May 28, 2010

Launch of Mormon Website

by Brett Hendrickson

Dr. Fred E. Woods, professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, has recently made available a user-friendly website that compiles years of his research on LDS migration.

The website explains the scope of the project:
“The Mormon Migration website offers the inspiring first person accounts of over one thousand international converts who turned their faces toward Zion from 1840–1890. The autobiographies, journals, diaries, reminiscences, and letters link to over 500 known LDS immigrant voyages and they provide a composite history of those who crossed the Atlantic and Pacific, traveling by land and water to gather to Zion. Immigrants from 1840–46 gathered to Nauvoo, Illinois. Beginning in 1847, the Saints, driven west, gathered in the Salt Lake Valley. The immigrant accounts of their travels to the Great Basin describe not only their experiences crossing the oceans, but also their trek to frontier outfitting posts, and entry into the Salt Lake Valley (1847–1869).”

Also included is a growing archive of searchable articles about Mormon migration.

May 27, 2010

NAISA and Blogs to Come

by Brandi Denison

I just got back from the second annual Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference in Tuscon, Arizona. If you haven’t heard about this association, please check it out. NAISA supports cutting edge scholarship on indigenous peoples throughout the world. If this year’s conference is any indication of future success, NAISA will become the primary site for thoughtful and engaging scholarship.

Religious studies folks made a good showing. Most notably, David Walsh, PhD student in religious studies at ASU, won the graduate student paper prize. His paper was titled “Moving Beyond Widdowson and Howard: Traditional Knowledge as an Approach to Knowledge.” Congratulations, David!

My trip “out west” as well as shared anxiety about attending a conference on indigeneity in Arizona has me thinking about the Tea Party as an American West political movement. In the coming days, look for a three part blog on the Wild West of Christianity, Capitalism, and the Tea Party.

May 25, 2010

What is Right and What is Legal: Arizona Mormons

by Brett Hendrickson

According to a recent story in the Arizona Republic, the new anti-immigrant legislation in that state is having a negative effect on Latter-day Saint efforts to proselytize Hispanics. The problem for many potential converts is Russell Pearce. A Republican state senator, he has been the gasoline driving almost all immigration crackdown legislation in Arizona. He is also a Mormon.

Kenneth Patrick Smith, a lawyer and the president of a Spanish-speaking LDS branch in Mesa (Pearce’s home turf and a Mormon stronghold) said, “It's a great disconnect because on one hand the missionaries are out there preaching brotherly love, kindness, charity, tolerance, faith, hope, etc., and then they see on TV a quote-unquote Mormon pushing this legislation that makes them not only . . . terrified but terrorized.”

Another leader in Arizona Hispanic LDS circles, Jorge Pimienta, said, “I don't know Russell Pearce. I don't know where he is coming from. All I know is that what he is doing is not what Jesus Christ taught.”

Naturally, Pearce defends his faithfulness and refers his detractors to The Articles of Faith of the Mormon Church. Number twelve of the thirteen articles reads: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” Illegal immigrants, Mormon or otherwise, cannot follow this article.

This division among the Saints on the issue of immigration presents heaps of fodder for classroom discussion. A short list of topics could include the separation of church and state, the role of authority in Mormon scripture vs. ongoing revelation in LDS immigrant fellowships, and how a global church with U.S. headquarters does or does not monitor and influence public perceptions of the Church.

But my go-to discussion would have to be how far Russell Pearce has deviated from the central Mormon narrative of being a persecuted and unwelcome people in the United States. A little over one hundred sixty years ago, Mormons en masse entered what is now Utah but was then Mexican territory (without papers) to get away from the sort of intolerance for difference that Pearce seems to be promoting. On the other hand, Mormon leaders from Joseph Smith on down have been keen on participating fully in American government, and there is no doubt that the United States has a very unique place in Mormon self-understanding.

So which is it? Is it Mormon to reach out to the dispossessed, even those who are here illegally? Or is it Mormon to stand firmly behind American laws?

May 13, 2010

Environmentalism vs. Indian Religious Freedom

by Tisa Wenger

Yet again, legislation aimed at protecting the environment ends up doing violence to Native American cultural and religious traditions. As reported in Indybay’s online newsletter earlier this week, tribal leaders in California are protesting a new law banning fishing and harvesting activities—including their traditional practices—in special marine protected areas along the state’s north central coast. Above all this is an issue of environmental justice. Environmentalist goals needs to be pursued in ways that allow indigenous cultures to flourish—especially when the cultures in question have historically maintained sustainable practices.

