As we approach America’s national holy-day, the 4th of July, I have been unsettled by and thinking about our country’s interactions with its indigenous peoples. I’m going to try and pull some of these thoughts together, but this will ramble and I will probably need to break it up over several posts.
This last week, we stayed in a cabin at the Cape Disappointment State Park on the southern end of the peninsula on the northern side of the mouth of the Columbia River where it meets the Pacific Ocean.
The cape was named “Disappointment” by John Meares, a Scottish fur trader and British naval officer who tried to sail up the Columbia River only to be daunted by the powerful forces of one of North America’s most difficult river mouths to navigate. He named it as such because he failed to confirm reports of the river from an earlier Spanish explorer, Bruno Hecta.
The peninsula was the final westward location of the Lewis and Clark expedition and may have been the final resting place of all of its participants if it were not for the skill and magnanimity of the Chinook bands who lived in the region. The indigenous peoples called the region Kah’eese and the 1858 Coastal Survey report to Congress documents how difficult navigation in the region can be. The Chinook used and still sometimes use wooden canoes to travel the difficult waters of the river they called Wimahl. Below are some historical photographs of the Chinook and their craft.
Mary Rose, writing for the Confluence Project (a project that uses public art to tell the indigenous stories of Columbia River Basin peoples), pointed out in a post that the name Cape Disappointment refers not to the physical nature of the region (which is by no means disappointing), but to the inaccurate perceptions of the Europeans who “explored” the area. But what about the stories of those who lived and thrived there for many years? Besides the Chinook, the region was significant for the Tillamook peoples. Rose rightly observed that “western explorers often named the landmarks they saw to reflect their nation’s claim over foreign sites.” Such claims were inextricably tied to all kinds of physical, cultural, and even sexual violence.
In the park, at an old artillery emplacement, is a museum for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Going through the museum was an uncomfortable experience. The exhibits, artifacts, and (obligatory) interpretive film tell a complicated story. To be sure, the expedition took a great amount of courage and grit. Traveling from Saint Louis (what is the indigenous name for that area?) to Kah’eese was tremendously difficult and required strength and fortitude. The film included the language from Thomas Jefferson’s directive to the expedition’s leaders to collect as much information about the peoples and “natural resources” they encountered on their journey to the Pacific Ocean. In a notebook I had with me, I made a few notes as I watched the film: 1) “I can’t help but think that the details Jefferson asked for were plans for conquest,” 2) “We celebrate their discovery—but for the [Native Americans] it was a death knell,” 3) “a triumphal narrative is a narrative of defeat.”
As a white, middle class American, the Lewis and Clark story I was told is just another episode in a grand origin story that was always already (to use a philosophical term) a story of conquest. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (which I have just started reading), noted that one of the very first laws enacted after the end of the Revolutionary War was the Northwest Ordinance which announced the new country’s intention to spread to the west, a “blueprint for gobbling up the British-protected Indian Territory” in the Ohio River Valley region. On that same page, she included an 1801 quote from Jefferson in which he declared an intention to dominate “the whole northern, if not the southern continent” and she noted that a “series of late-fifteenth-century papal bulls” gave “European nations…title to the lands they ‘discovered’” and stripped the “Indigenous inhabitants [of] their natural right” to their lands.  Thus, the Lewis and Clark story is part of a conscious six-hundred year narrative/war of conquest. Dunbar-Ortiz soberingly observed:
The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism—the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a [series of policies] of genocide and land theft. Those who seek history with an upbeat ending, a history of redemption and reconciliation, may look around and observe that such a conclusion is not visible, not even in Utopian dreams of a better society. 
What I’m starting to struggle with now is how Mormonism’s story fits into this grand narrative of American settler colonialism. It is a discomforting fit, especially as we consider how we have to “re-read” the Book of Mormon in light of evidence that our received framework about it may be incorrect. In 2004, Sunstone ran a series of pieces under the heading of “Reframing the Book of Mormon.” The introduction to the series noted that our understanding of the book must shift, especially with the finding that the equation of “Lamanite” and indigenous Americans may more complicated and inaccurate as we may have hoped.
With the recent publicity over DNA studies that have confirmed long-held scientific notions that Amerindians descend from Asian—not Middle Eastern—peoples, those who hadn’t already been thinking about the Book of Mormon’s claim to be a literal history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas have begun to pay attention. The news has spread like wildfire among various Christian groups eager to win the souls of potentially disillusioned Latter-day Saints. More important, perhaps, is the questions produced by these studies have also begun to reach Latter-day Saints in the pews. 
As American Mormons, our perception of indigenous Americans has been an uncomfortable blending of what we believe to be scripture and national myth. As a boy, I remember hearing a number of variations on the theme that indigenous Americans’ abhorrent treatment by colonial powers was a justifiable result of their turning away from Christ. Thus, like Europeans with the Bible, Mormons with both the Bible and the Book of Mormon have reinforced entwined religious, colonial, and settler colonial narratives. I agree with those who believe it is time to seriously interrogate and even deconstruct these narratives.
1. Roxanned Dunbar-Ortiz. (2014). An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 3.
2. Ibid, p. 2.
3. Reframing the Book of Mormon. (March 2004). Sunstone, 131, p. 19. Retrieved from https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/issues/131.pdf