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American West Latter-day Saint History

Who Are the Navajo Latter-day Saints?

Diné dóó Gáamalii have sometimes been thought of as descendants of the Book of Mormon Lamanites.

Native Americans such as the Navajo (or Diné) have sometimes been thought of as descendants of the Book of Mormon Lamanites. This has created a complex legacy of interactions between Church members and Native Americans, including among those members who are Native Americans. This interview with Dr. Farina King discusses Diné Latter-day Saints.


Read more about Diné Latter-day Saints in Diné dóó Gáamalii: Navajo Latter-day Saint Experiences in the Twentieth Century.


Table of Contents


What inspired you to write Diné Dóó Gáamalii: Navajo Latter-Day Saint Experiences in the Twentieth Century?

That’s a pretty direct answer for me. 

I was raised in a family with two parents who met at BYU. They both are converts, so they are not from Latter-day Saint families, But they each decided to join the church and that eventually led them to Brigham Young University, where they met. After they were married, they had eight children, including me. 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. When my parents married in Provo, my dad pursued a track to become a physician and work for Indian Health Service. So I was born in an IHS hospital that my dad was directing in Tuba City (on the Navajo reservation). 

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.

There were a lot of historical stereotypes and misinformation about Native Americans, not just in a Latter-day Saint context, but also within the general United States. I just knew that wasn’t me as a Native American young woman.

At first, I was confused because I thought, “Oh, I can be Pocahontas,” because that’s what Disney had—and what was being spread around. 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).

Not all of it is pleasant—there are a lot of stories about discrimination and struggles that my relatives and ancestors have faced through time.

Photograph of Farina King by Will Wilson (2016).

So, all this circles back to me being at BYU and asking questions while I was there. I had participated in the school’s Native American student organization (Tribe of Many Feathers), one of the longest-existing student organizations there.

I also participated in the Miss Indian BYU pageant and actually won the title. There was a hallway with photos of recipients of that title, and they came from so many different Native Nations: Cherokee, Oneida, Apache, all these different peoples. But when I was at BYU, I felt like I was almost always the only Native American in my classes. Yes, there was the Tribe of Many Feathers, but we felt like such a small group in a sea of so many different people.

And I knew from talking to my parents—especially my father—that there were almost twice as many Native American students when they attended BYU.

So, I wondered: what happened? Why had there been so many students? And why were there all these different women who carried that title of Miss Indian BYU?


How did you get Involved in Collecting Oral Histories of Native American Latter-day Saints?

The questions I was asking led me to connect with the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies because they offered grants to do oral history work. I applied for some funding from there as an undergrad and that led to working with Jesse Embry, who was an associate director of the Redd Center.

And, like I said earlier, I was passionate about telling and hearing stories—our stories, our life experiences. I knew from talking to my parents and aunties and cousins and friends that were a part of our family circle that they were not being represented or weren’t fully understood.

In other words, what our community is like wasn’t being represented. So, I began working with Jesse, who told me about a Latter-day Saint Native American oral history project that she had started over a decade before I had reached out to her. She asked if I would like to do oral histories for that project and essentially restart it.

I had questions about the Miss Indian BYU pageant, since I was trying to understand the origins of that tradition. I also wanted to know more about Native American women’s experiences in college, and specifically at BYU—a church-run college that was known for being predominantly for white Americans.

I wanted to interview past recipients and participants of the Miss Indian BYU pageant that had been running for over 30 years at that time. And so I said, “I want to do oral histories.” (I had already started some because I was a declared history major and Native American studies minor at the time.)

Jesse said, “Why don’t you just interview any Native American who identifies as a Latter-day Saint? We will hire you to do that.” 

In my senior year at BYU, I did about 100 oral history interviews, mostly with Diné Latter-day Saints because that’s who I have a lot of connections with. I did that much work and it showed me that I was so passionate about it. I wanted to talk to as many people as I could—and they wanted to talk with me too. 

I was torn.

At that point, 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. 

I loved traveling the world and learning about different cultures, and felt illuminated as I studied African Studies and Native American Studies. I was learning a lot about cultures outside of the United States and how other groups of scholars and people view them.

For example, they named the experiences of Africa, that this was colonization that they had experienced, but in the United States, they’re hesitant to name it. They deny or they don’t recognize the colonization that the United States imposed on indigenous peoples or different peoples, like in the Pacific Islands or the Philippines or different places.

