Mormons and Natives Month at the JI

By November 5, 2013

For the past several months, the JI has sponsored various theme months, allowing permas and guests to ruminate on such topics as politics, the international church, and material culture. November is Native American Heritage Month, which was first promoted in the Progressive Era by reform-minded Indians to recognize the contributions of Natives to the development of the United States. As in the case of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, we at the JI believe that Natives are an intricate part of Mormon history, rather than a sub-topic only worthy of discussion once a year, but we also see the value in focusing our thoughts at this time in conjunction with Native American Heritage Month. This month’s editors, David G., Amanda, and Farina, have assembled an all-star cast of guest bloggers, who will share fascinating insights from their research, alongside contributions from permas. The editors have also put together some brief thoughts on their areas of expertise for this introductory post.

Mormonism’s Encounters with Native America in the 19th Century (David G.)

From the earliest days of Mormonism, indigenous peoples were central to Joseph Smith?s vision of the future. The Book of Mormon was presented to the world as both as a history of Native America and as a blueprint for the gathering of Israel and the construction of Zion, the New Jerusalem. The first formal mission of the fledgling church was not to people of European descent, but to the ?Lamanites,? or American Indians, whom the Saints called the remnant of the House of Israel. Although this initial mission did not bring the expected harvest of Native converts, scholars such as Ron Walker, Lori TaylorMark Ashurst-McGee, and Christopher Smith (forthcoming) have traced the persistence of ?Lamanism? among Mormons during the 1830s and early 1840s. Paul Reeve?s forthcoming work on the racialization of (white) Mormons should prove a fascinating window into ways that anti-Mormons discursively cast Latter-day Saints as ?race traitors? (my term, not Reeve?s), ?fanatics? who betrayed white American ?civilization? by fraternizing too closely with North America?s ?savages.?

It was in the Great Basin, however, that the Saints pursued with intense vigor the construction of Zion ?among the Lamanites.? When the Mormons entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they trespassed in a world already shaped by the violence of colonialism. As Ned Blackhawk and Jared Farmer have shown, Spanish expansion northward from Mexico in the 16th century caused indigenous groups such as the Utes and Shoshones to accept horses and guns into their cultures. These new technologies integrated these nations into global capitalistic trade networks, but often at the expense of non-equestrian peoples such as the Paiutes and Gosiutes, whose women and children were kidnapped and traded as slaves to New Mexicans for horses and guns. It was within this context that the Saints sought both to colonize the Great Basin and to fulfill the Book of Mormon mandate of bringing the ?remnant of Jacob? to a knowledge of their ?forgotten? ancestry. Viewing the Saints as potential trading partners and powerful allies against their Shoshone enemies, many Utes?including many chiefs?accepted baptism and even priesthood ordination in the 1850s, although with the exception of Pahvant chief Kanosh it remains unclear how deeply they embraced Mormonism. Paiutes, believing the Mormons could protect them from Ute raiders, converted in large numbers in the 1850s. In the 1870s, in connection to the broader spiritual awakenings of the first Ghost Dance, many Shoshones (including survivors of the Bear River Massacre of 1863), Paiutes, and other Natives also accepted Mormon baptism. Additionally, in the late 19th century Mormon missionaries laid the groundwork for expansion into Latin America, which would pay dividends in the 20th century.

Although the Saints worked hard to fulfill their proselyting mandate to North America’s Natives, their expansion into Indian lands exacerbated the challenges to Native sovereignty first posed by Spanish colonialism. Reduced in many cases to starvation and semi-dependency on Mormon generosity, Ute leaders such as Walker and Blackhawk resorted to warfare in the 1850s and 1860s. Ultimately, removal to reservations resulted. By the end of the century, Mormon enthusiasm for new missions waned. The Saints, who viewed Natives through the lens of the ?degraded/civilized? spectrum, tied complete conversion to the Gospel to adoption of Euro-American cultural norms, English literacy, and agriculture, and when many Native converts failed to fully conform to these ideals, expectations of an immediate construction of the New Jerusalem with Indian converts were pushed into the future.

Mormon Expansion into the Colonized Pacific (Amanda)

As David suggests in his introduction to this topic, early Mormon fascination with American Indians shaped their worldview and early missionary work. American Indians, however, were not the only people that Mormons identified as being descended from the peoples of the Book of Mormon. Mormon missionary work in the Pacific began when Addison Pratt asked Joseph Smith to send him on a mission to the South Seas, where he had lived for a few months after escaping the endemic violence of nineteenth-century whaling ships. Addison traveled with Benjamin F. Grouard, Noah Rogers, and Knowlton Hanks to Tahiti. Ideas about the similarities between indigenous people throughout the world may have predisposed Addison to see Tahitians and other Polynesians as ?Lamanites.? Members of the London Missionary Society occasionally referred to native Tahitians as ?our Indians.? When Addison?s wife Louisa traveled to the Pacific, she told Pacific Islanders living on the small island of Tubuai that the Book of Mormon was the story of their ancestors. There is some indication that the early Polynesian converts expected to gather to the Mormon community in the United States where they would help to build an American Zion.

