Diné dóó Gáamalii: Navajo Latter-day Saint Experiences in the Twentieth Century: A Review

Alicia Harris—an Assistant Professor of Native American Art History at the University of Oklahoma—wrote that “If the LDS Church really can work for all peoples, we need to more attentively listen, hear, and be represented by a much greater variety of voices. We must more actively prepare a place for dual identities to be touched and nurtured in the culture of the gospel.” Farina King’s Diné dóó Gáamalii: Navajo Latter-day Saint Experiences in the Twentieth Century (University Press of Kansas, 2023) provides a great opportunity to do just that by listening to the experiences of the Diné dóó Gáamalii (Navajo Latter-day Saints).

Farina King’s work is a study of intersectional identities and the complex results of colonizing efforts by Euro-American Latter-day Saints among the Diné (Navajo) people. It is written as an autoethnography—a collective biography and scholarly discussion of Diné experience. Topics covered include the Southwest Indian Mission, the Indian Student Placement Program, BYU’s efforts to emphasize education for Native Americans, the creation of congregations and stakes in Dinétah, the establishment of Native American congregations outside of Dinétah, and reflections on how different individuals have navigated the sometimes conflicting dual identity of being both Diné and Latter-day Saint. The book builds on a treasure trove of oral history interviews to present an authentic history of these experiences.

It was interesting to see how much variety there is in how Diné members deal with navigating the path of reconciling their identity. As King shows, some have felt that Diné identity and beliefs were mutually exclusive with being an active member of the Church and that they had to choose one or the other. It also seems that Euro-American Church leaders tend to agree with this assessment and encourage acceptance of the Church being paired with assimilation into Euro-American society. Many Diné members, however, find ways to accept aspects of both their traditional Diné beliefs and ways with their membership in the Church. And while the idea of syncretism is uncomfortable to some members of the Church, it is something that is shown to be helpful for members whose culture is a deeply rooted part of their identity.

One thing I appreciated is how much effort Farina King put into showing how assessments of the topics covered don’t fit neatly into good-bad binaries. The Indian Student Placement Program, for example, generally had both positive and negative impacts on people who went through placement rather than one or the other. E.g., separation from family and the lack of learning traditional ways were generally negative experiences, but the education tended to be useful. Experiences with host families varied widely, with some Diné being respected and even essentially becoming part of the family with whom they were staying and others having the experience of being isolated, rejected, or abused. Reality is often far more complex than we like to think of it.

Farina King’s Diné dóó Gáamalii: Navajo Latter-day Saint Experiences in the Twentieth Century is an insightful and fascinating study into the lived experiences of Diné Latter-day Saints. It is important as the fullest examination of that history yet published. The fact that the author has Diné heritage and a deep understanding of the culture adds to that value. The book also has bearing on understanding the impact of Church leaders—especially Spencer W. Kimball—investing in the conversion and development of Diné individuals in the mid-twentieth century, for both good and ill. Individual Church members looking to understand a broader range of experience within the Church as well as scholars of Native American history (particularly interactions with Christian religions) or twentieth century Mormonism will find this book to be a valuable addition to their library.


[1] “An Abundant God Knows the Middle Also,” in Decolonizing Mormonism,Gina Colvin and Joanna Brooks, Eds., (Salt Lake City: University of UtahPress, 2018).