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Religion, the Missionary System, and Faith-Based Scholarship: The Loss of Tradition and

History for the Anthropologist

Michael Harris

The question is not whether there is a higher power or not; that is something
best left up to the individual and should be respected. The issue this essay
addresses is how religion, especially the missionary system, has been used.
Religion can be a peaceful thing, it can also be used to destroy past knowledge
and in some cases, they very life of the people they claim as ancestors.

One can hypothesize that from the deepest darkest cave of prehistory, to the late 19th

Century, religion had been used to control the minds and the will of the people. Religion can be

considered a means of dominance as well as an inspiration for propagation. One could even

argue that religion has achieved its goal within civilized societies; control and population growth

are the norm. When populations grew beyond the hunter gatherer status, when growth expanded

out of the cave and into the villages, tribal leaders sought a means of control. With roofs over

their heads and walls for protection, people began to think freely; meetings often took place and

dissent soon followed. This dissent arose from those who suffered at the hands of violent rulers.

These tribal leaders and the ruling elites developed an omnipresent entity, one who could see

through walls and roofs, to achieve their basic need, control. This common theme of control and

growth has woven its way through history. When we needed an “angry” God to control the

savages, the Old Testament prevailed with its fire and brimstone approach. As societies became

more civilized a new peaceful God was desired, giving way to the New Testament and Jesus.

The methods of the old world, the control of the people through an all-powerful entity, found its

way to the new world with Christianity and its voice, the missionary.

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Few people recognize that when Christopher Columbus stood on an island in the Caribbean

and “took possession" of the New World, he was following the rules of Christianity. This “take

possession”, also known as The Doctrine of Discovery, became one of the tools used to eradicate

the traditions and beliefs of almost every culture in North, Central, and South America. The lost

is immeasurable. It can been said that the French came to trade, the English came to expand, the

Spanish came to convert, and the Mormons came to prove; this is certainly true throughout early

America. From early contact to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, to The Ghost Dance and Wounded

Knee massacre of the 1890s, America’s aboriginal people fought to recapture their beliefs,

beliefs that have become an amalgam of traditional ways of life and Christianity.

Native Americans remained relatively undisturbed for close to 15,000 years. In this

solitude they perfected maize and bean cultivation, established trade between the tribes, and built

large cultural centers. The Indians had conquered their environment and they managed the land

and its resources. When overgrowth threatened hunting grounds they simply burned fields; if the

land became barren they moved. (Nichols 2003:27) With the arrival of the Europeans the Indian

way of life changed drastically through trade and religion. Trade brought the Indians and

colonists together, Christianity would drive them apart. In 1493 three Papal Bulls, official

documents issued by the Pope, authorized title to all the lands Columbus discovered and any

other non-Christian lands yet to be discovered. The first two Papal bulls called for the

proliferation of the Catholic faith, and the last one dealt with geography of the discovery.

(Gibson 1966:15) In a debate with Bartolomé de Las Casas, an outspoken critic of conquest,

Spanish priest Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda defended the Christian conquest. Sepúlveda saw the

conversion of the Indian as divine, “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to

come in.” (Luke 14:23) Sepúlveda believed the Indian inferior, uncivilized, and barbaric even

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though, as mentioned earlier, they had tended the land for at least 15,000 years and established

large cultural and religious centers throughout the Americas. (Gibson 1966:41)

The story of early contact has been told using two opposing interpretations. The most

accepted, The Black Legend, tells of the slaughter of thousands of Indians at the hands of the

Spaniards. On the other hand, The White Legend promotes the story of Christianity and the

elimination of human sacrifice and cannibalism. While both legends may be true, The White

Legend fails to address the loss of human life and tradition. When the Spanish Conquistadors

entered the Indian settlements they read the Requerimiento, a declaration of control and

sovereignty over the Indians which in part read

I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your
country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and
shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their
Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make
slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may
command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief
and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their
lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses
which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or
ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.
The overpowering message of the Requerimiento was that, “the resulting deaths [of the Indian]

shall be the fault [of the Indian].” According to the Requerimiento, the Indian was to blame for

conquest. (Gibson 1966:38-39)

Throughout the colonial period settlers sought to bring Christianity to the “heathens” in

America. Missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, denounced tribal religion in the New

World. This denigration of Indian religion and medicine brought about a cultural destruction

that has lasted for generations. Catholic Priests caused the most damage because they lived with

the Indians whereas the Protestants tended to minister nomadically, travelling from tribe to tribe

in order to spread the Word. (Nichols 2003:61) Using religion as a base, governments banned

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certain Indian practices such as the potlatch, banned in Canada in 1884, and the Sun Dance,

banned in the United States in 1883. The potlatch or festival of giving was oftentimes a religious

event; the bringing together of the spirits of ancestors and the living to celebrate kinship and

ranking. The missionaries attempted to civilize the Indians and convert them to Christianity by

outlawing the potlatch. The Christian missionaries and settlers could not understand how

someone could give away all his possessions; this notion ran counter to anything they had

experienced in European culture. Based on reports from Christian missionaries, the Canadian

government banned the potlatch in 1884. In 1921, during a potlatch hosted by Chief Dan

Cranmer, 45 people were arrested and their masks and regalia were confiscated. Some of the

Indians refused to give up their ceremonial regalia which resulted in prison sentences for 20 of

the participants. In 2008 John Tierney wrote in the New York Times, “Why would Christian

missionaries who preach the virtue of charity want to outlaw a ceremony whose name means “to

give away?” (Tierney 2008)

Missionaries saw the potlatch and the Sun Dance as an obstacle to Christianity. The

Sundance was performed in the summer, usually in late July or early August, after the buffalo

hunts. The dance was a quest for spiritual power, purification, and communion with the Great

Spirit that lasted up to eight days. Not understanding the Sun Dance, missionaries sought to

outlaw it. They perceived the piercing of a young man's chest as torture; they failed to

understand the spiritual significance of the dance.

In response to the Sun Dance Bishop Vital Grandin wrote 1875

We instill in them a pronounced distaste for the native life so that they will be
humiliated when reminded of their origin. When they graduate from our
institutions, the children have lost everything Native except their blood.
(http://agt.net/public/dgarneau/indian23.htm)

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Bishop Vital Grandin’s words continued The Doctrine of Discovery or “take possession”

Columbus had brought with him almost four-hundred years earlier; this time it was culture and

religion that was being taken. Early explorers focused on land and resources, the soul of the

“heathen” was the missionaries’ responsibility.

When one thinks of the early exploration of the New World they imagine a vast wilderness

teaming with wildlife and populated by savages who roam for food. Nothing could be farther

from the truth. In actuality, some areas of the New World were as densely populated as Europe

with societies built around agriculture and cultural centers. Even though they were without a

written language the Indians maintained an oral tradition and language more complex than that

of the Invaders. (Zinn 2003:21) Christianity and the search for riches destroyed most of this oral

tradition. In times of turmoil Christianity often promised relief, conversion and the denial of past

beliefs soon followed. When the promises failed people tended to revolt, such was the case of

the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Seeing the loss of their religion and culture, as well as the inability

of the Christian God to provide during a drought and to protect from invading Apaches, the

Pueblo People fought back.

If we had the ability to aim a camera lens at a precise moment in history, such as the Pueblo

Revolt of 1680, one might see a renewal of culture and religion. This renewal takes on three

parts; the initial change the Pueblo people faced when they first encountered the Europeans, the

adaptation of Christianity that eventually led to resistance and subsequently to a revitalization in

which the Pueblo people were able to retain some of their religion and culture. Traditionally the

victors wrote the history; this is not case with the Pueblo revolt where the victorious were the

Pueblo People. The written record of the revolt was lost when the buildings and churches were

destroyed; anthropologists and historians would need to rely on the oral testimony to tell the

story. (Bowden 2008:22) The anthropologist gave us the impetus for revolt, the missionary’s

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denunciation of the Pueblo people’s religion and their culture. This would be the change the

Pueblo people faced with the arrival of the Europeans.

