The Re-Convergence of Mormon and Indian History

By November 7, 2013

This installment of the JI’s Mormons and Natives month comes from Matthew Garrett, associate professor of history at Bakersfield College in California. He received his Ph.D. in American History from Arizona State University in 2010. He is currently revising for publication his dissertation, “Mormons, Indians, and Lamanites: The Indian Student Placement Program, 1947-2000,”  which should prove to be the definitive history of the ISPP.

When David G. approached me to contribute to this month’s theme, I initially thought the notion of a “Mormons and Natives” field of study seemed a bit odd. I never viewed the two fields with much connectivity, other than a few mid-century works about Jacob Hamblin or Chief Wakara. As I sat down to draft out the separate evolutions of the two fields, the task proved far more complicated than expected, and the only way I could think to articulate it was to take the reader on a semi-biographical journey that follows my own intellectual awakening. I trust that the Juvenile Instructor’s readers will tolerate a little self-indulgence as I relate the divergence and re-convergence of Mormon and Indian history.

My interest in history blossomed on my LDS mission and during undergraduate studies at BYU as I read about pioneers and western heroes such as Porter Rockwell. Like most history buffs, I looked to explorers and battles more than indigenous cultures but I did not understand that my approach mirrored Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis. In 1893, Turner’s nationalistic narrative identified waves of civilizing conquest that ended in 1890 with the settlement of the region by whites. Though essentially silent on Native Americans and Mormons, this foundation served as the methodological origin of Western American history that eventually spawned those sub-fields.

By the mid-twentieth century, Turnerarian history had gained an impressive following of amateur and professional historians interested largely in nineteenth-century topics: mountain men, pioneers, and cowboys and Indians. A new wave of neo-Turnerians gradually focused on individual people and communities, as well as environmental topics; those individual case studies fragmented the monolithic and ethnocentric national narrative.[1] In 1961, the Western History Association organized and soon after began publishing the Western Historical Quarterly (WHQ). Professionally trained Western American historians proliferated over the following decades and other organizations spun off to create even more specific associations, such as the American Society for Ethnohistory (1966) and the Mormon History Association (1965).

Professionally trained scholars including Leonard Arrington, Davis Bitton, and Alfred Bush organized the MHA and laid the groundwork for the New Mormon history; their concern with critical questions and historical inquiry strengthened a field formerly characterized by faith building authors such as B.H. Roberts. Still, they cooperated closely with the Church and the larger Western history field, most evident by Arrington’s service as Church historian, president of the MHA, and president of the WHA.

By the 1970s, recent cultural shifts era had ushered in new academic interests. The New Western History fused social history with environmental history, and eventually redirected the field into twentieth-century topics and oft-ignored ethnic voices. Popular author Dee Brown drew attention to the overlooked victims of longstanding conquest-oriented history in his moving text, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). Meanwhile, trained scholars including Arrell M. Gibson, Angie Debo, Tom Hagan and others paved the way for a new generation of scholars who inaugurated the New Indian History. This ethnographic approach stressed Native perspectives and tackled tribal histories and other Indian topics across time, including the long overlooked twentieth century. In 1972, the Newberry Library created the D’Arcy McNickle Center as academic institutions opened Native American studies programs and interdisciplinary journals, such as American Indian Culture and Research (1971+), American Indian Quarterly (1974+), and Wicazo Sa Review (1985+). Emerging young scholars fit neatly within the ranks of the equally progressive New Western History.

My introduction to the New Indian history came during graduate studies at the University of Nebraska where faculty mentors pointed me to a new world of Indian driven narratives that explored Native voices and perspectives. Still, I moved forward on an unimpressive thesis exploring colonial Kickapoo foreign policy from European records. The final product resembled an awkward and incomplete transition from the neo-Turnerarian framework that still structured my thoughts. I had come a long way from Turner’s omission of Native Americans, and went to the extent of a minor in anthropology that included four semesters of a Native language, but I still struggled to fully represent indigenous perspectives when dealing with a colonial era population that left no written record of their own.

