Impact of the Mormon Faith on Native Americans
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Published: Thu, 21 Sep 2017
Natives have always been viewed as “savages” needing reform and as being “inferior” to other people-upon contact, the Mormons were no exception. In 1947, the LDS Church introduced the Indian Student Placement Program (Riggs 2008). This program placed Native school-aged children in Mormon homes to increase the quality of education and to assimilate the children into the Mormon culture. From this program came benefits and deficits. At first, the Mormons were civil with the Natives- Brigham Young is even quoted as saying, “It’s cheaper to feed them than to fight them.” As time went on, and populations rose, so did the tension between Mormons and the natives. The Mormons tried to inhabit Native land and expected the Native people to give up land and resources without a fight. They took land, and resources that did not belong to them and used their faith as a weapon against the Native people. Eventually, there were orders to execute any person who put up a fight against the Church because according the LDS beliefs they would be going against “Christ’s message,” (Online Nevada Encyclopedia n.d.). The rising tensions between them eventually lead to major bloodshed. It’s obvious that Mormons have a predisposed belief that the Native people were savages and needed to be converted. They embarked on many missions and put the Indian Student Placement Program into effect to try to assimilate Native children into Mormon culture- no matter the cost.
In 1823, a New Yorker named Joseph Smith said, an angel came to him and told him that he would uncover, and translate, golden plates that told the history of Native Americans. As Smith decoded the writing contained on the plates, he claimed it told the story of the Lamanites, a branch of one of the first American civilizations who killed the Nephites (Online Nevada Encyclopedia n.d.). For this and their rejection of Christ’s teachings, Smith claimed the plates stated that “God cursed the Lamanites with dark skin and a degraded existence” due to the attack on the Nephites and for rejecting the word of Christ (Online Nevada Encyclopedia). Upon translating the holy plates, now known as The Book of Mormon, Smith dedicated his life to starting the Church of Latter Day Saints to uphold true Christian faith and to “save” the native people. The words translated in the Book of Mormon explicitly state that the people with “dark skin” are inferior to those with light skin and that “salvation needed to be brought to them.” This drove many Mormons to lead missions to Native land.
In 1830, a Lamanite mission lead Mormons to western Missouri. The goal of the mission was to preach to and baptize the Natives, establish ties for the Church and to show the dedication of the elders (Ludlow 1992). As the missionaries made their way West, they preached the words contained within the Book of Mormon and they baptized hundreds. There were plans to establish a permanent school within the Delawares but before construction began, the missionaries were ordered to leave. The elders of the Church were ordered to leave not once, but twice before accepting their fate and complying with the orders. Parley Pratt seemed to think the orders to leave were due to jealousy as he writes: “The excitement now reached the frontier settlements of Missouri and stirred up the jealousy and envy of Indian agents we were soon ordered out of the Indian country.” Some Natives rejoiced in the missions and while felt as though their space, and rights, were being overtaken by the missionaries who came to “save” them.
Many conflicts arose from the Mormons moving ever closer to the Natives, pushing their religious beliefs and consuming precious resources that rightfully belonged to the Natives. The populations of both the natives, and the Mormons, were both increasing which meant that the closer the Mormons moved to the natives, the more the natives had to fight for necessities. The Battle Creek Massacre took place on March 5, 1849. The events leading up to the battle were such as this: The Timpanogos Indians were accused of stealing cattle and horses from the Mormon settlers and a group of men were ordered to kill the natives (Revelli n.d.). However, it was soon discovered that the natives had not actually stolen the horses but the order for their execution remained. In the early morning hours, the Timpanogos were surrounded by Mormon men and 4 of them were killed- the Mormons had zero casualties (Revelli n.d.). In 1804, a treaty was signed between William Henry Harrison and two Sauk representatives which stated that all land east of the Mississippi was open to settlement (Wisconsin Historical Society n.d.). Complaints soon arose that suggested that these two Sauk men had no authority to represent the entire nation therefore the treaty was no longer valid. Twenty-eight years later, Black Hawk was the leader of the Sauk nation. He found his fields trampled with cattle and people had settled on his land without consent. He was met by the militia of Illinois, who were reinforced with the American army. One of the most catastrophic battles of the Black Hawk War, was the Battle of Bad Axe (Fonda 1907).
