Diné Latter-day Saints

One often-overlooked aspect of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the interactions of the institution with the Diné (Navajo) peoples in the western United States. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Farina King (an expert in colonial and post-colonial Indigenous studies) discussed some of the fraught history of Diné Latter-day Saints. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

A major part of Dr. King’s interest in the topic of Diné Latter-day Saints (Diné Dóó Gáamalii) is that it is part of her own heritage:

My father, Phil, is Diné (Navajo), and my mother, Joanne, is a white Anglo from Michigan. My dad is from the New Mexico part of Diné Bikéyah—the Navajo lands—and is of the Towering House and Black-Streaked Woods clans. …

I was raised in and connected with Diné Latter-day Saint communities and broader Latter-day Saint communities. Growing up, I realized that the church histories I learned about didn’t represent my history—my family’s history. … Then, as I got into academics and was excited to read different literature and history, I became enthusiastic about the opportunity to tell my family histories—and especially those of my Diné family (my Navajo family).

This allowed her work (published as Diné Dóó Gáamalii: Navajo Latter-Day Saint Experiences in the Twentieth Century) to be written by someone with an inside perspective on both Latter-day Saint and Diné experiences.

Coming from that background proved both extremely helpful and a bit challenging for Dr. King as she told the story of Diné Latter-day Saints:

I knew I wanted to continue with graduate studies—a history PhD specifically—but I was torn. I knew that I wanted to share these stories, but I also was conflicted because it’s very personal. Sharing so much about my own background and my perspective and beliefs is really, really personal.

It felt fraught, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to even major in history. If I studied Native American history, I would be sharing some very personal stories from my life and those of my relatives. And it’s painful when you’re delving into that. So, I was conflicted. …

It’s not that I was trying to apologize or paint a picture-perfect story of Native Americans in the church. I knew that wasn’t reality.

I grew up knowing that’s not the truth that I experienced. There is a lot of prejudice against Native Americans, and the racism is even more challenging for those who aren’t white-passing like me.

While Farina King didn’t try to write apologetic history of Diné Latter-day Saints, she was also careful to try to provide a well-rounded understanding of the history. For example, consider the Indian Placement Program:

The Indian Student Placement Program (ISPP) was a program where the church set up and arranged for Native American youth who were baptized to go and live with Latter-day Saint families off reservations—especially in Utah towns. They would go to public schools and live with their host families during the school year. It was a very complicated program. …

There are a lot of things in life that we want to simplify: This is good. This is bad.

Take, for example, boarding schools. They are so fraught and so difficult; there’s so much trauma. And yet, a binary is misleading and confusing. There are systems that the overall agenda and purposes can definitely identify as negative (or bad). But the people who are a part of these systems—and the realities of what is actually happening on the ground—are a separate thing.

There are entire ecologies, not just people: What is the whole setting? What’s going on? It’s messy and complex.

I’m not so much saying there’s nothing that’s ever bad. I’m not trying to do that at all. I’m trying to say we need to be mindful of when we gloss over and throw this big blanket of generalization.

For example, “Placement, that just all means bad.” When you actually talk to people who lived it, who shed the tears, shed the sweat—it’s those who know Placement on a very personal level that I will never know. There were thousands of different people and they all came from different positions. …

Even my own cousin, who wasn’t actively engaged in the church all these years, has a very complex relationship with the Church. He is not bitter towards the Church for being on Placement. He actually feels bombarded when people tell him how he should feel and what his own experiences should be. And so, it’s not that it’s canceling another person’s very traumatic experience. Rather, it’s filling in the picture of what was going on.

She also pointed out that there was give and take with the Diné themselves in the Church’s efforts:

The Church really took off in the Southwest Indian Mission with the support of Diné Latter-day Saints. This is not just an imposition of white Latter-day Saints coming in. (That’s something I hope my book also dispels.)

People also see things as only a binary of colonized-colonizer or white-Native, but it’s much more complex than that. It’s all these relationships and people who are navigating and compromising and exchanging and working together—and working against each other.

It’s a lot of moving parts. The mission relied on these relationships. When the Church was outside of Diné Bikéyah and Navajo Nation and was trying to establish a mission, it really didn’t start to have a place until some Diné began to advocate for the mission and get involved.

So, the Diné people themselves were part of the give-and-take with the Church.

That being said, the Diné did have to deal with colonialist narrative that are a part of the Church’s historical perception of Native Americans (and Polynesians) as Lamanites:

Even from the founding of the Church, there were church leaders and members who were saying Native Americans are Lamanites, or descendants of Laman and Lemuel. They used the term interchangeably with Native Americans for so many generations and years.

And in that sense of colonization, it is how it is interpreted, how it is understood that makes the difference. …

You have a lot of white Latter-day Saints who were interpreting those scriptures and teaching them to Native Americans as, “You’re the cursed people and you need to become white. You’re darker and you’re going to become white.” …

If you are condescending to another people and say they are lesser-than, then it is establishing a right to extract from them, to conquer them, to take their land, and to treat them like children. It is a patronizing relationship—patriarchal and overpowering—and that certainly was going on. When you have people blanketing and imposing the idea that “this is your origin,” that is a colonizing process. 

On the other hand, the term “Lamanite” has also been used as a form of indigenous empowerment, including among the Diné, since, as Farina King put it, “They are a promised people in the scriptures.”

For more on the Diné Latter-day Saints, including some information about George P. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the interview with Farina King. While you’re there, check out the latest cornerstone piece about the Kirtland Temple and the Harold B. Lee quotes page.