Exploration into the established Pueblo communities, located in modern-day New Mexico, by

the Spanish began in 1540 by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Colonization began in 1598 with

Juan de Onate and an “initial force of 400 persons, including 10 Franciscan friars.” (Bowden

2008:23) One of the justifications for the Spanish control over the Indians was to indoctrinate

the Indians in the Catholic faith, the tool used was known as the encomienda system in which the

Indians built roads, bridges, buildings, and churches for the invaders. The encomienda had its

origin in the Catholic Reconquista or reconquest of Spain over the Moors just months before

Columbus set sail for the New World.

One of the Franciscan friars, Alonzo de Posada, began an attack on Kachina dancing and

ordered all of the Kachina masks destroyed. Kachinas represent the spirits of ancestors who

have died and become part of nature; these spirits possess power over nature, especially the

weather. The missionaries “were convinced either that the Indians possessed no religion at all or

that they been lured by the Devil into a repugnant congeries of idol worship and superstition.”

(Bowden 1999:27) The Governor of the territory, Juan de Trevino ordered the arrest of forty-

seven Pueblo spiritual leaders, one of which was Popé, a Tewa medicine man. Many were

hanged, some were publically flogged; Popé was one of the leaders whipped in the Santa Fe

plaza. This denial of Pueblo religion was the first phase of revitalization, the change they faced

with Christianity. “Converting more people to Christian practices was [the] reason for New

Mexico’s existence, the [missionaries] performed their tasks with singleness of purpose.”

(Bowden 2008:23) The Church separated families and clans; it destroyed beliefs, and most

importantly it destroyed tradition and ritual. The constraints placed upon the Pueblos were

ruthless; the Catholic missionaries sought to eliminate what they saw as paganism and used

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heartless measures to outlaw such practices. Ceremonial chambers known as kivas along with

many alters were destroyed, dances were strictly prohibited, masks and prayer sticks were

shattered, tribal priests and medicine men were imprisoned, whipped or hanged. The Spanish

vision of faith was vastly different from the Pueblo view. The Christian view involved a

heavenly, vengeful creator, defined by the church, while the Pueblo people believed the source

of life was born from the earth itself. “Pueblos derived their sense of duty and propriety within

an understanding of community and its needs. The missionaries defined good and bad actions on

a standard possessed by the church, seen as a divine institution.” (Bowden 2008:28)

When Popé returned home he began planning the removal of the Spaniards and the

missionaries from Pueblo territory. The words of revolt spread throughout other Pueblos in the

region. Drought, famine, and raiding Apaches, which the new religion of Christianity failed to

stop, enabled Popé to gather the support needed for rebellion. In August, 1680 the uprising

began against the repressive measures brought on by the Spaniards. “Of the 2,500 colonists

approximately 380 were killed, including 21 of the 33 resident [missionaries].” (Bowden

2008:24) Churches and government buildings were destroyed and the Spaniards were forced to

flee south. The Pueblo people renounced Christianity and Spanish culture. “The fighting had

caught the Spanish by surprise, and their evacuation left the Indians free to follow pre-contact

standard of conduct.” (Bowden 2008:30)

In 1692 governor Don Diego de Vargas set out to retake the Pueblo territories. With the aid

of other tribes in the region this “re-conquest” was successful. “The revolt did have a positive

effect, the Spaniards no longer attempted encomienda, they formally recognized the Pueblos’

land rights, and they no longer harassed the Pueblo People about their Native religion.” (Sando

2002)

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“The Pueblo Revolt was an act of people determined to reject Christian civilization because it

posed a direct threat to their culture and religion.” (Bowden 1999:33) The Pueblo Indian’s

ability to retain some of their religion and tradition was a rare occurrence

[Because of the revolt] the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico


continue to retain the greater part of their Native culture today,
including their tribal governing systems, languages, religion,
ceremonials and arts. In this, they are unique among all of North
America’s Native peoples.” (Sando 2002)
This ability to maintain Indian culture and religion was not always the case, most tribes and

cultures lost not only their faith but their lives when Christianity came to town. In later

incidents, such as Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance, a blind belief led to the slaughter of

some of America’s native people. Such is the story of the Latter Day Saints.