The first Mormon mission in the Pacific was an ephemeral one. Addison and the other Mormon missionaries had arrived at the same moment that the French government had proclaimed a protectorate over the islands, challenging decades of British dominance in the islands. French colonial officials initially preferred Mormon missionaries to their British counterparts and encouraged them. Eventually, however, the presence of Mormon missionaries became worrying for the French government. The American identity of Mormon missionaries meant their presence indicated an alternative to French colonial rule. When Mormon converts in the Tuamotus ransacked a French missionary outpost, the French government decided to expel white Mormon missionaries from the islands under their control. Their expulsion, however, did not end the Mormon presence in the Pacific. Mormon missionaries were enormously successful in Hawaii, Samoa, and Tonga. Today, there are 17,109 Mormons living in Tonga or about 17% of the population. This percentage represents the highest percentage of Mormons in the world.

In spite of Mormonism?s success in the Pacific, historians have been reticent to integrate the region into their scholarship and into the history of Mormonism. George and Maria Ellsworth was one of the first historians to do so. George edited the journals of Addison and Louisa Pratt, wrote the sesquicentennial history of the LDS Church in French Polynesia with Kathleen Perrin, and published Zion in the South Seas, a history focused on the earliest missionaries to Tahiti. He also edited the letters of Addison and Louisa?s daughter Ellen to Ellen Clawson. George?s wife Maria wrote an article that focused on the domestic labor of the women who had served as missionaries in the Pacific. Although these histories were family histories for the Ellsworths, who were descended from Addison and Louisa, they were well received within the academy. In 1959, George gave the annual Faculty Honor lecture at Utah State University.

R. Lanier Britsch was another early historian to write about Mormonism in the Pacific. Britsch?s knowledge of Latter-day Saint history in the region is encyclopedic. Although primarily narrative in style, his scholarship is indispensible for understanding how Mormon missionaries established a presence in the region and maintained their congregations. His work spans the Pacific, covering the establishment of Mormonism in Samoa, Tonga, the Hawaiian Islands, New Zealand, French Polynesia, and Australia. In addition to extensive archival research, Britsch uses oral histories to reconstruct events in the twentieth century.

The work of the Ellsworths and Britsch has been important to historians wishing to move beyond an American perspective in the histories they write of the Mormon people. What is missing from their work, however, is the perspective of indigenous people. Although Britsch interviewed Pacific Islanders as he researched his books, his focus is on the actions of white missionaries and leaders within the Mormon Church. He does not attempt to understand how indigenous beliefs and cultures shaped the reception of Mormonism in the Pacific. Likewise, the histories that the Ellsworths crafted about early Mormon missionary work in Tahiti make little reference to the perspectives of native Tahitians or Pacific Islanders.

Recently, however, historians of Mormonism in the Pacific have tried to include these perspectives. Matt Kester?s Remembering Iosepa tries to integrate the history of the small Hawaiian Mormon community in Utah with the rest of Hawaiian history while Hokulani Aikau?s Chosen Land, Chosen People uses a postcolonial lens to think about the history of Mormonism in Hawaii. She argues that Mormon historians like Britsch have used language drawn from American imperialism to understand native Hawaiians. Britsch, she points out, refers to the native Hawaiians who moved to Laie in the nineteenth century as ?pioneers.? Although this language can be found in documents from the time period, Aikau sees it as reflective of a larger inability of white Mormons to escape a settler colonial framework. The willingness of Mormon historians like Kester and Aikau to embrace the lessons of postcolonialism has roots within an earlier moment in Hawaiian Mormon history. In the late 1970s, professors from BYU-Hawaii founded the Mormon Pacific Historical Society. Well-versed in the politics of history in Hawaii, the society sought to share the stories of native Hawaiians who had converted to Mormonism. Although more traditional histories of Mormonism in the Pacific continue to be produced, an embrace of postcolonial theory and American studies seems to be the direction that studies of the Pacific are taking. Recently, scholars like Gina Colvin whose work has focused on the meanings of miscegenation in New Zealand have begun to ask what it would mean to decolonize Mormonism and Mormon history.

Note: In addition to the works hyperlinked above, there are several important works on Mormonism in the Pacific.  They include:

Laurie Maffly-Kipp and Reid L. Neilson, eds., Proclamation to the People (2008)

Grant Underwood, ed., Voyages of Faith (2000)

Laurie Maffly-Kipp, ?Assembling Bodies and Souls: Missionary Practices on the Pacific Frontier,? in Practicing Protestants(2006)

Native America-Mormon History in the 20th Century (Farina)

