Thanks, but no thanks: Native American museum returns LDS Church’s $2 million gift

Plans for a FamilySearch center unraveled in 2021 under a “mess of misunderstanding.”

(Wesley Fryer | Flickr) The entrance to the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City.

In a much publicized move, Latter-day Saint leaders announced a $2 million donation to the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City.

Several Native American Latter-day Saints participated in the 2021 event, the Church News reported, along with Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, City Councilwoman Nikki Nice and other civic and tribal leaders.

“Native Americans have been moved around so much from different places that a lot of our families have lost contact with each other,” museum director James Pepper Henry said in a church news release. “Having a center here is a way for us to connect our families together again.”

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints even mentioned the contribution during a devotional broadcast .

“The gift from the church will strengthen Native American and other families by creating within the museum a FamilySearch center,” the Church News reported him as saying. “This center will make it possible for visitors to the museum to receive help in preserving personal histories, searching for ancestors and building their own family trees.”

It would reflect the church’s commitment to seeking ancestors, Nelson said, and “our deep gratitude for those who have come here from many different countries and traditions.”

Henry said at the time that he hoped to have the center up and running by summer 2022. Within weeks of the announcement, however, the museum returned the gift.

“The agreement between the First Americans Museum and [the church] related to a grant in the amount of $2 million for the creation of a Family History Resource Center will be discontinued,” Perry wrote on the museum website. “FAM will return the grant funds and will suspend plans to develop the center until further notice. We thank the church for their understanding and generosity.”

Kennedy Sepulvado, the institution’s communication specialist, said Tuesday that “the project didn’t align with the museum mission at the time.”

The Utah-based faith removed its news release about the Native American donation from its website, while making no public statement about the rejection.

Two years later, “the church continues to maintain a dialogue with [the museum],” spokesperson Kelly Smoot said Wednesday, “and to support [its] mission.”

The episode was a “mess of misunderstanding,” explained Farina King, a Latter-day Saint and associate professor of Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Family history “is big in Indian Country,” King said, but establishing a center at the museum “would need to be done in the right way so everyone will benefit.”

A FamilySearch center, she said, “was supposed to be a celebration of coming together, where everyone cares about families.” But there was not enough discussion between the parties, King said, before the announcement of the contribution.

Locals wondered “if they could trust the LDS Church, where the money was coming from,” King said. “Were there strings attached?”

Some worried the center might be staffed by Latter-day Saint missionaries, possibly proselytizing to patrons. Others were concerned that their deceased ancestors would be baptized vicariously. (Latter-day Saints research the names of departed ancestors, and living volunteers then perform baptisms on behalf of these souls in the faith’s temples.)

It “takes work to earn Native Americans’ trust,” King said, “especially on sensitive issues.”

Failure to build the FamilySearch center “is too bad,” said Randy Gibson, a Latter-day Saint and a Cherokee who was in Oklahoma at the time.

Native Americans “have such strong oral histories,” said Gibson, now a communications specialist in Provo. “It would have been a good way to share them with the world.”

Correction • Dec. 16, 2023, 3:16 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct how the initial donated check was presented.

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