The Catholics came to convert; the Latter Day Saints came to prove their faith. One early

example of this “proof” was Quetzalcoatl, the most well known Aztec God. The name

Quetzalcoatl is derived from the Nahuatl language, quetzal meaning emerald plumed, and coatl

meaning serpent, in other words, feathered serpent. The Mormons or Latter Day Saints point to

Quetzalcoatl as evidence to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon tells

the story of Christ being resurrected in America shortly after crucifixion. The story goes on to

explain early American, Mesoamerican, and even South American religion and culture.

Lamanitish tradition has preserved the account of the ministry


among the ancient inhabitants of America of a white God called
Quetzalcoatl...Quetzalcoatl was a favorably disposed man, of grave
aspect, white and bearded. His dress was a long tunic...He told
them that in time to come...he would return, and then his doctrine
would be received. Almost without exception Latter-day Saints
have associated these traditions with the ministry of the resurrected
Christ among the Nephites. President John Taylor, for instance, has
written: 'The story of the life of the Mexican divinity, Quetzalcoatl,
closely resembles that of the Savior; so closely, indeed, that we can
come to no other conclusion than that Quetzalcoatl and Christ are
the same being. (McConkie 2009:763-777)

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The problem with this account is very important, the only description we have of Quetzalcoatl

came from Spanish missionaries driven to convert the conquered. Any story post contact should

be considered suspect, no native pre-contact description exists that depicts Quetzalcoatl with a

beard, flowing robe and white skin. In truth, the pre-contact glyphs and steles show the exact

opposite; nothing known of Aztec legend implies that he had been a white man in his human

form on earth. Pre-contact art depicts either a feathered serpent or a human wearing a mask.

Depictions without a mask consist of a black face, sometimes with yellow stripes and a red

mouth.

It is quite possible that the Spanish conquerors created the myth of Quetzalcoatl’s return in

the form of Hernan Cortes, the white, bearded Spanish explorer famous for conquering the Aztec

empire.

As ethnohistorian Nigel Davies points out, in “native” versions of


the myth there is no mention of any prophesy about the return of
Quetzalcoatl in the year I reed, or in any other year. Davies
concludes that it was after the Spanish Conquest that the original
legend was transformed with the story of a prophetic return. It
therefore seems doubtful that Motecuhzoma [Aztec ruler at the
time of conquest] was ever fully convinced that Cortes was the
returning deity. Rather, what apparently happened was that
Motecuhzoma, seeking to explain the presence of the strangers,
deduced that because Quetzalcoatl had disappeared in the east the
strange new chieftain coming from that direction might be the
ancestral king returning to claim his throne. More recently,
anthropologist Susan Gillespie has argued convincingly that the
whole story of Cortes as Quetzalcoatl was created after the
Conquest by Aztec historians in an attempt to make sense of the
Spaniards’ arrival and victory, interpreting it as the outcome of a
pattern of events established long ago, in the remote Toltec past.
(Townsend 1992:18)
The misconceptions do not end with the Aztecs, according to Religioustolerance.org if the

Book of Mormon were true Native Americans would have DNA that can be traced to middle-

eastern ancestry. Archaeologists could go to the remains of ancient Native American towns,

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excavate down to the levels that were active between 600 BCE and 385 CE, and uncover

evidences of Nephite or Lamanite writings, domesticated horses, old world plants, chariots,

inscriptions, and metal objects. The Excavation of Comorah Hill near Palmyra, NY should

reveal countless artifacts left by the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died there in the two

major battles discussed in the Book of Mormon. The evidence however, tells a different story,

genetic and blood testing studies have found that Native Americans are related closely to the

inhabitants of Siberia and not to the ancient Israelites, as the Book of Mormon states, some

Mormons have claimed that records and inscriptions such as the “Bat Creek Stone, the

Kinderhook Plates, the Newark Stones and the Phoenician Ten Commandments" prove the Book

of Mormon; all have been proven forgeries.” (Scott 1979:77-85)

Finally, no artifact or inscription has ever been found anywhere in the New World to support

any claim made in the Book of Mormon. Morgan Ferguson devoted most of his life to proving

the Book of Mormon. Ferguson, an educated man who had received degrees in political science

and law wrote:

The important thing now is to continue the digging at an


accelerated pace in order to find more inscriptions dating to Book-
of-Mormon times. Eventually we should find decipherable
inscriptions ... referring to some unique person, place or event in
the Book of Mormon. (Ferguson 1962:263)
During their courtship, Ferguson’s wife Ester once remarked, “I think I'm going out with the

