Response to Manifest Destiny – Taught at Brigham Young University Education Week
For the past few years I have been trying to explain what the most harmful aspect about believing in literal Lamanite identity is. Yet when I do I always feel I fall short. Here I am again, with the very reason this website exists: Manifest Destiny.
Manifest Destiny Explained
Manifest Destiny is defined as – “a future event accepted as inevitable; broadly : an ostensibly benevolent or necessary policy of imperialistic expansion.” (Merriam Webster Dictionary) These future inevitable events were destined by God, and are an expression of religious ideology and supremacy. This belief is viewed as “benevolent”.
Humans have been fighting over power and resources for many thousands of years. Some find peaceful resolutions, others extremely violent. Manifest Destiny takes this fight one step further by claiming God literally gave them the resources and power belonging to another group. It claims that God did this because the existing group did not have the correct belief system, and they must be corrected and saved. This claim is insidious. It is no longer just about power and resources, now those fighting for resources are fighting for God. This idea also makes claim that the group with incorrect beliefs are unworthy, less, evil, savage, wrong, bad, dirty, ignorant, viewed as fallen by God. Sadly, this is why manifest destiny is viewed as “benevolent”. Those being killed and colonized are being “saved” from their ignorant ways. Better that the people be destroyed or assimilated, then have a generation of children raised with “incorrect beliefs”.
“Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” (Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 4:13.)
I can’t help but think of the following quote when studying manifest destiny, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.” Steven Weinberg
To understand the origins of manifest destiny I would encourage anyone willing to study the history of religion throughout the ages. Many of the people immigrating to the Americas were escaping generational religious trauma. They brought their trauma with them.
Christopher Columbus has history of violence that is hard to read about, let alone write about. I will only mention a few of the actions of Columbus. The following are some examples of the many atrocities handed out by Columbus and his men: legs cut off of Indigenous children that ran away, Columbus giving young females (as young as 9 to 10 years old) as gifts to be raped, noses and ears cut off Indigenous people to force them into submission, hands were cut off for not finding enough gold – then their hands were tied to hang around their necks (an estimated 10,000 died handless), Indigenous babies taken from their mothers arms and fed to dogs for sport. Genocide of the Arawak/ Taíno people, this is the legacy of Christopher Columbus.
Christopher Columbus spoken of at BYU:
“The fact that the Gospel is being preached to all nations and that there are Latter-day Saint congregations on every continent is in part the legacy of Christopher Columbus.”
“Hinckley noted a Book of Mormon scripture in 1 Nephi 13:12 that he said speaks of Columbus. The verse reads, “And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.”
“Perhaps it is because no other single individual did more to prepare the way for the last dispensation than did Christopher Columbus. I believe Columbus matters, because in a very real sense, as Nephi suggests, the Restoration begins with him.”
Reaction to the BYU Presentation
My initial reaction – I wondered if he understood what he was teaching in 2019? I wondered if those that learned the teachings of Manifest Destiny and Christopher Columbus in Mormonism truly understood how it would impact an Indigenous person? To believe in Manifest Destiny, in a literal sense within Mormonism, also means believing in the following: literal Lamanites (North America, South and Central America, and the Pacific Island peoples have been labeled Lamanite), their ancestors became evil and rejected God, God cursed them by withdrawing His spirit completely from them, God gave them darkened skin as a sign of the curse, God withdrew His protection from the people and their lands, God guided Christopher Columbus to the Lamanites, the withdrawal of God’s protection resulted in violence and death for millions of Indigenous families.
Believing in Manifest Destiny is believing Lamanites would be “swept off” the land to make way for more righteous people. It is the belief that those labeled as Lamanite fundamentally needed redemption. And it lays the fault of all that destruction and death at the feet of our Lamanite ancestors.
It is saying “American Indian” spirituality is a remnant of evil beliefs, due to choices made by our ancestors turning away from the “one true God”. It is saying Tsimshian spirituality is not correct. It is saying Navajo spirituality is lacking. It is saying the spirituality and beliefs of the Shoshone, Paiute, Nez Perce, Hopi, Seneca, Ute, Yakima, Sioux, and many more, are incomplete. It is saying that gentiles were sent to enlighten us. It is saying that genocide, loss of land, forced loss of languages, taking of Indigenous children, and being demonized, that this all happened as a direct result of our ancestors supposed evil choices. It is saying we needed redemption and saving, as if we were not ok to begin with. These are not mythical people, we are here. The Tsimshian, Navajo, Shoshone, Paiute, Nez Perce, Hopi, Seneca, Ute, Yakima, Sioux, and so many others the church has incorrectly labeled as Lamanite. By labeling entire cultures incorrectly, and by pushing this belief in Manifest Destiny, it dishonors the truth of who we all are. By dishonoring our ancestors it dishonors our children.