This story is also important for understanding the dilemmas of Native American religious freedom, as well as the intertwined histories of land and religion in the region—two important topics for the study of religion in the American west, as Quincy Newell reminded us in her post just a few days ago. The Indybay piece reports:

Members of the Kashia Pomo Tribe and other tribes are now banned from their traditional seaweed, abalone and mussel harvesting grounds by the creation of a massive new no-take marine reserve off Stewarts Point in Sonoma County.

The reserve is the largest in a network of 21 marine protected areas (MPAs) that took effect on May 1 along California's north central coast under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative.

To mark the final day before the unprecedented closure, tribal leaders held a historic ceremony to bless an area where the Kashia Tribe of Pomo Indians has gathered seaweed, mussel, abalone, clams and fish for centuries. Stewarts Point, called “Danaka” by the tribe, is sacred to the tribe since it is regarded in their creation story as the place where the tribe first stepped on land, according to Eric Wilder, former chair of the Kashia Pomo.

Like Wilder, other Pomo tribal leaders quoted in the article emphasize the religious quality of their relationship with the site. Their story illustrates the disjuncture between indigenous traditions on the one hand, and the concept of religion as framed in American law and governmental practice on the other. As Tribal Elder Violet Chappell put it, “I don’t think the Fish and Game would be allowed to close down a Catholic Church, would they?” Although some exceptions have been painstakingly created, the system is simply not set up to work for land-based traditions. Come to think of it, maybe mainstream America’s lack of any real connection between land and religion is what got us into this environmental mess in the first place.

May 11, 2010

Mojave Cross Stolen

by Brandi Denison

A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court heard a case about a cross that stood in the Mojave Desert--not about the constitutionality of a religious symbol on public land, but about the legality of the transfer of land in order to allow keep such religious symbols. The Court ruled that this transfer was constitutional AND that religious symbols on public land do not violate the establishment clause. Here NPR's story here.

Today, the cross was stolen.

Free Money

by Quincy Newell

Okay, maybe not free. And not for everyone. But grad students out there should know about the Sara Jackson award, given by the Western History Association: $500 to support research by an MA or PhD student. There’s also the Rundell award for dissertation research ($1500). And in general, check out the Western History Associations awards, fellowships, prizes, etc. They even have money for us non-student types. Most of the deadlines for the WHA appear to be in mid-July.

May 10, 2010

Summer Reading and Traveling!

by Quincy Newell

Summer has come to the University of Wyoming, even though it doesn’t look like it. (Seriously: the National Weather Service is forecasting snow for later this week.) So in the grand blog tradition of summer list-making, I have two questions for you readers out there:

1. Reading: what books and articles related to religion in the American West are you looking forward to reading this summer? What would you recommend to other folks interested in the topic? Because it’s not fair to ask questions without answering them, here are my responses (in reverse order): I’m a perennial fan of Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s essay “Eastward Ho!” (in Retelling U.S. Religious History, edited by Thomas A. Tweed). I also really like Steven W. Hackel’s Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis, which examines the encounter between California Indians and Spanish Franciscans at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in California. But this summer I am gearing up for a class on Mormonism (to be taught next spring) and a project on Mormonism (already well underway), so I’m going to be reading mostly about – you guessed it – Mormonism. I’d love to hear your recommendations on that topic as well, but I don’t want this post to get too distracted. So stick to the “Religion in the American West” recommendations for now. If I have time, I’m also going to check out a couple titles I ran across in our library recently: Catholicism in the American West: A Rosary of Hidden Voices, edited by Roberto R. Treviño and Richard V. Francaviglia (University of Texas at Arlington, 2007); and Blake Allmendinger’s Imagining the African American West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005).

