Originally posted on Sightings at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/31/us/for-some-the-path-to-navajo-values-weaves-through-the-mormon-church.html?_r=0.

Garrow, Thomas and Bruce Chadwick. “Native Americans.” Encyclopedia of Mormonism. New York: Macmillan, 1992.http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Native_Americans.

Henetz, Patty. “DNA research and Mormon scholars changing basic beliefs.” USA Today, July 26, 2004. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/news/2004-07-26-dna-lds_x.htm.

Lobdell, William. “Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted: DNA tests contradict Mormon scripture.” Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2006.http://articles.latimes.com/2006/feb/16/local/me-mormon16.

Originally posted on Sightings at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Categories: Culture

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


  1. Marty,

    I have no way of knowing what research you did for this piece, but I can tell you (as one who escaped Mormonism) that the LDS church is doing very poorly among the Navajo people, and for good reason.

    This is from Cumorah(dot)com:

    “The Church has experienced stagnant congregational growth for at least a decade. No additional locations in the Navajo Nation have had an LDS congregation planted or organized between mid-2002 and mid-2012. Both of the stakes headquartered within the Navajo Nation have only four wards each but stakes generally administer between five and 12 wards. The small number of wards attests to low member activity rates, comparatively few active priesthood holders, and the predominantly rural population spread over large geographic areas making the organization of wards impractical. These conditions often make the operating of stakes challenging. Furthermore, older adults comprise the majority of active membership in some smaller branches. Few younger and middle-aged adults in these congregations threaten the stability of the Church in these areas when these members pass away. It is likely that some smaller branches may close due to the aging population and population decline caused by younger members moving elsewhere. Between 2000 and 2010 most locations experienced population decline; virtually all others reported stagnant or slight population growth. In the coming years and decades, opening additional locations to proselytism will pose an even greater challenge for mission leaders than at present considering more mission resources may designated for member support in dwindling congregations.”

    And I think you do a disservice to your readers when you make no mention of the terribly racist views of Mormon prophets who until just a few decades ago argued that as Native Americans became more righteous their dark skins would lighten. Nor did you mention the horribly racist theme that runs throughout the Book of Mormon which regards white skinned people as good, and dark-skinned people as bad.

    This isn’t at all about not being able to verify scientifically the stories of a religion. This is about a religion having a collection of racist stories as its seminal scripture.

    • Your logic is just wrong and obviously prejudiced, I am a first generation full blood San Carlos Apache whose roots go back in Arizona history to 1813. I joined the church in 1977 and have had a wonderful time and my life has been changed for the good. The church you describe in your reply only exists in the hearts and the minds of those who are inactive and who are avowed haters of the Mormon church. I am in a ward here in Phoenix that is very racially diverse abd a stake that is probably 95% white. I don’t feel left out in the least, I am loved and respected and as active as I can possibly be. The church program works very well, but, this is a church that one does not simply attend church for a hour a week and then just go home for another week. There are so many opportunities to serve and to be an active member, but, people have to want to be blessed and have their lives changed. Look back at the history of the “laminates” not from the Book of Mormon but from writers who are not Mormon and read for yourself what kind of people they had sunk to become by the time Columbus stepped foot on the Shore of what would one day become America. The story is of a dark and fallen people who killed and were basically filled with darkness and evil. Try as you may you cannot change the truth that is contained in the Book of Mormon, no matter how you try and claim racism in the Mormon church.

    • I agree Rachel. I looked at the New York Times reporter Fernanda Santos and she is from Brazil and used to cover NYC before she was transferred to AZ. and NM. Her attitude toward Indian people is very patronizing like “I know what’s best for them” and somehow she was naive enough to believe that the Mormon church was doing a wonderful thing. But she doesn’t know the history of conflict between Navajos and Mormons and that awful Indian Placement program. Neither does she realize that the Navajo as a nation have far more going than drinking and drugs and poverty. Fernanda talks about a group of people who are desperate,but doesn’t understand whether it be mormons or Catholics or Buddhists or Scientologists or any religious group for that matter can offer assistance and they would win converts. Families will do what they need to survive, and under desperate conditions, they will convert to whoever promises help and support. Mormons do not have any special gift here.

  2. “Native Americans have their place in Latter-day Saint scriptures, sacred writings, and history. In a construct too complex to summarize here, they were part of the plot of the Book of Mormon. ”

    The record of hate and bigotry glossed over by that sentence is unbelievable!

    • So I looked up the Lammanites in the book of Mormon and found they are are described as having a “skin of blackness” caused by God’s curse on the descendants of Laman for their wickedness and corruption: “And he had caused the cursing to come upon [the Lamanites], yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, and they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”

      Then I read that In 1960, LDS Church apostle Spencer W. Kimball suggested that the skin of Latter-day Saint Native Americans was gradually turning lighter:

      “I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today… The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised….. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated.”

      Ugh! Please tell us, mr. martin, what “good news” we are to find in this racist nonsense?

  3. Looks like the LDS publicists people in SLC are pushing aggressively to campaign on behalf of their own Mormon religion. It’s more than just coincidence that both Fernanda Santos and Martin Marty have articles or what really sounds like press releases singing praise to the LDS Church and their efforts toward Navajo. Funny, but no one mentions the horrible adoption record of the Mormons and their Navajo child victims, a record that was in place for decades as the Indian Placement Program in which hundreds of Navajo kids were removed from their parents (mostly by coercive techniques). Many many Navajo Mormons have left the LDS Church in disgust (no mention of that either). We deserve better than these sugar-coated public relations pieces masquerading as journalism.

  4. martin marty overlooked something. From a sept 16 1989 article in the Los Angeles times;

    “Leaders of the Mormon Church who excommunicated the only American Indian ever appointed to the church hierarchy are busy trying to blunt the impact of his stormy exit and the questions he raised.

    George P. Lee, the first Mormon high official in 46 years to be erased from membership rolls, is heading to the mountains alone for a month or more of fasting and meditation about his future outside the church, which he claims is polluted from the top by pride and racial prejudice….

    Lee contends that the belief that all Mormons are literal descendants of Israel reflects an attitude of white supremacy among Mormon leaders, who have systematically cut Indian programs at church-owned Brigham Young University and elsewhere.”

  5. “Look back at the history of the “laminates” not from the Book of Mormon but from writers who are not Mormon and read for yourself what kind of people they had sunk to become by the time Columbus stepped foot on the Shore of what would one day become America. The story is of a dark and fallen people who killed and were basically filled with darkness and evil.”

    Well, Shaun, sounds like you have a low opinion of your own heritage. The rest of us do not and we certainly don’t need the Mormons to tell us what’s in our own best interests.

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