After completing my degree at UNL, I enrolled in doctoral study at Arizona State to work with two leading figures in the New Indian history. One of the first students I met was two years ahead of me in the program. She was studying under another professor who advocated a radical new approach to Native American history: decolonization theory. I was uninitiated and probably in a bit over my head when this fellow graduate student took it upon herself to expose my inadequacies. She aggressively questioned me, particularly on twentieth-century Indian history where my readings were admittedly the weakest, and then she explained that a white man such as I had no business studying Indian history. In retrospect, she probably assumed my unfamiliarity with decolonization equated to an endorsement of ethnocentric Turnerian history. Nevertheless, her overt racism surprised me because it ran so contrary to my expectations of an open-minded academy. That was my first introduction to decolonization studies, and I would not be honest if I did not confess how much it tainted my view of those who practice that methodology.

In theory, decolonization is an interdisciplinary and deconstructionist approach to reveal the mechanisms of colonization and indigenous resistance by use of overlooked Native voices.[2] In practice, the exclusionary methodology often endows Native voices with extraordinary authority while dismissing traditional sources and scholarship as hopelessly corrupted by ethnocentrism. During the 1990s, many senior historians rejected decolonization-based scholarship in tenure evaluations, manuscript submissions, and conference presentations. The conflict came to a head when decolonization advocates publicly challenged senior scholars Patricia Limerick and Richard White at an academic conference, who then responded with critical roundtables, editorials, and even a T-shirt campaign.[3]

Over the past two decades, dejected decolonization activists turned to non-scholarly presses and produced new interdisciplinary journals to publish their work and assert themselves the authoritative voice.[4] Their following expanded and in 2007 a small group launched the Native Americans and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA). One year later at the annual WHA meeting, Dave Edmunds directed his presidential address to departing scholars. He offered clear examples of the association’s commitment to Indian history but also stood his ground as he criticized “some Native academics [who] have urged that scholarship conform to a new orthodoxy defined through the rhetoric of post-colonialism.” He continued, “We do not need a new cadre of self-appointed “gate keepers.’”[5] NAISA and the WHA continue to hold separate conferences each year attracting a very different type of scholar to each.

My feeling is that decolonization has much to offer. It brings long needed attention to Native perspectives through interdisciplinary inquiry and introduces post modern study of power structures. However, it cannot be permitted to eject non-native voices or impose a simplistic oppressor-resistor relationship on every historical interaction. While it may often apply, few theories have universal application.

These debates have gone largely unnoticed in Mormon studies because the New Mormon history’s attention to critical revision of longstanding nineteenth century topics like the early Church and polygamy, leaving little consideration for Native Americans in the modern era. Juanita Brooks well represented the sharp analysis of the New Mormon history as she addressed Indians, but even her pioneering work remained largely in the nineteenth century and focused on Mormons more than Native cultures they impacted. It lacked the ethnographic nature of New Indian history and certainly the Native voices championed by decolonization theory. Essentially, Mormon scholarship on Indians remains heavily neo-Turnerarian, while Indian scholarship moved through the New Indian history and now faces a challenge from decolonization.[6]

Despite an increasingly common interdisciplinary inclination among Mormon and Indian history scholars, they speak a different language depending upon their point of origin. While practitioners of the New Mormon history are no strangers to difficult questions, I suspect they will be disturbed by the tenor of decolonization advocates. Like any revisionist movement, it brings valuable new criticisms that can be taken to an extreme at the expense of the past.

In the coming years the LDS church’s twentieth-century Indian policy will surely serve as the battle ground between the new Mormon history and decolonization theory. Indeed, the 2013 meeting of the MHA featured what I believe was the association’s first overtly decolonization-driven interpretation of Mormon-Indian relations. My research tries to preempt much of this debate on what is sure to emerge as one of the focal points: the Indian Student Placement Program. This voluntary foster care program for Native American youths operated between 1947 and 2000. While many Latter-day Saints viewed it as a benevolent opportunity to educate deprived Indians, outsiders criticized Placement as simply another assimilation program. Tensions mounted in the 1970s and though external pressures subsided by the 1980s the correlation movement continued to erode the program until the Church prohibited the enrollment of any new students after 1992.