Book of Mormon." During his lifetime, (1915-1983) Ferguson was able to convince the

president of Brigham Young University, Howard S. McDonald, to establish a Department of

Archaeology and even participated in the universities first expedition in 1948 to western

Campeche, in southeastern Mexico. After three books and years of fieldwork Ferguson began to

question his faith, “Ten years have passed, I sincerely anticipated that Book-of-Mormon cities

would have been positively identified. (Letter from Ferguson dated June 5, 1972)

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In 1976, towards the end of his life, Ferguson wrote:
Mormonism is probably the best conceived myth-fraternity to
which one can belong…Joseph Smith tried so hard he put himself
out on a limb with the Book of Abraham, and also with the Book of
Mormon. He can be refuted - but why bother…It would be like
wiping out placebos in medicine and that would make no sense
when they do lots of good. (Letter from Tom Ferguson to Mr. and
Mrs. Lawrence, February 9, 1976)

If we take Ferguson’s advice and “not refute” misleading history then generations of

anthropologist and historians trained to look for truths will consistently have to wade through the

swamp of misinformation being uncovered. Religious scholars attempting to prove faith can lead

one down a troubling path, if you don’t like the history change it; if you don't like the lab result

suppress it. One such scholar was Barry Fell, a professor of Biology at Harvard. Fell set out to

prove early European diffusionism, the pre-Columbian migration from Europe and Africa.

These early visitors, according to Fell made routine visits to North and South America for at

least 3,000 years before Columbus made landfall. (Gardner 1986) Fell used examples of rock

inscriptions in West Virginia, which he claimed told of Christ’s story, The Bourne Stone located

in Massachusetts detailing the Carthaginian’s pre-Columbian visits, and the Los Lunas

Decalogue Stone in New Mexico, reported to depict the Ten Commandments. (Fell 1989:310)

His seminal work, America B.C., has been used by fundamental Christians and Mormons to

prove their belief that some or all of the Lost Tribes of Israel had settled in the ancient Americas.

Fell’s findings have been thoroughly discredited by archaeologists and historians over the years

but continue to be “discovered” by new generations of faithful seeking a Christian-founded

America. Will future historians have to sift through faith-altered histories? Compared to the

Native people involved in Wounded Knee, these future academics will have it easy, for the

Indians, faith became life and death.

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It is important to establish The Latter Day Saints idea of the Indian based on the writings in

The Book of Mormon, “And it came to pass that I beheld, after they [Indians] had dwindled in

unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner

of abominations.” (Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 12: 23) It is a general belief that in order to

“save” the Indian you must first vilify them. This “saving” amount to what is called “good

work” or God’s work. “Brigham [Young] now teaches that ‘the way God has revealed for the

purification of the Indians, and making them ‘a white and delightsome people,’ as Joseph

[Smith] prophesied, is by us taking the Indians squaws for wives!!’ Accordingly several of these

tawny beauties have been already ‘sealed’ to some of the Mormon authorities.” (Hyde

1857:109-10) To the Mormon, color was an important consideration

And he had caused the cursing to come upon them [the Indian], yea, even a sore
cursing, because of their iniquity…as they were white, and exceeding fair and
delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did
cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. (Book of Mormon 2 Nephi 5: 21)
The color of the skin was claimed to be a curse for the Indian, the Mormons believed that ”the

skin of the Lamanites was dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which

was a curse upon them because of their transgression.” (Book of Mormon, Alma 3: 6, 8) This

“evil” dark skin was something the Latter Day Saints set out to “cure.”

