In His Own Words: A Native American Mormon Speaks His Truth
By Angelo Baca
It is time for minority voices to be heard especially when the possibility of a new Mormon president can happen. As a Native American scholar, I examined the effects of the Mormon Church upon indigenous peoples in the documentary film, “In Laman’s Terms: Looking at Lamanite Identity,” which attempts to present each side equally.
The term “Lamanite” refers to classic Mormon doctrine in which Native Americans are descendants of the Lamanite race in the Book of Mormon’s introduction. They came from Lehi, a Middle Eastern prophet who sailed the ocean with his family to the Americas. His sons became progenitors of a new population that split into two factions, the Lamanites and the Nephites. The Nephites were righteous, light-skinned, and obeyed God while Lamanites were wicked and cursed by God with a dark skin. Eventually, they fought and the Nephites were all killed. This rationale helped to explain why Indians existed on the continent before the arrival of Europeans in many Christian minds. The book has since been edited to read “are among the ancestors of American Indians” to indirectly infer indigenous peoples as Lamanites when past versions used to be more succinct when White ideas applied to Red and Black skins.
The amount of representation of native peoples in the media, literature, and leadership roles of this country is miniscule. Nearly invisible, the larger dominant culture continues to ignore our needs and our voices. The nation, becoming increasingly more diverse and multicultural, embraced our current President and wanted to usher in new change. He is the only president to have ever mentioned native people inside his first speech as President. Now, as the status quo is threatened more than ever in American history, nostalgia of a time gone by when you recognized a Euro-American patriarchal White male in charge with big businesses and energy consumption could return.
This country has broken over 400 treaty promises. There are at least 317 reservations. We have now only 4% of our original lands. We are less than 1% of populations in high schools and colleges. Both sides are not equal.
If Romney is president, I want to ask him what his thoughts are on Indian policies and government to government relationships with our sovereign nations are. I want to ask him if he was given any thought at all towards indigenous peoples at home. Most of all, I want to ask if he really thinks, believes, feels, and knows that Native Americans are Lamanites just like the teachings of the LDS church taught so many.
When asked about his beliefs, he acts persecuted and defensive. Joseph Smith was a documented robber of native graves and his findings influenced him in writing the Book of Mormon. Remember, this man spawned the religion and at one time was also ready to run for President. Yet, American Indians face real persecution and continued genocide by the United States created by hostile racial stereotypes, ignored treaty rights, and environmental neglect of native communities. The contemporary representation of Mormons in America does not recognize its privilege, power, and resources for influencing native conversion the world over and impact of colonization and assimilation.
It is imperative Romney answer about his beliefs, motivations, and inspirations to make major decisions that could affect not just Americans but native peoples as well. His could enact new laws, shift federal Indian policy, and make choices on energy resources for America which likely involves exploiting what is left of our lands. When the Duwamish tribe of Seattle was granted federal recognition as a tribe by one of Clinton’s last acts as president, Bush’s administration came in. Within days, recognition was gone. The moral of the story: no matter whom the president is if you are an Indian, they can still take things away from you. Even if you followed all the rules and had “proof” you are native. Romney politics are reminiscent of Bush-era politics. Should we be concerned? I am.
Finally, the Mormon gospel purports to have the truth of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Yet, we know our own truths from generations of traditional teachings and cultural, spiritual, and environmental knowledge. In the same way these views don’t have to be in conflict, we should be talking about race in this country openly without pretending it doesn’t exist which apparently, our politicians and church leaders are not doing. This is no longer an option. The only way we are going to get through the future is together. In the words of the great Sitting Bull, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”
Angelo Baca, Navajo/Hopi, is a Visiting Lecturer at the Center for Ethnic Studies and Race in America at Brown University. He is currently teaching Native American Media and Literature classes and currently has numerous film festival productions to his credit as well as a world-premiere of the film “Returning Home” at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco this week. A graduate of the Native Voices program from the University of Washington’s Department of Communication and American Indian Studies, he focuses work in Native American documentary, media, youth, education, health and wellness across Indian Country.
He can be reached at: Angelo_Baca@brown.edu