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Mormons and Native Americans

March 16, 2015

by Martin Marty
Originally published on November 4, 2013 in Sightings
Good news for readers who are weary of some subjects which are naturally covered in Sightings: here is a story about some Native Americans and about Mormons who work among them. It concerns the efforts by certain Latter-day Saints to serve the people long called Indians, who have not been served by many others. According to a story in The New York Times (October 31, 2013), Mormons are making efforts to share goods, companionship, and the promise of identity among peoples who have suffered jarring circumstances ever since “white people” came across them.
Author of the Times piece, Fernanda Santos, focuses on Linda Smith and her husband. Smith had “lost one son, a methamphetamine addict, when he hanged himself. Her other sons are heavy drinkers.” They were fathered by a man who she said nearly killed her in a fit of rage. She “found solace in the Mormon Church.”
Santos describes life on the Navajo reservation, where “unemployment is rampant, domestic violence is common, and alcohol…” There is no need to say more. The news was not about the Native Americans’ plight but about the fact that “a growing number of Navajos have been turning to the Mormon Church.”
Catholic and many Protestant churches were assigned responsibility to work positively with Indians on many reservations, and some have done well. But the Mormons, zealous missionaries and agents of care on the reservations, have done better than most. And, as anyone who knows the story at all, knows well: Mormons have a distinct advantage.
The Mormon plus? Native Americans have their place in Latter-day Saint scriptures, sacred writings, and history. In a construct too complex to summarize here (in resources listed below, see entry for “Native Americans” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism), they were part of the plot of the Book of Mormon. Some of the remote ancestors of “our” Indians, the text says, were descendants of exiled peoples of ancient Israel, who made their way to this hemisphere.
Today, the Latter-day Saints make much of that tie. “There is a feeling of ‘reconnecting to our traditions,’” said one interviewed Native American, who regretted what her people had lost but affirmed what was found in this continuous Mormon-Navajo connection. Prof. Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, expert on the subject, taught them to think about Indianhood in ways which accented their identity and value as persons. One was quoted: “Here was an outside group of people telling me I wasn’t just someone who was poor,…that I had a great heritage, that I have potential.”
Readers who might care little about Mormons or Navajos—we hope they are few—at least have reason to know better than to be condescending toward the notion of helping people find motivations for the future out of understandings of the past, their past. Non- or anti-Mormons, who regard the Book of Mormon as fiction, may question the validity of framing identities on the basis of stories which cannot be verified in conventional scientific or historical terms. However:
It happens that most families and tribes and peoples live off stories that cannot be conventionally verified. This is the case with most sacred scriptures, but there is a mythic dimension to the way other stories are received, e.g., those of America’s “Founding Fathers.” Citizens find identity and motivations, good and bad, from such roots.
Welcome to the company of the Mormon-Navajo Smith family survivors!
For further reading:
Santos, Fernanda. “Some Find Path to Navajo Roots Through Mormon Church.” The New York Times, October 31, 2013.….
Garrow, Thomas and Bruce Chadwick. “Native Americans.” Encyclopedia of Mormonism. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
Henetz, Patty. “DNA research and Mormon scholars changing basic beliefs.” USA Today, July 26, 2004.
Lobdell, William. “Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted: DNA tests contradict Mormon scripture.” Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2006.
Photo Credit: midiman / creative commons