Who within Mormonism has the authority to answer the following question, “Who are the Lamanites?” Do we listen to missionaries who have just gone through the Missionary Training Center before heading out to proselytize? Do we listen to Mormon apologists like Fair Mormon, do they even have any authority to make claims about beliefs? Do we follow what Mormons taught and believed (old lesson manuals, church videos, missionary handouts) as is evident in the history of the church? Or does the current living prophet trump all of that?
Mormon Missionaries – “The Lamanites became the Native Americans who were in America when Columbus came and settled the land.” (1) (Missionaries claim Native Americans are Lamanites.)
Mormon Apologists – “While there is no evidence for a genetic link between modern Native Americans and the Lehite/Lamanites, LDS scriptures and prophets are justified in referring to them as “Lamanites” due to the likelihood of cultural and genealogical affiliations. (2) (Mormon Apologists claim Native Americans are Lamanites.)
Mormon history – Joseph Smith Journal (in his own handwriting) – “I saw in the vision the place where they were deposited, he said the indians (Native Americans), were the literal descendants of Abraham he explained many things of the prophecies to me.” (3)
This was the belief until at least 2006 when the Book of Mormon introduction was changed. (4)
~Prior to 2006 it stated, “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”
~After 2006 it states, “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”
(The belief that Native Americans are literal Lamanites can be found recorded very thoroughly in all church history including lesson manuals, conference talks, missionary handouts to Native Americans, church vidoes, and the like.)
Current Leadership – Russel M. Nelson in 2016 – “There are some things the Book of Mormon is not. It is not a textbook of history, although some history is found within its pages. It is not a definitive work on ancient American agriculture or politics. It is not a record of all former inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere, but only of particular groups of people.” (5)
If Russel M. Nelson is aware that the Book of Mormon is not a definitive work about ancient America, nor a record of all the former inhabitants, why are current missionaries still teaching this? If what the missionaries are teaching is INCORRECT, is it time to protect indigenous investigators, current members, and the very young missionaries? Missionaries should not be held accountable for this, it is the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that should be. Belief must be built upon honesty.
Faith, beliefs, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, these are all important and valuable ideals our country was founded on. But when faith and religion is used as a tool to supercede Native American beliefs and religions – is this not an act which is against the very ideals our country was built on? Or do Native Americans not get the same benefits and claims to worship how, where, and what they may? Is this not what is stated in the 11th Article of Faith, that all have the right to how they worship? This was not the case for children in the Indian Placement Program.
Indian (Lamanite) Placement Program
Native American children were taken from their homes and placed in Mormon homes through a program called the Indian Placement Program, also known as the Lamanite Placement Program. This was a Mormon attempt to bring education to Native Americans. The biggest problem with it however was that Native American children could not enter the program unless they were baptized first into the Mormon faith. This act alone showed that it was not just about helping Native American children, or about education. It was a deeply religious act within the Mormon community. Perhaps if it had stopped there it would not have been as damaging. However, every summer when Native American children were to return home to the reservation for the school break they were told not to participate in any cultural traditions, for if they did they risked being kicked out of the Placement Program. If they danced, sang, or participated in any cultural ceremonies at all – it meant risking their education.
To add insult to injury the children, when they were baptized, were told they themselves were Lamanites. Living descendants of the people from the Book of Mormon. They were taught that the Book of Mormon was the literal history of their people. This Book of Mormon history superseded the traditional histories of the indigenous peoples which had been passed on for many hundreds of years. The new history given to the children taught that their ancestors had turned evil. Their ancestors had turned away from God and God had withdrawn His spirit from their ancestors the Lamanites because of how evil they were. God allowed Native Americans to be swept from the land due to unrighteousness, to make way for a more righteous people. God made the very skin on the Lamanites dark as a sign to other people of their unrighteousness, and forebade others to marry them, for the sign of the curse would be passed on to the children (dark skin). This was the gift the Mormons gave to indigenous children and communities. This was not a program of education. This was another form to “Kill the Indian to save the child.” Was this just another form of colonization? Definition of Colonization – “The action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area.”
