A few days ago, Christopher Jones posted a link on the backchannel for Juvenile Instructor, linking to a post by a New Zealand Mormon. The post explored the effects that correlation and the homogenization of the Mormon Church has had on Mormon communities outside of the United States. The conversation that ensued that was so interesting that we decided to post an edited version here:
Christopher Jones: Amanda, David, Max, others: thought you’d be interested in this. It’s written by a New Zealander, but touches on issues that relate to each of your respective research interests in some way or another. Really fascinating stuff.
Unlatching from the Amerimormon Cultural Teat
David G.: Love it, especially the last part.
Max Mueller: Interesting!
Amanda Hendrix-Komoto: Chris, I wanted to wait till I had *real* internet access to respond. (Yay for Special Collections at BYU!) What I find interesting here is the piece’s language politics. The Mormon Church has often adopted a Polynesian identity in the Pacific, positioning itself as a protector and promoter of Polynesian culture (See Johnny Lingo, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and The Other Side of Heaven). It does this while disallowing Maori and Hawaiian language church services. Part of the reason why this blog and Hokulani Aikau’s work are so interesting is that they point to the odd status of Polynesians within the church: they are at once a favored people and one that experiences intense discrimination.
Christopher Jones: Thanks, Amanda. I was entirely unaware that native language services were disallowed prior to reading her post (it’s just something I’d never considered before). The whole thing strikes me as strange, especially as the church continues to create separate Spanish language branches, wards, and “groups” in various stakes throughout the US. This deserves more attention, I think, both from an academic perspective and a religious one.
Steve Fleming: Plus, there are a lot of Tongan and Samoan branches and wards in the US.
Christopher Jones: Are the services in Tongan and Somoan, or in English, Steve?
Amanda Hendrix-Komoto: I think the difference might be related to the status of the language. Almost all speakers of native Hawaiian and Maori speak English as their first language. The revival of these languages has been part of a movement to reassert an indigenous identity and in the case of Hawaii, to assert island’s status as a colonized nation. The church has promoted native Hawaiian in its church schools, but it doesn’t recognize the politics of the movement as legitimate. It angers a lot of people who see it as trying to have its cake — by claiming an indigenous identity — and eat it too — by disclaiming the inherent politics of that identity.
Stephen Fleming: Probably a lot in English. I think a decent amount of Samoan and Tongan is spoken though. I’ll have to ask. Our ward in Sacramento met in the same building as the “Liahona” ward which was a Tongan ward (we also had a lot of Tongans in our ward). I know the older people mostly did not speak English, but the last two bishops were Tongans that could only speak English.
Christopher Jones: Fascinating. Thanks again, Amanda. I spent the first few months of my mission working with small branch of only 10 or 11 active members on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona. If I remember correctly, only two of them spoke Apache. All services, of course, were in English. There was a general consensus at the time that the language would soon die. As I understand, there has been something of a small revival in the decade since then and more Apaches are trying to pass along the language to their children and grandchildren. It’ll be interesting to see if that changes the dynamics of the church there and on other reservations.
And I have to admit that the post I initially linked to was somewhat difficult for me to read. My now-deceased grandfather was the assistant principal of the CCNZ when it first opened, and my father maintains a number of Maori friends whom he met as a youth there. Thinking about my grandfather as an agent of colonialism is difficult for me. I think it’s important to point out that much of this cultural colonialism exported from the United States via missionaries and correlated publications is well intended.
What I cannot figure out, though, is why the church services of Maoris in New Zealand are not conducted in their native language. The church, after all, is fairly established there; it’s not like it relies on American missionaries to serve in leadership positions. If the language is widespread and an officially recognized language in the country, why wouldn’t services be held using it? I wonder whether it is the preference of a majority of members and if so, whether a formal proposal has ever been presented to area authorities?
David G.: Indigenous language revitalization is a broad-based movement. The Lakotas and Navajos are seen as large enough tribes with enough Native speakers that the languages can survive, and the Lakotas, at least, have a significant educational movement that produces textbooks so kids can learn their languages in school. There are also ties between American Natives and Pacific Islanders, with a Pacific Islander delegation recently visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota, to learn about the Lakotas’ language initiatives. But it’s an uphill battle, given the long-entrenched efforts by the U.S. government to encourage English as a colonizing tool. Some New England tribes, for example, haven’t had a Native speaker for over a century, but some contemporary tribal members are reconstructing the language, creating dictionaries, and developing grammars using written documents produced during the colonial era and nineteenth century, and raising their kids, as much as is possible, as Native speakers.
There is at least one branch on Pine Ridge, where I’ve conducted dissertation research, with an acculturated Lakota branch president, that I plan to visit the next time I do field research in South Dakota. I imagine the services are in English, but I’m curious now to find out for sure.
