Native American and First Nation Saints Work to Fulfill Purposes of Relief Society

Contributed By Sister Linda S. Reeves of the Relief Society general presidency

  • 29 October 2015

Vernon Smith, second from left, stands with his wife, Sister Lucinda Smith, left, on the day of his baptism. Elder Gene Neumann, Sister Linda Neumann, and President James Toone, all of the Arizona Tempe Mission, taught Brother Smith, the tribal administrator of the Quechan tribe.  Photo courtesy Vernon Smith.

Article Highlights

  • Relief Society sisters serving on reservations in North America are joining with inspired priesthood leaders to fulfill the purposes of Relief Society for themselves, their families, and their communities.

“For all of us, discovering who we are, who our Father is, and the relationship we can have with Him leads us to pray to our Heavenly Father and to desire to return to Him.” —Sister Linda S. Reeves of the Relief Society general presidency

During my youth I gained a great love for our Native American and First Nation peoples when several Native American youth lived in my ward during the school months.

As I have read and studied the Book of Mormon through the years, my love for the descendants of Lehi and Sariah has grown—especially as I have read prophecies about the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ being preached among these sons and daughters of God in our day in many nations of the earth and have pondered the great joy that comes to each person by increasing understanding of divine potential and the ability to create eternal families.

Some recent assignments have happily brought me into contact with Native American Latter-day Saints in North America and have caused me to reflect upon the growth of the Church among these beloved Saints.

During these recent assignments, I have been impressed by the leadership and devotion of our great Relief Society sisters serving on reservations in North America and have felt to share some of the many ways that these devoted servants of the Lord are—despite economic hardships—joining together with their inspired priesthood leaders to fulfill the purposes of Relief Society for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Purpose One: Increase Faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement

This year Sister Linda Neumann and her husband, Elder Gene Neumann, missionaries in the Arizona Tempe Mission, taught Vernon Spencer Smith, the tribal administrator of the Quechan tribe. In their journal, they wrote: “[Vernon Smith] shared old tribal beliefs with us. They all had very strong gospel patterns and ‘echoes’ to them.”

Some of those “echoes” the Neumanns mentioned included that “the first people … lived on a high mountain but wanted to come down to see and experience what was down here, and the Creator came down, had a son die, and the son went back.” And another example: “When we die, we go to another world where our family [and] friends are waiting for us to live together again.”

After being taught the doctrine of Christ and reading and praying about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, Vernon Spencer Smith was baptized on July 25.

This experience, shared by the Neumanns, reminded me of the prophecy found in 1 Nephi 15:13–14

“In the latter days … shall the fulness of the gospel of the Messiah come unto … the remnant of our seed—

Sister Annie Parker, 83, who participated in the Church's gardening project in Arizona, has been honored with the Gardener of the Navajo Nation award. Relief Society leaders say Sister Parker is one who understands the purposes of the organization. Photo courtesy Annie Parker.

“And … [they shall] know that they are of the house of Israel, and that they are the covenant people of the Lord; and then shall they know and come to the knowledge of their forefathers, and also to the knowledge of the gospel of their Redeemer … and the very points of his doctrine, that they may know how to come unto him and be saved.”

For all of us, discovering who we are, who our Father is, and the relationship we can have with Him leads us to pray to our Heavenly Father and to desire to return to Him. The Book of Mormon testifies of the divine nature and identity of our Native American and First Nation brothers and sisters, as well as the capacity each of us has to return to the presence of our Heavenly Father and inherit all that He has (see D&C 84:38).

Purpose Two: Strengthen Families and Homes through Ordinances and Covenants

Last October, Sister Carole M. Stephens, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, participated in a women’s conference attended by sisters of both the Navajo and Hopi tribes in northern Arizona. Sister Stephens joyously revealed to the sisters that a portion of her own heritage is Native American.

Upon her return, Sister Stephens shared that one of the things that had impressed her was how important family is to the sisters she met. You might remember the story she shared in the general women’s meeting last March about Sister Yazzie, a grandmother who isn’t certain of how many grandchildren she has—because all children call her “grandmother.” (See “The Family Is of God,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2015, 12).

The Chinle Arizona Stake, which is presided over by President Romero Brown, a member of the Navajo Nation, has a monthly temple-day excursion to the Snowflake Arizona Temple. Although the temple is a two- or three-hour drive for most stake members, many individuals and families attend. And President Brown reports that holding regular family history devotionals has helped members prepare their own family names to take to the temple.

Ward and stake leaders are also working to make these temple excursions family affairs. Youth are particularly invited to attend. And last month, the Primary children of the stake came with their families. The children enjoyed walking around the temple grounds and were privileged to have the temple presidency speak to them.

Purpose Three: Work in Unity to Help Those in Need

Unfortunately, economic need is often great among those living on reservations, but working together in unity, Latter-day Saints have been able to reach out in their wards, branches, and communities to work toward greater self-reliance. One successful project has actually helped many Navajo and Hopi members return to their cultural roots.

A few years ago, President Larry Justice, president of the Tuba City Arizona Stake, initiated a gardening project. From humble beginnings, the gardening project has become so successful that it was featured in a New York Times article (see Fernanda Santos, “Some Find Path to Navajo Roots through the Mormon Church,” Oct. 30, 2013, nytimes.com).

In addition to growing their own gardens, some Native American Latter-day Saints and their neighbors are also participating in school mentoring programs, in BYU–Idaho’s Pathway program, and in self-reliance and microenterprise classes. Although these outreach programs are still small, they are beginning to bless those who are coming together to participate.

Sister Annie Parker, age 83, is an example of someone who has seen the blessings of self-reliance. Sister Parker is a widow who raised eight children. She spent nearly 15 years supporting herself as a custodian of Church buildings in the Chinle Arizona Stake. Annie’s daughter Laverne Bennett praises her mother for her dedication to Heavenly Father and His gospel, for strictly adhering to the principles of the Word of Wisdom, and for raising sheep and working in her amazing garden. For the last two years, and after participating in the Church’s gardening project, Sister Parker has been honored with the Gardener of the Navajo Nation award.

Sister Parker is also an example of how all the purposes of Relief Society are interwoven, each supporting and undergirding the others. When Sister Bennett’s son—Annie Parker’s grandson—passed away suddenly while serving a full-time mission, Sister Parker and her family were comforted by their faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement and by remembering the feelings they had as they accompanied their missionary when he received his endowment in the temple.

The Parker and Bennett families and all of the many amazing Native American Latter-day Saints I have been privileged to meet have impressed me with their faithfulness in the midst of difficult challenges.

Their faith in Jesus Christ, their work to strengthen families, and their desire to help those in need can be an example to each of us as we strive to fulfill these purposes in our own communities, wards, and families.