So here’s a recent story that flew under the radar: The Church Donates US$2 Million to First Americans Museum in Oklahoma, an October 17, 2021, post at the Mormon Newsroom. [Update: That link was working this morning, but either the link is broken or the post was taken down at the site. It also appears the title to the post was, at some point, changed to or from “The Church Is Helping Native Americans Discover Their Roots.” Here is a link to the cached version of the post.] There are just a lot of strange angles to this story. Like who even knew there was a First Americans Museum in Oklahoma? (It opened its doors in September 2021.) Most museums aren’t exactly flush with cash, so you can’t blame them for accepting a two-million-dollar donation, but the official LDS view of First Americans and the various Native American tribes views of themselves and their history have very little overlap — not to mention the historical/scientific/anthropological view of First Americans and their origins. Just imagine, if you will, visitors to the museum from Utah going up to the information desk and asking, “Where are the exhibits on Nephites and Lamanites?” Let’s kick things around one paragraph at a time.
First Americans. So I guess that’s the new term to refer to the first homo sapiens to set foot in North America, twenty or thirty thousand years ago, and all their descendants. It seems like an amalgamation of the Canadian term “First Nations” and the American term “Native Americans.” When I speak “First Americans” in my mind, it triggers a mental playing of the David Bowie song “Young Americans,” but that’s just me. All things considered, it’s a nice term, given all the not-so-nice terms that have been applied to Native Americans over the years. You’ve probably heard the Atlanta Braves tomahawk chant a few times over the last week or two, as Atlanta was in the World Series this last week. By now, that chant sounds almost as offensive as LDS Primary renditions of “Book of Mormon Stories,” complete with various hand gestures and play-acting.
No More Lamanites. Here’s a term you did not encounter when reading that Newsroom article: “Lamanites.” I wonder if one of the museum officials cut a deal with LDS officials, something like this: “We’ll stop calling you Mormons if you stop calling us Lamanites.” Other terms that don’t appear in the story or the excerpts from remarks by President Nelson, President Uchtdorf, or their wives: Nephites. Children of Lehi. Hebrews. Israelites. So maybe LDS leaders are finally learning how to play nice with others.
The FamilySearch Angle. So if the money isn’t being used to fund a Nephite exhibit, what’s it being used for? To build a FamilySearch center. From the post: “The museum, which honors many Native American Indian Tribes, will use the gift to build a FamilySearch center and fill other needs.” Think for about ten seconds on why most Native Americans are going to do some genealogical investigation. It’s not so they can find a link back to Nephi or Laman or Lemuel. Ironically, it’s probably so they can find enough Native American ancestors to qualify as a member of this or that tribe (each tribe sets its own membership criteria) and qualify for payments made to members of the tribe or other benefits. Think oil money and casino money and casino jobs. And let me just say I am all for that. Every time I drive by an Indian casino, I think of how much money that brings in for the members of the tribe that owns the land and operates (or licenses the operation of) the casino and hotel and shops. Casino money has done more for Native Americans than the US government or the LDS Church has ever done. FYI, the polite term is “Native American gaming.” Maybe the tribes and casinos could pool enough money from gambling profits to buy the Atlanta Braves and rename them the Atlanta Baseball Team.
Money for Nothing? What does the Church get for this $2 million donation? Not refrigerators and color TVs. The Church gets good PR. For $2 million, the Church gets a nice story in local media and a good PR reference in any LDS leader’s talk about Native Americans for the next few years. You can buy a lot of good PR when you are sitting on a $100 billion bank account. Now the Church gets a lot of bad PR, so you can’t blame the leadership for buying some good PR when the opportunity arises. They throw around a lot of tithing money that way (no doubt quick to deny that it is tithing money if they can launder it through the various LDS business enterprises). Better the Church gives $2 million to the First Americans Museum than some right-wing political action fund that defends “religious liberty” by attacking gay marriage or LGBT initiatives.
What the LDS Leaders Said. There was a multi-state devotional for LDS folks living in Kansas and Oklahoma that was broadcast the afternoon of the donation ceremony. Speakers were President Nelson, his wife, President Uchtdorf, and his wife. Here are a few quotes or summaries features in the Newsroom article.
The prophet dedicated the bulk of his address to helping Saints in the midwestern United States understand the Book of Mormon—what it is, what it isn’t, its truths and its origin story.
Imagine a summary that read like this instead: “President Nelson dedicated the bulk of his address to helping Latter-day Saints understand Native Americans — who they are, who they aren’t, their truths, and their origin story.” I imagine there are exhibits in the First Americans Museum that present the true origin story of Native Americans. Has any reader visited the museum yet?
Sister Nelson said that though many things are uncertain, one thing is for sure: One day we will each “have a personal interview with the Savior.” President Nelson’s general conference addresses are designed to help people prepare for that interview, she said.
Here’s a line you can save up for that interview: “My tithing dollars helped support worthy causes like the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma.”
As a boy, Elder Uchtdorf said, he enjoyed reading adventure stories about the old American West written by a German author who had never been to the United States. In these stories, he said, Native Americans were often portrayed as wise and noble heroes. Elder Uchtdorf said this shows that people worldwide “have more in common than we might suppose.” For example, all are children of the same God. “If we only would focus on this divine fact, and on the many other things that we have in common—life experiences and dreams we share—it should not be too hard to get along as individuals, communities, and nations, regardless of where we live, and what our backgrounds or life’s circumstances may be,” Elder Uchtdorf said.
President Uchtdorf gets a long quote because … Uchtdorf.
And here’s a quote from Sister Harriet Uchtdorf:
She said when she was young she attended an all-girls school. Her friends were either Lutheran or Catholic. “I wondered, ‘Should I tell them that I became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or should I just avoid the topic and be quiet?’” she said. “I decided to stand up for what I believed.”
So now just about every LDS member in Kansas and Oklahoma knows about the First Americans Museum and many will drop by for a visit. That should lead to some interesting conversations, don’t you think?
Let’s wind this up, and I don’t really have a good set of prompts or questions to throw out to the readers. The whole story is just so odd. I don’t know whether to applaud the Church for supporting a worthy cause, or see the donation as just compensation for various slights or falsehoods the Church has propagated about Native Americans over the years, or get all cynical about the propriety of the Church blatantly buying good PR with member tithing dollars. Take your pick or choose all three. And, if you have been there, tell me about your visit to the museum.