What were the things the Prophet himself taught during the years the Indian Student Placement Program was flourishing? Here are a few quotes from a first presidency message printed in the Ensign from Prophet Spencer W. Kimball:
“This process of redeeming the Lamanite people has been far from easy, especially for the Lamanites themselves. For a thousand years after the closing of the Book of Mormon record, these people wandered in spiritual darkness and were scattered upon the American continents and the isles of the sea. They lost their written language, their high culture, and, worst of all, their knowledge of the living God and his work. Faith was replaced by fear, rich language by crippled dialects, and an understanding of God and his ways by idolatry, even human sacrifice.”
“Lamanites, also a people of disobedience now returned to the fold, whose sufferings have been sore, and punishment severe, and humiliation complete, whose affliction these many centuries must certainly be fruit meet for repentance.”
“I have met some who are a little bit ashamed that they are Lamanites. How can it be? Some would rather define themselves as Nephites, or Zoramites, or Josephites, or something else. Surely there must be a misunderstanding.”
“There is one point I would like to make clear as I repeat what the Lord said: “I will give this land to you on one condition.” The title to the land of America is a conditional title, and only those who live the laws of God and serve him faithfully can inherit it. He wanted the Jaredites to come over. They found America. They lived for a long while here and ripened in iniquity before they encountered the people of Mulek. The land then was given to Lehi and to his sons and their families, but when a fulness of iniquity arose among these children of the land, they were swept off. Therefore, I want us to keep in our minds the fact that this land is ours only so long as we live the commandments of God.” (6)
I find it interesting that Spencer W. Kimball was surprised that some were ashamed of being Lamanite. Was he intentionally gaslighting them, or was it accidental gaslighting? Did he not just say they lost their knowledge of God? Did he not say their rich language was replaced by “crippled dialects”? He also called them a people of disobedience. Then after saying he was surprised they were ashamed of being Lamanite – that the Lamanites rose in iniquity and were swept off the land (Native American genocide and colonization). Then added the land was given by God to the very people who had killed off the Lamanites in genocide and colonized America. Why he said he was surprised is anyone’s guess.
Not all Native Americans or indigenous people have the same experience within Mormonism. Many are able to navigate the contradictory issues surrounding the label “Lamanite” and still continue to identify as Mormon. But not all indigenous people have peace with the narrative or label, and I hope they know they are not alone. Trying to accept and support believing family while reclaiming a life and identity that was stolen is a unique experience, and a very uncomfortable one.
My goal is to at least discuss the fact that no one should ever be labeled Lamanite. The church has admitted that they do not know who the Lamanites actually are. Until we know, no one should be told the Book of Mormon is their history. And certainly NO ONE should be told that their skin is dark as a sign of a curse upon their ancestors – as I was recently told by a missionary. No one should be told their people were killed of because of unrighteous ancestors, or that their land was given away by God to the very people who had killed them.
As we try to navigate discussion around these issues I hope we are able to express patience and understanding, while also validating those who have been damaged by ignorant actions, both indigenous and not.
To apologize it takes intellectual honesty and humility ~Chief Tatanka
1- Missionary Lesson 31 January 2018. Click following link: Native Americans are Lamanites
2- Ash, Michael R., Who Are The Lamanites, Fair Mormon website, Web. 24 June, 2018.
3- Smith, Joseph. The Joseph Smith Papers, Journal, 1835-1836. p. 24, Web. 14, July 2017
4- Smith, Joseph. (2004). The Book of Mormon: An account written by the hand of Mormon, upon plates taken from the plates of Nephi. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Web 24 June, 2018
Smith, Joseph. (2006). The Book of Mormon: An account written by the hand of Mormon, upon plates taken from the plates of Nephi. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Web 24 June, 2018.
5- Russell, Nelson M., President Nelson Speaks to Mission Presidents about “Miraculous Miracle” of Book of Mormon. 23 June, 2016. LDS website. Web. 24 June, 2018.
6- Kimball, Spencer W., Our Paths Have Met Again, Ensign 1975 December. LDS Website. Web 24 June, 2018.