An Indian Princess and a Mormon Sacagawea? Decolonizing Memories of Our Grandmothers

Thomas W. Murphy, Edmonds College
Kerrie Sumner Murphy, University of Washington
Jessyca Brigette Murphy, Make.Shift

Abstract. In two extended Latter-day Saint families, individuals have employed a well-worn settler colonial trope of an Indian princess, as well as a Mormon variation on the legend of Sacagawea, to shape memories about Indigenous women as ancestors. Following larger national trends in the United States and Canada, these Mormons have employed selective memories of Indigenous ancestry as autochthonous legitimation of settler colonial occupation of Indigenous lands. Yet, these case studies stand out in contrast to current literature on racial shifting among self-identified Métis, Abenaki, and Algonquin peoples in Canada and non-federally recognized Cherokee in the United States because members of these Mormon families use stories of Indigenous grandmothers to solidify a white rather than an Indigenous identity. Like racial shifters, however, these families imagine their heritage as more autochthonous than American Indians or First Nations. This paradoxical identity formation is rooted in the peculiar narrative of a sacred text, the Book of Mormon, which represents Israelites (portrayed as white) as the original inhabitants of the Americas, attributes dark skin to a curse for wickedness, and makes legitimate land sovereignty contingent on righteous Christian belief and practice. The scripture imagines a future in which its Indigenous descendants become “white [or pure] and delightsome.” Two centuries of intermarriage of white settler men to Indigenous women have been among the various social means employed by Latter-day Saints to turn American Indians white. These images of an Indian princess and a Mormon Sacagawea are based upon harmful and inaccurate stereotypes that perpetuate settler colonialism.

Murphy, Thomas W., Kerrie Sumner Murphy and Jessyca Brigette Murphy. 2022. “An Indian Princess and a Mormon Sacagawea? Decolonizing Memories of Our Grandmothers,” Journal of the Mormon Social Science Association 1, no. 1: 93–121.