2. Traveling: Summer is the season of travel for many of us. What sites do you think are most important to, most illustrative of, or just downright coolest when it comes to, religion in the American West? I have often lamented the fact that I became an Americanist – it’s tough to justify research trips to exotic locales (though Hawai’i might count), and the chances of leading study abroad trips or getting to go to conferences in cool places are pretty slim. But with Americans tightening their belts and staycations becoming standard fare, suddenly the American West is looking a lot better! I also have an ulterior motive here: I’ve pondered the possibility of a summer course incorporating a travel component, but I’ve not yet figured out a coherent set of sites to visit. So what would you suggest? For me, Devil’s Tower would certainly be on the list, and if my travel budget were unlimited, so would Jesus Mountain. We can’t forget Salt Lake City, of course, and if there are any LDS temples opening in the west, a temple tour would be de rigeur. (The LDS Church lists temple openings on their website – pretty handy.) Then there are the Spanish missions in California and the Southwest. I know the most about San Francisco de Asís (a.k.a. Dolores), so I would be tempted by that one – but the archaeology is probably better at Santa Barbara, and I could probably be persuaded to forgo California altogether in favor of Texas or another Southwestern state. But this is just me dreaming. Where would you recommend, and why?

Let’s hear it, people! Leave your top picks, wish lists, and idle speculations in the comments!

May 7, 2010

Religious Bodies & Western Landscapes

by Quincy D. Newell

I’ve been pondering bodies in the American West lately. Religion is, of course, often understood as an intellectual, doctrinal matter – it’s about what you believe. We struggle, in religious studies, to get our students (and sometimes our colleagues!) to remember that religion is about more than this – that there are literal bodies involved. Right now, as I write this, my students are my living, breathing reminder that bodies are involved in everything we do. Even the most intellectual exercise, like the final exam my students are taking, is a physical activity as well as an intellectual one. I look around and I see students stretching hands that have wearied of writing; cracking knuckles and bouncing legs; raising hands and asking for relief from the most physical of discomforts – tissues for running noses, bathroom breaks for full bladders. Religion is about bodies – bodies born, bodies dying, bodies dancing, kneeling, joining hands, giving voice to creeds and chants and prayers and songs. But that’s religion around the world – I’m wondering if thinking more about embodiment can help us understand religion in the American West. What’s special about religious bodies in the American West? Perhaps it’s just because I live in Wyoming, but I think the environment has something to do with it – the problem of adapting these religious bodies to an environment that is not prima facie suited to human habitation, or adapting that environment to habitation by religious bodies.

The West has long been an object of attention for environmental historians, and it’s an environmental shift that some historians use to define the boundaries of the region. I’ll not rehearse the “where is the West?” debate here – it seems to have gone dormant, and it’s best to let sleeping dogs (and dead horses) lie. I’ll merely remind you, dear reader, that some scholars have seen environmental factors such as the lack of rainfall as the primary, defining characteristic of the region. That and other characteristics made this place a forbidding one for human settlement. Of course, various groups of Native Americans lived in the West quite successfully for eons. But places like Laramie, where I live and work and where, even in early May, we have snow banks and days full of wind gusts topping 50 miles an hour (two days ago they were warning of 80-mph winds in the western part of the state) -- as I say, places like Laramie have only been the sites of year-round human habitation since the late 19th century.

The last century or two have seen humans in the West progressively distance themselves from, and then fetishize, this harsh environment. Jared Farmer’s book On Zion’s Mount, which Tisa Wenger wrote about here not too long ago, explores one example of this progression in detail; Lynn Ross-Bryant’s work on religion and the national parks explores others. There’s a religious aspect, then, to the way humans relate to the environment out here in the West that seems to be missing – or at least less prevalent – in the east. The explanation for this seems simple: eastern landscapes don’t threaten human lives the way western landscapes do.

National Public Radio recently ran a remembrance of Floyd Dominy, the man responsible for the Glen Canyon dam, who died last month at the age of 100. (Listen here.) The same kind of non-specific environmental religiosity that values places like Mount Timpanogos and Yosemite National Park ran through the piece – but in an apparently opposite way. Dominy declared himself the “messiah” of water development and Elizabeth Arnold describes his enthusiasm as “downright evangelical.” Here, the environment was not fetishized so much as demonized: humans needed saving from this parched landscape, and Dominy saved them. He tamed the land by controlling the water – and along the way he flooded the harsh, wild landscapes that outdoors enthusiasts and environmental activists cherish. In part, it was Dominy’s work that allowed humans to separate themselves sufficiently from their environment to be able to fetishize it subsequently. (Those who extol the spirituality of the southwestern desert landscape, for example, live well-hydrated lives because of Dominy’s dams.)