And that, to me, was very important in this work. 

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.

My study of African cultures and colonialism made me want to understand all of the experiences and stories of people who had experiences like mine, even if we came from different Native Nations.

I decide to hone in and focus on Navajo Nation because that’s who I am related to. It’s also really important to not just homogenize Native Americans. You need to really delve into the specific Indigenous context and the meanings of religion and spirituality in that context. 

I will say that this project wouldn’t have happened without Jesse Embry, because she is the one who asked me, “Do you want to write a book?”

She had been doing a lot of research already and had written oral history books about different diverse ethnic groups (such as Latiné or Latinx communities and Asian-American Latter-day Saints). She launched the LDS Native American Oral History project and worked with me.

I started to tell my family story—and my own story in the first person. And Jesse encouraged me to eventually publish my research in a book.


What was the Indian Student 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.

 

A lot of Diné participated in that program, so that was another really important intersection with my interests. Thousands of students went to it, with a very high percentage being Diné. So, the Navajo Nation has parallel experiences with other Native Americans in the Church and with the Church, but it is different; it is its own story.

That’s why I have this book. I hope it communicates what this means to us, how these relationships have impacted us—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and different religious dynamics and aspects—and what it means from Indigenous lenses, perspectives, and voices.


Why can’t the ISPP fit into a Good-Bad Binary?

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.

For example, if they were a child at the time they went on Placement—some who were 8 years old—or someone who was 17 years old, that spectrum makes a difference.

If they were from Navajo Nation, if they were Oneida, if they grew up in a city and they got involved in that program, there are differences. Then, there are examples of being someone who was a bus driver driving the children to the school. Or, being someone like my dad who hadn’t gone on Placement, but was asked to speak to Placement parents about cultural sensitivities. He had a different relationship with it than they did.

George P. Lee was at the front lines.

But these are the stories. I was honing in on the students—the program’s youth and children. And that’s a lens, but there are so many facets to it. What was that school teacher’s perspective? What did they see? What’s the full story?

And that’s the conundrum of history. We are still honing in so much on one facet. To be omnipresent, to see it all and understand what is going on: is it even humanly possible?

I don’t know. But I’m trying to do the best I can to move towards that while following the voices of people who are a part of the program.

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.


How did the Southwest Indian Mission depend on Diné support?

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.


How does George P. Lee fit in?

George P. Lee needs his own book. There’s so much to his story that it was hard to balance with what I was writing. In many ways, he was a major influence similar to Spencer W. Kimball.

And George P. Lee’s story paralleled so many Latter-day Saint Native Americans. They related to him. Some were his relatives.

He produced his own autobiography, Silent Courage, in collaboration with some other people. What he shared in that is so powerful. He tells the stories of his upbringing, including accounts of his ancestors going on the Long Walk, and much pain that he experienced. 

But that’s the point.

He was born in Navajo Nation to a Diné family with a Diné mindset, but from a young age, he got involved in the Placement Program, living with a Latter-day Saint family for the school years.

He was also advancing in these stages of education. And then also not just education in the secular sense, but also advancing in this sense of church education and church influence. He was advancing as a leader, as a voice who was a representative.

George Lee developed a really close relationship with President Spencer W. Kimball and other church leaders. And he really got involved with the Tribe of Many Feathers at BYU after he graduated high school He was on the front lines of shaping Native Studies—and even Native student programs, which is mind-blowing.

Listen to George P. Lee, once a Navajo Latter-day Saint general authority, speak in general conference.

George P. Lee even went on to graduate studies at a young age, which is something notable. At a young age, he was already taken under the wing of really high, influential church leaders like Spencer W. Kimball.

Then, he was called as a mission president over an area that includes Navajo Nation when he was pretty young. And then, Lee became one of the first Native Americans to serve as a general authority.

People often forget Dana Lewis, an Oneida man who was involved with Church leadership alongside Joseph Smith, Jr. Or, for another example, there’s the Northwestern band of Shoshone. But that’s the point. People forget about those early Latter-day Saint Native American leaders.

They’re forgotten, but George P. Lee gets the big attention. And at that time, you also have general conferences being recorded and distributed, so his face and voice was reaching masses of people. And he was especially resonating with Native Americans who were able to see a Diné—a Native American—as a Church leader.

George P. Lee was a groundbreaking part of our history. At the same time, I was careful because I didn’t want this to be his story—because a big part of his story is his apostasy and excommunication. (We call it outright apostasy, because after being excommunicated, he tried to start his own church, and that’s a whole story in and of itself.)