Understanding the history of LDS-Native American relations in the twentieth century as any other time reflects the contemporary leadership of the Church, its policies, and efforts to connect with Native Americans. The missionary efforts to proselytize and convert Native Americans, using racialist notions from the past century and expanding upon them to perpetuate such missions really took hold in the mid-twentieth century because of the combined influence of Church leaders reaching out to Native Americans and Native Americans seeking to affiliate with the Church for various reasons, especially for educational opportunities. The coalition of Church leaders who prioritized and emphasized Mormon-Indian relations included Spencer W. Kimball, Golden Buchanan, and George Albert Smith to name a few. By the twentieth century, many Native American groups throughout North America were convinced to value and seek after an institutional education for their youth. The LDS Church like other denominations recognized the significant connection between education and religious indoctrination, beginning under President George Albert Smith (1945-1951) to consider developing a system to educate Native American youth. Helen John (Navajo), who was a migrant worker with her family in Richfield, Utah, instigated what became known as the Indian Student Placement Program (ISPP) by requesting to stay with a Mormon family so that she could pursue an education in Utah. Church leaders used John?s case as a model for ISPP that officially started in 1954 and developed into a large foster placement system that involved recruiting Native Americans in both the United States and Canada to be baptized and live with Mormon families off Indian reservations during the school year for their academic studies.

Spearheaded by Church officials such as Kimball, the Church not only expanded the ISPP but other efforts to work with Native Americans including the Indian Seminary and Brigham Young University Indian programs. Armand Mauss (2003) studies and comments on this growth of Mormon Indian programs and Native American membership between the 1950s and 1970s, which he argues fades in the 1980s as the Church redirects its resources and programs more towards Latin America and global spheres. Despite the criticism from activists in the Civil Rights Movement and American Indian Movement concerning ISPP for removing Native American youth from their families and communities and assimilating them to Anglo-American culture, many Native Americans converted to the Church and some embraced a ?Lamanite? identity that many Church leaders and Mormons propagated during that time.

Once ISPP was cancelled and official Church discourse moved away from equating Native Americans with Lamanites by the twenty-first century, Native Americans had mixed responses to the Church and the history of the past half century. Some LDS Native Americans fell away from the Church such as George P. Lee (Navajo), former and first Native American member of the Seventy. Others continued to participate in the LDS Church, while still personally believing in their Lamanite identity. In academic discourse of this history, not much has been written on tracing the development of these relations other than Mauss and recent doctoral research, which includes the work of Elise Boxer (2009) and Matthew Garrett (2010) who both graduated from Arizona State University. Boxer presents the indigenous scholars? perspective of Mormon-Indian relations that recognizes Church programs such as ISPP as perpetuating Mormon colonization of Native Americans into the modern era. Garrett examines the ISPP in depth with two volumes that argue for a nuanced approach to understanding the intentions of Mormons and the mixed responses and experiences of Native Americans in their programs. Another contribution to such conversations includes Robert McPherson?s recent publication of Jim Dandy?s (Navajo) biography (2012), which explores an example of a LDS Native American who harmonizes his Native American and Mormon identity and belief systems although it does not outline the developments of overarching Native American-Mormon relations. Conversations, opinions, and stances abound concerning Mormon-Indian relations in the twentieth century from those who resent, respect, or relish them, but much is to be seen about how scholars navigate and represent such diverse perspectives in the literature and academic circles.

Recommended Reading: 

Whittaker, David J. ?Mormons and Native Americans: A Historical and Bibliographical Introduction.? Dialogue 18, no. 4 (Winter 1985): 33-64. [Farina recommends seeing all the articles in this special issue of the Dialogue that focuses on Mormon-Indian relations]

Below is a list of all posts from the series

Farina King, “LDS American Indians in Their Tribal Communities”

Matthew Garret, “The Re-Convergence of Mormon and Indian History”

Amanda, “Mormon History and the History of Indigenous Peoples: A Top 10 List”

David G., “Mormons and Natives: A JI Blogliography”

Corey Smallcanyon, “Return of Ma’ii: Brigham Young and his Indian Farms”

James Egan, “Sermonizing with Heathens”

Farina King, “The Oral History of a LDS ‘Asdzáánsání in Diné Bizaad”

Laura Allred Hurtado, “Painting the Mythical and the Heroic: Joseph Smith Preaches to American Indians

Paul Reeve, “The Mormon Reserve”

Christopher, “‘A son of the Forest’ and ‘An intelligent son of Abraham’: Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith meet William Apess, 1832”

Cassandra Clark, “Introducing the Utah American Indian Digital Archive”

Stan, “Indian Removal, Zion, and the Westward Orientation of Early Mormonism”

Farina King, “Thoughts on Indigenous Mormon Studies”

David G., “Arapeen, the Ute Prophet”

Todd Compton, “Mormon History and Indian History”

Barbara Jones Brown, “The ‘Indian Student Placement Program'”

J. Stapley, “From the Archives: Native Americans and Frederick Kesler”

Stan, “Wandering Significance: Hagoth and the Many Migrations of Latter-day Lamanite/Nephite Identity”

Amanda and David G., “Reflections on JI’s Indigenous History Month”






Article filed under Announcements and Events Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period International Mormonism Race Theology


  1. Very excited for this. Bring it on!

    Comment by Ben P — November 5, 2013 @ 6:49 pm

  2. I felt like I was at a really fascinating session of MHA reading this. Nice.

    Comment by EmJen — November 5, 2013 @ 7:05 pm

  3. Thanks, Amanda, David, and Farina. I’m excited for this month.

    Comment by Christopher — November 6, 2013 @ 10:32 am


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