“American Indians,” Church History Topics
During the century before the Church was organized, the American Indian population in North America declined by about four hundred thousand as a result of warfare, exposure to disease, and the disruption of Indigenous economies caused by new settlers from Europe. At the same time, the European American population grew by over five million. In 1800 most colonial settlements remained within five hundred miles of the Atlantic Coast, but white settlers soon pressed westward across North America. This expansion led to tense encounters between Indians and white settlers.1
By the early 1800s, Indian nations had engaged in centuries of trade, diplomacy, military alliances, and conflicts with European American settlers, and many tribes had signed treaties guaranteeing access to territory and resources. But in 1830 the United States Congress passed a law that permitted the removal of various tribes to territories west of the Mississippi River. Protestant churches sponsored missions to the displaced Native groups, hoping that gospel preaching would improve Indian relations. But Indian removal caused immense disruption and suffering and led to further conflict.
The Book of Mormon was published the same year the Indian Removal Act passed. It gave Church members a different perspective on the past history and future destiny of American Indians. The early Saints believed that all American Indians were the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples, and that they shared a covenant heritage connecting them to ancient Israel.2 They often held the same prejudices toward Indians shared by other European Americans, but Latter-day Saints believed Native Americans were heirs to God’s promises even though they now suffered for once having rejected the gospel.3 This belief instilled in the early Saints a deeply felt obligation to bring the message of the Book of Mormon to American Indians.
Within months of the founding of the Church in 1830, Latter-day Saint missionaries journeyed to Indian Territory, on the borders of the United States. Parley P. Pratt reported that William Anderson (Kik-Tha-We-Nund), the leader of a group of Delaware (Lenape) who had relocated to the area near Independence, Missouri, warmly received the missionaries, and an interpreter told Oliver Cowdery that the “chief says he believes every word” of the Book of Mormon. However, a government agent soon barred them from further evangelizing among Indians in the area because they had not secured proper authorization.4 Latter-day Saint interactions with American Indians remained sparse for the next few years, though Pratt and others still spoke of a day when Indians would embrace the Book of Mormon.5
Amid troubles in Missouri during the 1830s, Church leaders were cautious about contact with local Native groups, having been accused by their enemies of using missionary work to cultivate sedition among the Indians. During the 1840s, Joseph Smith and the First Presidency sent missionaries to the Sioux (Dakota), Potawatomi (Bodéwadmi), Stockbridge (Mahican), and other Indian peoples residing in Wisconsin and Canada.6 Delegations from the Sauk (Asakiwaki) and Fox (Meskwaki) tribes met in Nauvoo with Joseph Smith, who told them of the Book of Mormon and plans to raise up a New Jerusalem.7 Two years later, Potawatomi leaders asked Joseph and the Mormons to lend aid and join an alliance of confederated tribes. Joseph declined but assured them the Book of Mormon could light the way toward peaceful relationships.8 After Joseph’s death, the Council of Fifty, under Brigham Young’s leadership, discussed a broader alliance with Indian nations but ceased diplomatic efforts in 1846 in order to organize the Saints’ migration west.9
As Church President, territorial governor, and territorial superintendent of Indian affairs, Brigham Young pursued a peace policy to facilitate Mormon settlement in areas where Indians lived. Latter-day Saints learned Indian languages, established trade relations, preached the gospel, and generally sought accommodation with Indians. Peaceful accommodation between Indians and Latter-day Saints was both the norm and the ideal. But, despite Brigham Young’s constant effort to broker lasting agreements, his peace policy emerged unevenly and was inconsistently applied. These two cultures—European and American Indian—had vastly different assumptions about the use of land and property and did not understand each other well. These misunderstandings led to friction and sometimes violence between the peoples.10
The two largest clashes between Latter-day Saints in Utah and local Indian groups later came to be known as the Walker War (1853–54) and the Black Hawk War (1865–72). They began as skirmishes between Mormon militias and principally Ute Indians that escalated into larger-scale conflicts. Violence between Mormons and Indians abated as disease and starvation severely reduced Indigenous populations living in the Intermountain West and United States federal action confined many Indians to reservations.11
Despite intermittent conflict, Church leaders remained committed to bringing the message of the Book of Mormon to Native Americans and established proselytizing missions and farms. These efforts introduced the gospel and provided education and food for Indians in Utah and Arizona. Missionaries during the second half of the 19th century visited Catawba (Yeh Is-Wah H’reh), Goshute (Kutsipiuti), Hopi (Hopituh Shi-nu-mu), Maricopa (Piipaash), Navajo (Diné), Papago (Tohono O’odham), Pima (Akimel O’otham), Shoshone (Newe), Ute (Nunt’zi), and Zuni (A:shiwi) peoples forced by settler expansion to live on Indian reservations scattered throughout the American West. Thousands of northwestern Shoshones in the 1870s were baptized and eventually formed the Washakie Ward, which was led by the first American Indian bishop in the Church, Moroni Timbimboo.12 Rather than move to reservations, many Utes from central Utah settled in Indianola in Sanpete County, where they built up a vibrant branch and a Relief Society, with an Indian woman serving in the presidency.13 Over 1,200 Papago, Pima, and Maricopa Indians in southern Arizona joined the Church in the 1880s, establishing a ward that later contributed to the building and dedication of the Mesa Arizona Temple.14 In South Carolina, most of the Catawba Nation received baptism. About 65 years later, Catawba chief Samuel Taylor Blue spoke in general conference. “I have tasted the blessing and joy of God,” he testified. “I have seen the dead raised; I have seen the sick whom the doctors have given up, through the administration of the Elders they have been restored to life. My brothers and sisters, beyond a shadow of a doubt I know that this gospel is true.”15
Latter-day Saint outreach to American Indians continued into the 1930s and 1940s with the expansion of missions in Arizona and New Mexico. These missions alerted Church leaders to adverse conditions on the Southwest Indian reservations, and they began to consider alternatives to direct proselytizing, feeling, as Spencer W. Kimball later expressed, an obligation to help their covenant siblings. In the 1950s a student placement program emerged in which Latter-day Saint families hosted Indian students during school semesters. In addition, Brigham Young University offered scholarships with the goal of increasing American Indian enrollment. By the time the Indian Student Placement Program came to a close around the year 2000, some 50 thousand American Indian students had been sponsored.16
American Indians today continue to face difficulties as a result of centuries of conflict and displacement. Larry Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, and current General Authority Seventy, spoke in 2007 of the challenges he and his ancestors have faced. “That is a painful history,” he stated, adding that “the pain was not limited to one generation.” Nevertheless, he found strength in the Book of Mormon’s promises and expressed his hope that America’s native peoples will live up to the vision articulated by President Spencer W. Kimball, becoming powerful leaders in their communities and nations.17
Related Topics: Lamanite Identity