indigenous people that engages us more than contemporary indigenous identity. Witness the intense interest and commentary following the discovery by geneticists of the existence of a genome in Native Americans that ties them to modern West Eurasian populations.[1] There have been many excellent books and articles that explore the intersection of religious identity and indigenous identity in contemporary indigenous Mormon communities, but too few have been penned by indigenous scholars. It is essential that more indigenous perspectives on Mormon identity, written by Church members and non-members (former members?) alike, are written, disseminated, and cited by all those who write about Mormonism and indigenous people.  These perspectives should not be constrained by non-indigenous theoretical models that seek to privilege certain types of identity formation over others, nor should they seek to completely justify or condemn religious identity in the context of colonialism, dispossession, or loss of political sovereignty. Rather, explorations of Mormon indigenous identity should pay close attention to the experiences of individuals and communities who have walked this path, recognizing that the process of negotiating indigenous and Mormon identities will vary from place to place, era to era, and people to people.[2] I am not arguing that scholars should deny the similarities between these processes, only that by retreating into comfortable and accepted models, it is possible to mischaracterize these ongoing encounters.

The final theme I would like to address is that of history contextualized. Recently, historical studies of the encounter between white Mormons and indigenous people have been improved by paying closer attention to the political and cultural context of those encounters. Often, that means placing the entry of Mormon missionaries and settlers into the broader contours of colonialism, imperialism, and dispossession, and the physical and psychological violence that accompanies these processes. The best of this sort of scholarship recognizes the complexity of these encounters, and resists characterizing indigenous adoption of Mormon religious identity as either capitulation to colonial forces or, in the opposite sense, a wholly separate, decontextualized religious phenomenon. It is beyond question that Mormonism, like other Christian sects, has followed the flag and the diplomat, that it has traversed and is traversing pathways blazed by colonialism and imperialism (and, in the twentieth century, decolonization). In the same way, interpreting the spread of Mormonism completely outside the global processes that made such growth possible is simply bad history. The fact is that Mormonism as a religious practice is implicated in the loss of cultural sovereignty. Mormonism has contributed to the erosion of indigenous cultural identity in arbitrary, non-doctrinal ways, and denying this adds little to our understanding of the local contexts in which Mormonism must operate. That said, blithely equating Mormonism and imperialism, either political or cultural, robs indigenous Mormons of anything resembling historical agency, and reduces their experience to wholly impersonal global forces. The best scholarship must strike a balance between these two interpretive approaches.

Finally, I would like to issue a challenge for all indigenous people who identify as Mormon to document your own lives and the lives of your communities, past and present. I would further challenge you to move beyond documentation to interpretation, attempting to render into language the complexity of your experience, thus taking control of your own history and your own narratives. Without this, the simple fact is that people from outside your communities will do it in your place. Some may do a passable job. Others will fail miserably. But by entering forcefully into this conversation, you will correct a major historical injustice – and in doing so contribute to just the kind of open and honest dialog that can forge a more cooperative and harmonious future. Those of us in a position to mentor indigenous Mormon scholars interested in this kind of work have an obligation to do so.



[1] Brian Handwerk, “”Great Surprise – Native Americans have West Eurasian Origins: Oldest human genome reveals less of East Asian ancestry than thought.” National Geographic, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/11/131120-science-native-american-people-migration-siberia-genetics/#, accessed November 20,2013.

[2] The model for precisely this sort of scholarship is found in Hokulani K. Aikau’s recent monograph, A Chosen People, A Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i, published in 2012 by University of Hawai’i Press.

Article filed under Comparative Mormon Studies Cultural History Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. This important stuff, Prof. Kester. This, along with Matthew Garrett’s guest post earlier this month, is a good start to a conversation that is sorely needed. Perhaps there’s a special issue of the new Mormon Studies Review that could include a subsequent iteration of this post. I think someone at the JI could actually make that happen (cough, Ben, cough).

    Comment by David G. — November 25, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

  2. I agree with David’s cough. I was wondering how you deal with your own identity in your work. Native Hawaiian Studies scholars like Noenoe Silva and Huanani-Kay Trask have critiqued the willingness of white and Christian Americans to engage in writing the history of Hawai’i and to do so from positions of power. I know very little about your personal background but I was wondering if you could talk a little about how you engage with Native Hawaiian Studies. I was also wondering if you could speak a bit about the types of sources you use. Do you speak Hawaiian? And, if so, have you engaged with Hawaiian language sources and how has that changed the stories that you tell?

    Comment by Amanda HK — November 25, 2013 @ 6:43 pm

  3. (I just wanted to say as well that I appreciate your gesture towards some of my comments in your last paragraph and your stated commitment to mentoring native Hawaiian and other students from marginalized backgrounds. I am just wondering if you could expand upon that paragraph.)

    Comment by Amanda HK — November 25, 2013 @ 6:45 pm

  4. Thanks for these thoughtful reflections and recommendations, Dr. Kester.

    Comment by Christopher — November 25, 2013 @ 11:23 pm


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