There’s a lot more to religion in the American West, of course. But, especially in the early years of white settlement in the West, I think the relationship between religious bodies and their natural environment bears scrutiny. Weber tells us that religions and economic systems shape one another, but religions and natural environments also have effects on one another. Dominy’s sense of himself as a “crusader” was surely shaped by a Christian ethos that took God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to “subdue” the earth (I’m using the language from the KJV) as justification for altering the natural environment to make it suitable for human habitation. Other readings of Genesis and other scriptures have undergirded environmental movements. And surely the environment has guided religious peoples’ interpretations of their scriptures. Would the Mormons have placed so much emphasis on the prophecy that the desert would “bloom like a rose” if they had ended up in the Pacific Northwest (where it rains a lot)? It seems unlikely.

May 5, 2010

Arizona Immigration Law

By Brandi Denison

“Arizona” is a word that is now spoken with utter disdain, at least in my circles and perhaps in yours too. Unless you have been hiding under a rock, Arizona Immigration Law SB 1070 and the subsequent arrest of American-born truck driver has inspired a range of opinions—that we should boycott the state and it’s products or that we should support the state for acting on an issue that the federal government has stalled on. National conversation about the immigration law provides a moment of visibility to religious activists, as well as a moment for us to reflect on Arizona’s complicated history with immigration, race, and religion.

Randall Stephens pointed readers of the Religion in American History blog to an interview with Catholic Bishop Gerald Kicanas as a way to help us gauge the religious response to this racist law.

Bishop Kincanas has been a long time advocate for immigration reform through the ecumenical movement “No More Deaths,” a non-profit organization dedicated to treating immigrants as human beings—including an effort to making water available to people who attempt the dangerous walk across the Sonora Desert. This organization makes the “radical” statement that “humanitarian aid is never a crime.” While it might be easy to associate this immigration law with loosely veiled religious and political conservatism, No More Deaths reminds us of the counters of religious responses to hot-button issues.

As an emerging American Religions historian, I can’t help but think about Arizona’s complicated history with the United States and the role of Catholicism and Protestantism in the efforts to assimilate Arizona into the Union. In the last 150 years, Arizona has been at the heart of national debates around the oft-cited, vacuous concern of the “direction of our country.” Race and religion have been at the center of these national debates.

Just as a reminder, Arizona was admitted as a state in 1912—the last of the “lower 48.” Less than a hundred years before, Arizona was a part of Mexico. Once the United States military occupied Mexico City during the Mexican-American War, the northern portion (including parts of Colorado, California, Arizona, and New Mexico) became United States Territory. Arizona silver mines tempted Eastern entrepreneurs, but “marauding Indians” and the US government’s inefficiency at protecting US citizens concerned these pioneers and stalled their colonial enterprises. In a familiar “Westerner” move, Arizonians blamed the federal government for their local problems and took matters into their own hands. They responded to perceived federal neglect by forming a militia to fight the Apache Indians who raided settlements.

Arizona remained peripheral to the nation’s problems in the years leading up to the Civil War, but the question of Arizona’s slaving holding status again centered national questions on the periphery. During the Civil War, Arizona became part of the confederacy. Pulled into turmoil over 1,000 miles away, the imagined “Arizona” became a site upon which moral debates were enacted and fought.

In the years after the Civil War, former abolitionists (mostly Protestant) turned their reformation energy into assimilating a variety of “new” United States citizens, including former Mexican citizens and particularly southwest Native Americans “tainted” by Catholicism. These reformers were responding to national concerns that the admission of Arizona as a state would change the direction of the country. Thus, assimilation of these non-white Catholics was the highest priority. Arizona again became a threat because of its provinciality.

Once again, Arizona has become the center of national conversation about the direction of our country by the state government’s attempt to take matters into their own hands. Arizona is once an imagined place for the rest of the country to debate moral issues rooted in race, and again, for many Arizona citizens, a place that feels forgotten by the federal government. It is also again a place where religious organizations are attempting to fill a vacuum, although quenching thirst rather than teaching mechanics and agricultural is the guiding principle today.

I welcome your thoughts about the passage of this bill and the response to it as a moment to reflect on the intersection of race, religion, and politics in the American West.