Spencer W. Kimball, the twelfth president of the Mormon Church wrote in 1960

I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today as against that
of only fifteen years ago…they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they
were promised…The children in the home placement program in Utah are often
lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation…These
young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness.
(Kimball 1960:922-23)
This “whitness” marked the belief that the Indians were indeed one of the Lost Tribes and only

needed to be tamed; this was the proof the Church needed. In the introduction to The Book of

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Mormon the account of two civilizations is told, one came from Jerusalem [to America] in 600

B.C., and afterward separated into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites. The

other came much earlier when the Lord confounded the tongues at the Tower of Babel. This

group is known as the Jaredites. After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the

Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians. (Book of Mormon

Introduction)

The Book of Mormon goes on to claim, “We also bear testimony that the ‘Indians’ of North and

South America are a remnant of the tribes of Israel; as is now made manifest by the discovery

and revelation of their ancient oracles and records.” (Proclamation of the Twelve Apostles)

The Mormons saw the Indian as proof of their religion, the children of Israel; they saw

themselves as the sons and daughters of Zion. The Book of Mormon dictates that its followers

are required to devote a portion of their time in instructing the children of the forest, the Indian.

The Mormon must provide an education, as well as instruction in all the arts of civil life;

including the gospel. According to belief and tradition the Indian must be “clothed, fed, and

instructed in the principles and practice of virtue, modesty, temperance, and that which purifies,

exalts and glorifies them as the sons and daughters of the royal house of Israel.” (Proclamation

of the Twelve Apostles) With this the Indian will regain their “whiteness”, “darkness shall begin

to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be

a white and a delightsome people.” (Book of Mormon, 1830 edition, 2 Nephi, chapter 12, p. 117)

Whitened, clothed, and instructed, the Indian met the Latter Day Saint.

A representative of the National Indian Defense Association, Catherine Weldon, wrote to

Sitting Bull in November of 1890, "You are deceived by your prophets, and I fear some bad

white men who are leading you into endless trouble. [By "bad white men" she meant Mormons,

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who she was convinced were behind the ghost dance.]” (Di Silvestro 2007:1397-1401) The

Ghost Dance was born out of a religious revival as an answer to the harsh life that the Lakota

Sioux were forced to endure on the reservation. This religious renewal alarmed the settlers who

lived near the Lakota reservations; they believed they were witnessing a war dance. The Ghost

Dance, combined with the settler’s fears brought the largest military buildup since the Civil War.

James Mooney, an ethnologist with the Bureau of American Ethnology, was sent to

investigate the Ghost Dance movement in 1891. Mooney’s work, considered by many to be the

leading text on The Ghost Dance, documented claims in and around the reservation of an Indian

named Jack Wilson, also known as Wovoka, who had become a prophet, or second coming of

Christ. Mormon Church doctrine called for an intense missionary effort among the Indians. In

1855 Brigham Young sent a group of Mormons to the Salmon River, there they settled an area

now called the Lemhi Valley. Two years later, in 1857, one of Young’s closest advisors, Dimick

Baker Huntington, brought the story of Wovoka back to Brigham Young.

When word of this “second coming” reached the Latter Day Saints they accepted it as a

fulfillment of their own faith. “Orson Pratt, a prominent Mormon leader at the time, told his

followers to “put their houses in order to receive the long-awaited wanderers.” (Mooney

1973:703-704) Mormon missionaries had previously been sent out into Indian Territory seeking

proof of their faith. Mormons followed each claim of an Indian Prophet.

One-hundred and ten years after Mooney studied the causes of The Ghost Dance Movement

and the Wounded Knee Massacre, historian Gregory Smoak echoed Mooney’s conclusion, the

Ghost Dance phenomenon energized the Indian as well as the Mormon, “a great excitement was

caused among the Indians by the report that two mysterious beings with white skin who had

appeared among the Paiute and announced a speedy resurrection of all the dead Indians…

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moreover both races were to be white.” (Smoak 2006:130) As previously shown, the Book of

Mormon discusses a “whitening” of the Indian, were the two “mysterious beings” white-skinned

Indians who had been resurrected? Smoak speculates the two strangers may have been two

Mormons named Wodziwob and Frank Spencer. Wovoka, the Indian prophet who claimed to be

Christ most certainly had Mormon influence and following, “the Ghost Dance prophecy [as told

by Wovoka] aroused interest among some Mormons which validated their belief in the arrival of

the Indian Messiah [Wovoka].” (Smoak 2006:166) In the spring of 1873 the Mormon Church

had some of its greatest missionary success among the Indians. General Miles A. Nelson, winner

of the Medal of Honor, assigned to the area blamed the Mormons for the Sioux unrest on the

reservation. (Smoak 2006:166) It was not uncommon for the Mormon to tell the Indian that

they were an instrument of God.