My approach to this topic is to examine the institutional rise of the program, building on the work of Michael Quinn and Armand Mauss but balanced with ethnographic focus on student experiences. Their thoughts are recorded in over one hundred interviews and other sources. While many participants surely resisted colonizing pressures, a great many others internalized the imposed Lamanite identity as their own. Placement students left reservations and spent years immersed among Mormon host families; they attended schools, church activities, and a barrage of Lamanite-specific activities including dances, leadership conferences, and cultural extravaganzas that promoted a hybrid identity. These students’ experiences demand a more nuanced approach than the sloppy imposition of a binary model of aggressive colonizers and resisting colonizees.

As the fields of Mormon and Native history/studies re-converge, interested readers must carefully evaluate scholarship to ensure the narrative is indeed an honest reflection of the past and not an intellectual exercise in bending it to meet theoretical expectations. Long ago the New Mormon history and Western history threw off their allegiances to a single ideological narrative, and to adopt yet another would constitute a methodological step backward. Decolonization theory does have a role to play and we should follow its council to incorporate marginalized voices; however, it cannot be the singularly authoritative approach that its advocates demand. There must be space for alternative forms of analysis and no singular approach can be complete. The greatest strength of the New Mormon history and especially Mormon studies is its aspiration to achieve intellectual independence, and I hope that characteristic remains the dominant attribute among those who study Mormons and Natives.


[1] Richard White, “Western history,” The New American History, Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Eric Foner (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 205; Donald Worster, “New West, True West: Interpreting the Region’s History,” Western Historical Quarterly, vol 18 (April, 1987), 141-156. For an example of early environmental work see Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1931).

[2] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (New York: Zed Books, 2005), 3, 20. See also Angela Wilson and Michael Yellow Bird, For Indigenous Eyes Only: a Decolonization Handbook (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2005); Devon Mihesuah, Natives and Academics: researching and writing about American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998); Devon Mihesuah and Angela Wilson, Indigenizing the academy: transforming scholarship and empowering communities (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

[3] William T. Hagan, “The New Indian History,” in Rethinking American Indian History, ed. Don Fixcio (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997), 30.

[4] The last ten years has also given rise to open source and other low tier interdisciplinary journals, such as: Canadian Journal of Native Studies (launched in 1981); AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples (2005); Te Kahoroa (2008); Rethinking Decolonization (2008); International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies (2008); Indigenous Policy Journal (2009); Journal of Indigenous Research (2011); Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society (2012).

[5] R. David Edmunds, “Blazing New Trails or Burning Bridges: Native American History Comes of Age,” Western Historical Quarterly, vol. 39:1 (Spring 2008), 14.

[6] For example, over the past year, twentieth century topics constituted only 13% of Journal of Mormon History and 70% of Western Historical Quarterly articles. Likewise, ethnically marginalized individuals or groups were directly addressed in only 9% of JMH articles but in 64% of WHQ pieces. Of course, the JMH is by nature an ethnically specific journal so a broad survey of other ethnic groups is understandably beyond its mission. Nevertheless, their different foci are evident.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Historiography Methodology, Academic Issues Race State of the Discipline


  1. Thank you, Matthew, for this provocative post. You cover a lot of ground here in trying to tease out the parallel yet divergent paths of both Mormon and Indian historiographies since the 1960s. While I think decolonization theory is useful for community empowerment, language revitalization, and other Indigenous sovereignty-related issues, I agree that when it creates new “gate-keepers” it becomes problematical. I much prefer the idea that scholarship on Indians (regardless of the racial background of the author) should benefit tribal communities, and not just the historian individually and the dominant society generally (which “history,” itself an endeavor inextricably connected with European colonialism, has tended to do).

    Although I haven’t yet read your dissertation, from what I understand you highlight the agency of the Native participants in the ICPP, examining ways that Indians navigated both the confines and the advantages of the program. I imagine you’re aware of it, but I think that Scott Richard Lyons’ X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent provides a valuable framework for understanding people like George P. Lee who “assented to the new” and embraced educational opportunities, whereas other approaches would simply demonize him and the ISPP as simply tools of colonialism.