Christopher Jones: Stan, do you know what the situation is for the Catawba?
Stan Thayne: Language isn’t really an issue for Catawbas because no one speaks it. It is at least a generation or two removed from fluent speakers. There is an effort to revitalize it; a professional linguist was hired by the Nation a few years back, but I don’t think it is anywhere near the point where services could be held in Catawba even if they wanted to. And the Catawba Wards are not Catawba-only wards. In one ward Catawba members might make up a slight majority (maybe), but in the other ward they are a minority. As far as Navajo, I think Jessie Embry would know the answer to that question.
Andrea Radke-Moss: One of the interesting things about Latin America is the place of indigenous languages there. Most of my American friends who served in Paraguay picked up some kind of working fluency in Guarani by the end of their missions.
Stan Thayne: I am reading Scott R. Christensen’s SAGWITCH, and he indicates that when Isaac Zundel was over the Shoshone ward in the Box Elder Stake, services were primarily conducted in the Native language. Of course, that was in the 1870s, and I don’t know how long that tolerance lasted. I was also very surprised to read that “Zundel also allowed the Indians to contract marriages in the traditional Shoshone way without formal ceremony” (170).
David G.: Thanks for bringing up the Sagwitch bio, Stan. The services were conducted in Shoshone, although the sacrament prayers were in English. Aside from permitting traditional marriage rituals, white leaders also tolerated traditional healing practices. But there was simultaneously a strong push for the Shoshone converts to adopt farming, wear “citizen” clothing, and assimilate, which necessarily resulted in language loss. By the mid-20th century, few Shoshones remained in the farming settlement that Sagwitch had founded, as subsequent generations left to obtain educations and employment. I wrote a review of Christensen’s book here: http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/review-sagwitch-shoshone-chieftain-mormon-elder-1822-1887/#comments
Edje Jeter: So… I’m curious about the situation in India. I wonder how much the policy is designed to target English speakers (and their socio-economic status) rather than avoid all the other language politics in a country with so many linguistic and ethnic divisions as India. Since less than a third of Indians speak Hindi as a native language, I wonder how many church members would perceive Hindi-language services as alienating. Of course, the option is to proselyte in the dozens of major languages (and eventually in the hundreds of minor languages). It might be mere pragmatism to restrict small number of missionaries now to building up an Anglophone church in preparation for a more linguistically diverse effort later.
Andrea Radke-Moss: But since the Indian government itself is trying to reclaim Hindi (see the renaming of Bombay to Mumbai, Varanasi to Benares, and Calcutta to Kolkata), then that might be one less level of alienation to avoid, before moving on to the other hundreds of native languages in India. And a “third of Indians” is still greater than the whole population of the United States. Hindi is an ancient, recorded, established, written and translated language.
Christopher Jones: Excellent. Thanks for the additional info, Andrea. Does anyone know about Africa? Max? With recent church growth there, it seems like a crucial part of this conversation.
David G.: From Jeff Cannon: “In most cases, they are in colonial languages (English, French, or Portuguese), but Kenyan congregations have recently been allowed to use Swahili. The accepted rule in South Africa when I was a missionary (I don’t know if that was official) was that prayers and testimonies could be given in the speaker’s own language, but ordinances and talks were supposed to be in English.
Some wards in Afrikaans-speaking areas allowed one Afrikaans hymn and one of the sacrament prayers to be said in Afrikaans. Possibly because there used to be Afrikaans-speaking units and Afrikaans materials were widely available, Afrikaans retained something of a privileged status over other non-English languages. But the last time I was there, one of the Afrikaans-speaking members told me the Afrikaners around Pretoria all been called in to a special meeting by the stake president who told them Afrikaans would no longer be allowed and everything had to be done in English.”
The conservation was much longer than this and included some really interesting information. I am going to stop it short here for the purposes of brevity. I did want to include, however, some a quick snippet of conversation from Max and Chris, which I think adds a historical dimension. In response to a request for information from his research in the politics of language in the nineteenth-century church, Max had the following to say:
Max Mueller: English, at least under Brigham Young, was seen (sometimes) as the language of the second coming (that’s why the Book of Mormon was delivered in it) so there were strong efforts to get everybody speaking English quickly, Indians and Scandinavians in particular.
Christopher Jones: Is there any scholarship on any of this? I’m drawing a blank.
Max Mueller: Christopher Jones…wait until my book! This is how I use the Deseret Alphabet…
This snippet, although referencing a different time period than that above, might provide some context on why English and language as a whole might be so important within Mormonism. Here, I would like to open it up to the Juvenile Instructor readership. What are the politics of adopting different languages within the church’s sacrament meetings and worship services? How has the church dealt with these politics in different places and times? What has the effect been on different communities?