I include references to him because he’s important, and I often heard his name when collecting oral histories. But to be honest, I think a lot of people were hesitant to refer to him. I actually heard more references to him in informal settings, more discrete settings, like in a church meeting. People sometimes used him as a metaphor, a parable of “don’t become like George P. Lee.”

Some people had his book, Silent Courage, and other Latter-day Saint Native Americans would say, “You shouldn’t even have that in your house if you identify with the Church.” After his excommunication, people wanted to align with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instead of Lee.

But then there were others to whom he was a father figure as a mission president, a mission companion, or different things. And because of that, they had a tender place in their hearts for George P. Lee and his family.

So, I also felt hesitant to really delve into that without engaging with the family and having them be a part of that discussion because that’s very painful and sensitive and personal. I was trying to be sensitive and mindful.


How has “Lamanite” been used for both colonialism and indigenous power?

That’s a big part of this book. It’s also ongoing work I’m doing to really contextualize Native American experiences.

It mattered when I was talking to Diné Latter-day Saints who identify as Lamanites or who have been called Lamanites. The term, after all, was synonymous with Native American for so many years in the Church.

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.

I think these are crucial conversations.

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

For example, there are parts of the Book of Mormon that talk about how Laman and Lemuel were the black-sheep sons of Lehi, how they and their descendants fall off track and are in disarray. There is also a scripture that they are marked differently by their skin (that’s a literal reading of the text).

And there are people who read it that way who then read it in a racist way. And that is in this text which, if you are a believing Latter-day Saint, was written in ancient times, thousands of years ago. That is generations before 1619 CE, when slavery and all these racial constructs were involved in the Americas.

Think about how, if this text actually is translated from that time, did they mean black skin? How is this curse being interpreted?

But 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.”

So, they’re taking it in this racial lens, based on these racial constructs that are post-1619 CE and applying them to a text that they believe were written centuries before that time.

Now, the idea that being a Lamanite can be empowering seems quite ironic. How can people ever see this framework as empowering when the Book of Mormon is being used as a tool of discrimination?

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. 

But then the interesting thing about it is that white Latter-day Saints and other Latter-day Saints reading those scriptures could not deny the intent of the Book of Mormon.

Who was the Book of Mormon written for? What does it say in the Title Page? For Lamanites. That was explicitly written out there. They are a promised people in the scriptures.

Who are the people who go extinct? The Nephites, not the Lamanites. The Lamanites are the people who persist.

And as you get into more of the Book and Mormon and look beyond those scriptures that were always latched onto and controversial, there are examples of Lamanites being more righteous than the Nephites. It’s more complicated than those one or two sections about a curse.

There are many ways to even interpret those sections. I have met people who interpreted the controversial scripture about a curse over the Lamanites as “any people who turn away from God are going into darkness” or their countenances are marked by darkness.

Read about some of Ann Madsen’s experiences with Spencer W. Kimball

In my study, however, I wanted to know how Diné Latter Day Saints understand the term. What were they experiencing? That’s what I’m focusing on.


What do you hope people take away from Diné Dóó Gáamalii?

It is hard to talk about all of this because it is so personal. But I think these are crucial conversations, no matter what people believe or where they come from. It is about us finding out that we’re all relatives. And no matter who you are, no matter how you identify, how can you really be a good relative to everyone no matter what? 

Just ask yourself, “Are we being good relatives—and respectful and understanding?”

We have a lot to do. We need healing. Now, more than ever, people are tearing each other apart and causing violent death over how people identify. It’s a cycle.

I am trying to help people understand where I’m coming from because of my unique experiences and communities that I’m tied to. I have tried to bring better understanding, and tell these stories from the perspectives of those who have lived them.

Ahéhee’/Thank you. 


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About the interview participant

Dr. Farina King is Bilagáanaa (Euro-American), born for Kinyaa’áanii (the Towering House Clan) of the Diné (Navajo). King is the Horizon Chair of Native American Ecology and Culture and Associate Professor of Native American Studies (NAS) at the University of Oklahoma (OU). King currently serves as the interim chair of the OU NAS Department. Her primary area of research is colonial and post-colonial Indigenous studies, mainly Indigenous experiences in colonizing forms of education, such as at federal American Indian boarding schools.


Further Reading

Native American Latter-day Saints Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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