(Names of Missionaries withheld to protect identity.)
When the subject of Native American atrocities come up few want to discuss it. Perhaps it is hard to understand something that is never talked about at school or in the open. Perhaps, and I am guessing this is very often, there is a tons of compassion, but few people know what to say. It is a buried history in many areas of American life. It is like it never happened, as if the land was empty for the taking. Every house, road, and city is built on top of where another people once lived not long ago. The population in the Americas was greater than the population in Europe at the time it was colonized.
Religion brings an additional element to the table. As colonization pushed forward in an insatiable need to acquire yet more land – the Native Americans that happened to survive the rising death tolls were then told – their ways of life and spirituality were naive at best, or evil at worst. Displaced, devalued, and dehumanized they still fought to keep their children and families alive. With the emotional horrors of experiencing war at every front from the time they were children, they were then judged for not living as modern as the people around them. Forced onto land without good water sources, unable to grow crops or hunt, they scraped by. Judged for not living abundantly after generations of family were destroyed and their way of life demolished.
Was it any different in Utah? The Mormons claimed the “Lamanites” were promised redemption, they claimed to value Native Americans. The Book of Mormon teaches Lamanites were swept from the land due to unrighteousness. Yet another reason to silence the real history of the Native American people – as it was the fault of their own ancestors and God’s punishment according to the Book of Mormon. Is the treatment towards indigenous people any different now, or still the same story? Is their ways of life and spirituality considered naive at best, and evil at worst? Or are they finally understood and respected for their beautiful spirituality and ways of life?
In early March I had my second conversation with some Missionaries since leaving the church two years ago.
Missionary: “The Book of Mormon actually starts in Israel, but the family moved to the American continent! The record gives an account of two great civilizations. One came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and afterward they separated into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites. The other (great civilization) came much earlier when the Lord confounded the tongues at the Tower of Babel. This group is known as the Jaredites. After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”
Sarah: “Only the Lamanites were left at the end of the Book of Mormon, and those are the Native Americans?”
Sarah: “Native Americans have no history of Christianity. Why don’t Native Americans have that in their traditional histories at the time America was discovered? I am Native American. I can tell you that my ancestors did not come from that part of the world. Surprised me when you said that the Book of Mormon was of my ancestors.”
Missionary: “Didn’t mean to surprise you! But that is really cool that you’re Native American!”
I grab my phone and type in a quick search.
Sarah: “If I search the word Lamanites and the Book of Mormon it brings up a page at the top, which when I open it states something about a skin of blackness.”
Missionary: “Yes, the skin color change was just a sign of a curse, not the curse itself.”
Sarah: “So skin was darkened due to a curse?”
Missionary: “A curse was put upon people. The curse was that they were withdrawn from the spirit of God because they were wicked. The others needed a sign to help them know who didn’t have the spirit with them. So their skin was darkened so they could see who was who. Dark skin is not the curse itself.”
Then the missionary shared 2nd Nephi 5:21 and said, “And He had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. It would appear that this was done to limit wickedness. The skins of the Lamanites were dark that thereby the Lord God might preserve his people, that they might not mix and believe in incorrect traditions. That is from Alma chapter 3. Throughout the scriptures we find warnings of the Lord to not marry unbelievers. The result of doing so was often that the righteous were turned away from the Lord. Some people have mistakenly thought that the dark skin placed upon the Lamanites was the curse. President Joseph Fielding Smith explained that the dark skin was not the curse. He said that the dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing. The dark skin was the skin of the curse, not the curse itself. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord. The dark skin of those who join the church is no longer considered a sign of the curse, these converts are delightsome and have the Spirit of the Lord! One great blessing is that the curse is only valid as long as people are wicked. If the repent, the curse of God will no longer follow them. There are many examples of righteous Lamanites who repented and enjoyed the Spirit of the Lord, one of them even became a prophet.”
(These missionaries – they had no idea what a trigger this was for me, or how much pain they had just caused. They were only teaching what they thought was the truth.)
Sarah: “Skin color existed long before this timeline. This is naive. Are you telling me God put dark skin on all the people of the world when they were bad? Does that mean only white people were never cursed?” (Read “Racist God” on the Archives page if you are curious why I would ask such a thing.)
Missionary: “Not all the people of the world, we only know of the Lamanites. We need to recognize that this was one situation, under these circumstances 2000 years ago. It is not saying all black people are wicked or cursed at all.”
Sarah: “I truly hope you never teach another indigenous person.” After that I ended the conversation. I was shaking, and wasn’t sure that my patience and kindness towards them would hold. I had to keep telling myself how young they were, how brainwashed.
This must stop! These are kids who are giving up years for a church. These teenagers are being sent out with racist teachings! TEENAGERS! Then they teach this stuff to people they don’t know. They didn’t even hesitate to tell me about my skin, or my unrighteous ancestry. Too caught up in their own righteousness to see how far from righteous it actually was. It is time to call the BoM for what it is, a myth. It is time to accept some change. At the very least the MTC needs to teach ALL MISSIONARIES that they have NO IDEA who the Lamanites are, and that NO direct descendants have been located. They definitely should stop calling people Lamanties, and remove American Indians from the intro to the Book of Mormon. Missionaries are at the very front of Mormon beliefs, a direct reflection of the modern church. They are the ones teaching around the world to all new converts. If the church cannot respect its own missionaries enough to be honest with them who will be? The missionaries deserve better, as do the people they come in contact with.
I am not going to lie. This conversation was a massive trigger for me. Dark skin a sign of a curse! The people so evil God withdrew His spirit from them! To keep the two peoples from mixing!? Incorrect traditions! Native American ancestors… All this said to a Native American. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was. I actually thought they would beat around the bush and give me the sweet gospel answers that avoid the real answers. That is why I was upfront and told them I was Native American. Curiosity had gotten the better of me and I had paid the price for engaging in conversation. Still, I have far too much compassion for these kids to attack them for what they have been told is truth, they have been lied to. Admittedly I do not have compassion for the leaders. They lack the courage to enact real change and they lack honesty. Mormonism doesn’t appear to have changed much, and this is not because of young missionaries, it is all on the leadership. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints still preaches to know more about Native American history than the people themselves.
I had to recenter myself after this. For weeks I wrote fiction, I sat in the sun, I went running, I enjoyed coffee on cold mornings, I played with my kids, etc. Life is beautiful, and sometimes we just need to stop and enjoy it. However, these are hard conversation that we need to have. These are conversation worth having. I cannot thank everyone enough for joining me on this journey. Especially my husband who is always there cheering me on when things get hard. Thank you Chris.
HERE IS A LINK TO THE FIRST CONVERSATION WITH MORMON MISSIONARIES: First Missionary Conversation
No matter your culture, ethnicity, age, gender, or orientation, We Are One.