Religion versus science
Former Cortez author documents teaching in Mormon country
Editor's Note: The opinions in this story are solely the opinions of the person interviewed. They do not reflect the opinions of the Journal, its staff or its affiliates.
Cortez sits a mere 30 miles east of the Utah border. The town of Blanding is only 81 miles northwest of town.
In religious terms, Utah may as well be another continent over.
That is the perspective of Duane Keown, a Cortez raised and retired professor from the University of Wyoming. Keown began his teaching career in San Juan County in 1960 and continued to work in various school settings in Utah until 1975.
His debut non-fiction work, "Thirteenth Year in Zion," is his first-hand account of how a teacher of science and his family of non-mormons were persecuted during his time in the Four Corners region of Utah.
His book contains the memoirs he documented during his tenure as a science teacher at Monticello High School, then principal at San Juan Junior High School in Blanding. He will be doing a reading of these accounts at the Cortez Public Library on Thursday, Jan. 3 from 2 to 4 p.m.
The tales begin with his college years at Brigham Young University, where he said he was constantly hassled about converting to the Mormon religion. In his adult years, it became about younger kids demoralizing others because the Book of Mormon wasn't in their life. He said that children treated his daughter as an outcast that left her confused and lonely. He also says in the book that Native American children were labeled "lamanites." All of which Keown believes, came from the parental isolation from anything not Mormon.
"My time in Blanding was an eye-opener," Keown says. "It made me very much aware of our amendment for freedom of religion and being able to practice that, or being dominated by a dominant religion. Blanding is the reason I wrote this book."
"Thirteenth Year in Zion," is full of ironic satire. Keown's own experiences are sardonic but more importantly is the irony he detected in Mormon history. Keown said he was in constant confusion wondering why a faith who chose to escape bigotry against their own would build a community around the same afflicting zealotry?
Keown said that he and his family experienced shunning from the Blanding community simply because they did not follow the same faith. Every day he listened to children speak about Mormonism and it being the only religion that was rectifying. It was troubling for Keown to see kids go through school with a preconceived notion of how the world worked. A world they had little experience in.
"I'm amazed these kids made it through high school after the curriculum they were taught in their classes," Keown says.
There is still frustration in his voice when he speaks about his past because he says that his family was not the only victims of religious abuse. At that time, Blanding was primarily made up of white families who belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. According to Keown, in 1966 about 95 percent of the population were conservative LDS followers.
The Aneth Reservation is about 50 miles from Blanding. Keown says Native American children walked from their homes, sometimes very lengthy walks, to the bus stop. From there they rode the bus 50 miles to school. They took the same journey home, returning after dark only to begin the arduous trek the next day. All for an education.
"I became very sympathetic and empathetic to Navajo children," Keown says. "To go through such a grueling experience for an education and to be persecuted on top of that was a hard thing to witness."
He describes the time at Monticello High School as being the "best teaching years of his life." But as a principal in Blanding, he found the job to be personally and objectively oppressing.
"I had a science teacher refuse to teach about Charles Darwin and evolution," Keown says. "The curriculum was dominated by a theocratic community, and science education conflicted with theology."
The event that marked his final year with the school did not stem from religious, personal or work issues. The moment his daughter shed tears over being isolated from other school kids, was the moment he knew it was time to leave.
"Her best friend, who she walked home with everyday and talked about everyday, didn't invite her to her birthday party," Keown explains. "And I know, in my heart, that it wasn't the child's fault, but the parents. As a leader of a school in this type of community, I felt that it wasn't the right place to raise my family where continuing persecution would just lead us to more strife and dissension."
Keown made the decision to no longer expose his children to religious indecency. The impractical notion of harboring the mind of a child through religion was uncompromising for Keown. He knew there was a world out there that his children deserved to witness and determine their own ideologies.
Since Keown had originally intended on a higher institution to augment his teaching, he found a job as a professor of science education at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Here, he realized that he was holding his breath while living in Blanding.
Keown recalls a moment at a football game between Wyoming and Alabama in the late 1970s. All around him he heard a few curses being thrown around and saw a few beers being tossed back.
"It felt like I had been living in solitary confinement. All around me, everyone in Wyoming were acting freely," Keown says happily. "It was refreshing."
Keown has been holding onto all of these recorded moments, waiting for the right time to release them.
The memoirs have been in the works since 1980. He sought the advice of many friends and colleagues, who helped him work through any falsifying information or historical mishaps. For Keown, the book is not about religion. It is about human behavior when religion is involved. He hopes the book will be well read and looked at with reasoning.
"This book is for people open to better understanding of other religions and their absolutes," Keown says. "It isn't just for Mormons, in fact, I expect it to do well in Utah because they have Mormons and gentiles alike."
Although the events in Keown's book occurred over 40 years ago, he is still happier to have uprooted when he did. He and the Mormon religion will forever be irreconcilable in their differences. But he understands that indifference and kindness or right and wrong, all have a place in society whether a religion is tantamount or not.
Courtesy Photo Duane Keown was raised in Cortez and now resides in Wyoming where he was a professor of science at the University of Wyoming.