The Indian, the prophets, and the Church would all see the destructive nature of blind faith on

December 29th, 1890. Near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota three hundred and sixty-five

troops looked down the barrels of their guns at men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux

tribe. When the smoke cleared some two hundred Indians lay dead, the Church could not help

them; the garments they wore failed to protect them. In an Interview with Fort Hall Indian Agent

William H. Danilson, shortly after the massacre, he reported

The Fort Hall Indians were told that by being baptized [by the Mormons] and
joining the Church, the old men would become young, the young men would
never be sick, that the Lord had a work for them to do, and that they were the
chosen people of God to establish his kingdom upon the earth. The Bear River
Valley belonged to [the Indian] and if soldiers attempted to drive them away not
to go as their guns would have no effect upon them. (Smoak 2006:132)
Another Indian Agent named James Wright told of an Endowment House where the Indians were

being taken. Mormons today claim that Indians never received the Endowment Garments,

armor “to withstand the evil day” according to Mormon tradition, why then would they be taken

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to an Endowment House? (Smoak 2006:132) Is it possible that two hundred Indians lay dead

because they believed that some “Ghost Shirt” or Endowment Garment would protect them from

the soldier’s bullets?

The notion of a protective shirt isn’t indigenous, the Sioux warrior usually went into battle

naked above the waist; the feather and the claw of an animal were the traditional protectors.

Paint and sacred powder secluded them from evil. The protective garment was a Mormon

notion, the Indian was their proof of existence; was the Ghost Shirt a test of faith for the

Mormon? The Lakota certainly thought the garment was impenetrable to bullets.

When a Lakota woman lay wounded in a church after the shooting doctors wanted to remove her

shirt to get to the wound, she replied, “Yes, take it off! They told me a bullet would not go

through. Now I don’t want it anymore.” (Mooney 1973:790) When the Lakota women used the

word “they” who did she mean? Based upon the evidence it would appear to be the Mormons.

The Ghost Shirt, the Endowment House, and the belief that the Indians were the lost tribe of

Israel all point to Mormon involvement in the death of 200 Lakota Sioux on that fateful day. It is

quite possible that the missionaries used the Sioux to test the validity of a protective garment.

The conquest of the Indian faith and culture did not end with the Ghost Dance and Wounded

Knee. According to series of articles in the Idaho Statesman beginning on Sept. 15, 2009

Members of a self proclaimed LDS splinter group called, "Church of the


Firstborn and General Assembly of Heaven" want to build a church on Shoshone-
Bannock tribal land
Reports are that about 30-40 people moved onto a rural lot located on the Fort
Hall reservation on reservation road, early this summer. They are members of a
self proclaimed LDS splinter group called, "Church of the Firstborn and General
Assembly of Heaven." (Sept. 15, 2009)
"Members of a religious sect making waves in Fort Hall claim they were led to
Pocatello area by the spirit. Their mission: to serve the members of the Shoshone-
Bannock Tribes as well as others in the area." Harmon says the group was told by

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the Lord a year in advance they were to move to the area and would end up on the
reservation. (Sept. 21, 2009)

The anonymous comments on the article reflect the humor of the situation, “Just lovely, we’re

gonna get missionaried again...”, “If the Lord told them, I wonder why He didn't tell the

Shoshone-Bannock Tribes?”

Was this Latter Day Saint splinter group relying on Columbus’ “take possession” or Doctrine

of Discovery when it claimed it wanted to “serve the members of the Shoshone Bannock tribe?”

Five Hundred years after Columbus took possession missionaries still try to change Indian belief

and culture. The Spaniards and Catholics in the southwest, the Pilgrims and the Protestants in

the northeast and the Mormons in the west all attempted to erase nearly 15,000 years of religion

and culture. With the exception of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, where the Pueblo People were

able to retain some of their culture, the missionary and Christianity were successful. From the

contact missionaries of the 1400s to the Church of the Firstborn and General Assembly of

Heaven in 2009, religion has contributed to the loss of tradition and history. Native America oral

tradition has become an amalgam of traditional beliefs and Christianity, we can only speculate at

what we’ve lost.

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