The Battle of Bad Axe took place on August 1 and 2, 1832. As the 400 remaining Sauks attempted to surrender, the Americans showed no mercy. The soldiers continued to fire upon the natives until most them were killed. Private John Fonda wrote about the first encounter: ” and the Indians raised a white flag The cannon sent a shower of canister among the Indians, which was repeated three times, each time mowing a swath clean through them.” 12,000 people had followed Black Hawk on a journey back to their homeland and when the war was over, only 150 Sauk survived (Wisconsin Historical Society n.d.). Not all interactions between natives and Mormons were outwardly aggressive, however.
The need for the Indian Student Placement Program, sometimes also called the Lamanite Placement Program, first emerged in 1947 when a young Navajo girl, named Helen John, requested to stay in Richmond to attend school (De Hoyos 1992). As time went on, more people showed interest in the program and the LDS Church seized the opportunity to fulfill their “destiny” to bring salvation to the natives. The program took native children, who agreed to be baptized, and placed them in the homes of Mormon families to learn the culture, go to school and assimilate into the Mormon faith and then allowed them to return home to the reservation for the summers (Hangen n.d.). There were both critics and supporters of the program. Supporters valued that native children would then be bicultural, and flourish in both their own Native culture, as well as within the culture of the Mormon people. By the end of the program, approximately 40,000 Native children, from 60 different tribes, participated (Landry 2016). The rate of graduation in placement program students was higher than that of non-placement students and a large number of students were satisfied with the outcome of the program (De Hoyos 1992). Others, however, were not as satisfied with the program.
The Indian Student Placement Program was under scrutiny for the emotional toll that it took on the participants and for allegations of abuse. Non-Mormon critics claimed that the program took an unnecessary emotional toll on the children who were taken from their home and forced to live with a family whom they did not know. Others were upset that the Church was using the program as an “assimilation tool” and not as a tool to better the lives of native children (Landry 2016). Two Navajo children were placed with a Mormon family in the 1970s and they endured traumatic abuse within the home. They have recently filed complaints through the Navajo legal system and they plan to sue the Mormon Church for “physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering” (Landry 2016). The children claim they endured physical and emotional abuse daily but the sexual abuse was “horrific.” Due to other allegations and concerns from non-Mormons, the program eventually dissipated.
The relationship between the Mormon people and the natives was a complex one, that had both positive influences and negative influences. The Mormons truly believed that what they were doing was in the best interest of the Natives and that it was their duty to obey the word of God. The Book of Mormon states that it’s the duty of every Mormon follower to “bring salvation to the Lamanites.” The way in which the Church approached their missions varied however. The Indian Student Placement Program was their passive approach to conversion. The premise of the Program was based on good intentions but some saw the program as a way the Church forced their religion on susceptible Native children and abuse allegations remain. The wars and battles fought between the Mormons and natives are perfect examples that display that the Church was not always as passive when making their wishes known. The Black Hawk War, the Battle of Bad Axe, and the Battle Creek Massacre had devastating effects on the Natives. The court cases against the LDS Church from Natives prove that tension still remains between both parties.
De Hoyos, Genevieve. Harold B. Lee Library, “Indian Student Placement Services,” 1992
Fonda, John H. “Reminiscences of Wisconsin.” In Wisconsin, Historical Collections, vol 5. ed. Lyman Copeland Draper.: The Society, 1907; 1868
Hangen, Tona. A Place to Call Home: Studying the Indian Placement Program, n.d.
Landry, Alysa. Indian Country Media Network, Assimilation Tool or a Blessing? Inside the Mormon Indian Student Placement Program, 2016
Lindquist, Geraldine. “The Indian Student Placement Program as a Means of Increasing the Education of Children of Selected Indian Families,” 1974
Ludlow, Daniel. “Lamanite Mission of 1830-1831.” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1992.
Online Nevada Encyclopedia. Mormons and Native Americans: A Historical Overview, n.d.
Pratt, Parley P. Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, 1938.
Revelli, Bryce. Brigham Young University, “Battle Creek Marker,” Intermountain Histories, n.d.
Riggs, Lynette. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Indian Student Placement Service: A History, 2008
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