Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Contemporary Mormonism : Latter-day Saints in modern America

Race, Ethnicity, And Class
Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

Starting with three students in 1947, the program peaked in 1970 when nearly 5,000 students left reservations to study at white schools and live in LDS homes. More than 70,000 young people participated in the Indian Student Placement Services (ISPS) program. Although parents emphatically stated that they had applied for the program, critics charged that the program fragmented Indian families, weakened cultural pluralism, and caused psychological damage by shuttling children between white and Indian worlds. Accusations that the LDS Church pushed children into the program prompted the U.S. government in 1977 to commission a study.

The study determined that 34 percent of the students remained in the program through high school; 66 percent dropped out for homesickness, requests to return, or incompatibility; yet 82 percent of the group completed high school, twice the number of a control group. After the experience, participants were more likely to work comfortably in better jobs. The main goal of the ISPS, promoting the educational attainment of Indian participants, was achieved. But as reservation schools improved, the ISPS receded in size and importance. In 1990, only 500 students participated.

One outgrowth of the program had an unfortunate ending. A Native American, George P. Lee, a full-blooded Navajo and an early graduate of the ISPS, was made a General Authority in 1975, the first Native American to achieve this position. After ten years of service, Lee publicly criticized the Church for neglecting its mission to the Lamanites. He was excommunicated in 1989.

What is life like for Native Americans in the Church today? Like Ron Singer, a Navajo who spent years in the ISPS, they live in a dual culture. Singer balances Mormonism with Navajo traditions and religion: "After I joined the LDS Church, it was kind of hard to juggle the two religions. . . . My grandparents still live the old traditional ways. I had to learn to respect that. When I got ready to go on my mission, I sat down with my step dad, and we talked. . . . All of a sudden my eyes just opened. It all fit in. My mission really helped me because that brought more of the Navajo religion into it. . . . My testimony was strengthened."

Shirley Equerra Moore, half Native American and half Latina, regretted that "most non-Indians think that Lamanites maybe aren't as bright, and therefore, couldn't possibly have a testimony." Non-Indians, she thought, equate intelligence and spirituality. She didn't think a person should be surprised when a Lamanite was a Church leader. "I am a brown person, and yes, brown people are capable of doing these things."

Ken Sekaquaptewa, with a Hopi father and a Chinese mother, also had problems with cultural differences. He thought Indians and Chinese people were both disadvantaged because they show little emotion. Singer, Moore, and Sekaquaptewa all talked about a leadership style and behavior based on an Anglo model that constricted less gregarious cultural groups. Donna Fifita, a Sioux married to a Tongan, felt required to confront the stereotype of shy, lazy, and backward people. After moving to Utah, she felt "really uncomfortable in my regular ward. . . . I wanted to prove to Heavenly Father and to [ward members] that I wasn't like an Indian that would be inactive, an alcoholic, or whatever stereotypes they had. . . . I would bear my testimony boldly to them in sacrament meeting. I would tell them how I knew this Church was true."

These comments reveal the persistence of stereotypes about Native Americans along with the efforts to overcome them. Perceptions of the LDS treatment of Indians as racist have led to a softening of the Lamanite characterization. The mixed message of the chosen people also being the cursed people has shifted the good/evil dichotomy toward the encompassing "children of Lehi" to include the good Nephites. To escape some of the negative connotations, a popular BYU performing group once called the Lamanite Generation is now the Living Legends.

Whether the Native Americans should assimilate into predominately white LDS wards or remain separate is a question played out in the choice of which wards to attend. When Shirley Moore saw prejudice in the English-speaking ward, she began attending activities in the Native American Branch. "There were almost all Lamanites there except for the leaders, because, of course, the Indians couldn't be leaders. What did they know? I'm being sarcastic." After Shirley married, she moved to the Native American Branch. Things went well with her husband as branch president. However, when the family moved away, the branch dissolved. She sadly said, "I know that some of those people won't feel good about going to the [Anglo] ward. But you can't always sit back and say, 'I'm just a poor Indian and people will look down on me,' although I certainly have had those feelings." She spoke of Sister Redhouse, a "typical Navajo woman." "People could learn from Sister Redhouse, but I don't know that she'd ever go to [the Anglo] Ward." Tensions between Native Americans and whites in the Church are yet to be resolved.

Hispanics introduce a third cultural tension into the Church. In recent years there has been major growth in South and Central America. In 1975, only a few Church members who spoke Spanish as their first language could be found in Utah. Within a few years, there were more than twenty Spanish-speaking congregations along Utah's Wasatch Front. Spanishspeaking Hispanics, many also English-speaking, have become the Church's preeminent sub-culture. In 2002, when the Church numbered about eleven million members worldwide, South America counted two and a half million members, Mexico about 900,000, and Central America about 472,000. Migrations from these areas have led to Spanish-speaking wards within many stake boundaries.

James W. Lucas, writing on "Mormons in New York City," described how overall Church membership there increased from 6,500 in 1990 to 17,000 in 1998 during the years of heightened Hispanic migration. By the end of 1998, twenty-one of the forty-six LDS congregations in the city spoke Spanish. The Mormon Latinos in Manhattan and the Bronx are mostly Dominicans; in Brooklyn, most come from Mexico. Many joined the Church in their own countries and so have leadership experience. (Most black members come from the West Indies, some from Africa.) About 20 percent of the ethnic converts in New York City are illegal immigrants, which will test the Mormon belief that Church membership facilitates upward economic mobility.