    When do you expect your book to be published?

    Comment by David G. — November 7, 2013 @ 11:44 am

  2. Thanks, Dr. Garrett, for outlining the respective historiographies and offering some thoughts on their re-convergence. Good stuff.

    Comment by Christopher — November 7, 2013 @ 11:49 am

  3. In his recent book, Call for Change: The Medicine Way of American Indian History, Ethos, and
    , Donald Fixico argues that ?we need to construct a cross-cultural bridge of understanding to permit people to cross back and forth between western-mindedness and the Natural Democracy of indigenous existence.? The “Natural Democracy” represents the Native perspective, ethos, and reality. How do we bridge the Native perspective (which decolonizing methodologies should represent) and the Western perspective (which the academic discipline of History came from)? I believe the task is difficult but necessary, as a process of hybridization that reflects the hybridities that have formed since Native-white contact.

    Currently being a Native American (1/2 Navajo, 1/2 white if people must know “exact” proportions as some demand) history graduate student at ASU has been interesting for me, and I see how Garrett’s personal narrative (as a scholar) is part of a larger history and various developments that have happened here involving the tensions between History (as a academic field and circle) and American Indian Studies (that have embraced decolonizing methodologies as a central approach). In a sense, I have had to ask myself, “Where do I stand? And why?” Why is there this sense of divide? How do we bridge it and collaborate the efforts to support and strengthen indigenous peoples and their freedoms?

    Comment by Farina — November 7, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

  4. This is fascinating. I’m now very excited for your work on the Indian Placement Program, too.

    Comment by Ben P — November 7, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

  5. Farina, meeting Dr. Fixico at the last WHA and getting him to sign his most recent book for me was a highlight of the conference. I haven’t read Call for Change, but it looks like I need to.

    Comment by David G. — November 7, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

  6. Very interesting post, Dr. Garrett. As a foster parent in the ISPP towards the end of the program, I quickly developed an ambivalent attitude towards the program. My wife and I were never sure where our placement student fit, and what really was our role as foster parents in the program. I will be interested in reading your book when it is published.

    As a side note, I am currently about half way through Todd Compton’s new biography of Jacob Hamblin, and it has been refreshing to see a greater emphasis on the actual experience of the Native Americans in that work. For the individual who arguably had more interaction over his lifetime with a greater number of Native American peoples than any other figure in 19th century Mormon History, we’ve had very little of the story from the other side. It’s a much more complex narrative than we’ve had before.

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

  7. David – I have not read Scott Richard Lyons? X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent but based on the reviews I just read it looks like something very comparable with my own approach. I shall have to get a copy! I agree that exclusionary approaches are dangerous and that real people strike up innovative ways to bridge societies; to discount any sort of movement away from an imagined ideal is a dangerous standard to set. I share his hope for a model that allows Native people to retain authenticity while sampling from the cultures they encounter. I gave a paper on this exact issue earlier this month.

    Farina – I have not read Don’s new (2013) book. That man is a machine who seems to produce two new books each year. But I agree with that laudable goal to seek out a functional inclusion-ist interpretation that recognizes how people to cross between the “two worlds.” The “two worlds” model is a dated 1970s-ish approach that emphasizes the extremes when in fact most people today are actually in between; it works at times but we do need a better approach. I hope my work will be one example of that.

    Kevin F – I’m glad to hear Compton’s work has a strong element of native perspective, and I expect we’ll see more of that type of work in the future.

    Thanks all for reading and sharing your thoughts! It was a pleasure to work with the David and the Juvenile Instructor.

    Comment by Matthew Garrett — November 12, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

  8. […] ideal time to reevaluate (in a medium more durable than a blog!) where things have come since 1985. Matthew Garrett‘s, Matthew Kester‘s, and Todd Compton‘s posts provided some important […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Reflections on JI’s Indigenous History Month — December 13, 2013 @ 10:01 am


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