My Personal Experience
I share the following for those who do not understand the real impact Manifest Destiny teachings can have on living people. The following is anything but easy for me to share.
I was born and raised in the church – an active believing member for 39 years. I held many callings, a temple marriage, and had four children born in the covenant. I believed all I was taught as a child. I was so trusting. I trusted church leaders that told me I was a Lamanite and that the Book of Mormon was about my ancestors. I grew up being taught: my skin was darker because it was a sign of a curse, my Lamanite ancestors spiritual beliefs were inherently wrong, my ancestors were so bad that God completely withdrew His spirit from them, their choices resulted in all that happened later to Indigenous people, etc. Can you imagine the level of evil required to make that happen? Because as a teenager I did think about it. If only my Lamanite ancestors had been good people, perhaps then the land would be ours and the death of millions would not have happened. This is Manifest Destiny when taught to an Indigenous child who is told she is a Lamanite.
People at church believed I was Lamanite. As a child I had church teachers pause, glancing awkwardly at me when addressing the curse and darkened skin. Other times they were excited when teaching about the promised redemption and prophecies of my people. I was always welcomed and treated with kindness, yet always knew my place. I ached when the Young Women put on a program called “Lamanite Princesses”, where all the young women wore Native American Halloween costumes and pretended to do a spiritual ceremony. Appropriation, invisibility, but forced to accept. This all happened inside the church buildings, the place that promised me redemption.
I was supposed to be grateful, because I was the lucky Indigenous person. I was the one who would have the curse lifted because I was a member of the “one true church”. My non-Mormon Tismshian family would not be so lucky. The beautiful faces of my Grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, none would have the curse lifted, but I was the lucky one. People I deeply love… That is what the Book of Mormon and leaders promised isn’t it? Redemption? This was why Lamanite missionary work was so important since the founding of Mormonism, the Lamanite must be redeemed. I was to be grateful for Manifest Destiny. This is all hard to write about because I fully believed this about my own people, I believed this about myself. I cannot get those years back. At times I am shocked at how long I held so tightly to the religion I was raised in, not seeing some of the racist teachings directed at my heritage for what they were. I believed.
Manifest Destiny beliefs are still actively taught by missionaries. Last year official representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints personally taught me the following:
“The Lamanites became the Native Americans who were in the Americas when Columbus came and settled the land. That’s why there was no religion established in the land when Columbus came, because the Lamanites didn’t believe in Christ. This happened around 421 A.D., so from that time to when Columbus came the Lamanites (Native Americans) had been softened by 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.”
“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.”
(I have a record of the above conversations, as well as the names of the missionaries. Names will be kept private because these are kids that simply don’t understand.)
Official teachings about Lamanites that I grew up with – in an effort to keep this short, I will only include a few:
“And I bear record that the people of Nephi did seek diligently to restore the Lamanites unto the true faith in God. But our labors were vain; their hatred was fixed, and they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey; dwelling in tents, and wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle about their loins and their heads shaven; and their skill was in the hbow, and in the cimeter, and the ax.” (Book of Mormon. Enos chapter 1, verse 20)
“…whoso should possess this land of promise, from that time henceforth and forever, should serve him, the true and only God, or they should be swept off…” (Book of Mormon Ether chapter 2, verses 8-9)
“And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten. And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance;” (Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 13: 14-15)
“And that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their fathers, and that they might know the promises of the Lord, and that they may believe the gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ, and be glorified through faith in his name, and that through their repentance they might be saved. Amen.” (Doctrine and Covenants chapter 3, verses 19-20)
Power and Resources Under the Banner of God.
1. Journal of Discourses
In 1871 Brigham Young stated, “There is a curse on these aborigines of our country who roam the plains and are so wild that you cannot tame them. They are of the House of Israel; they once had the Gospel delivered to them, they had oracles of truth; Jesus came and administered to them after his resurrection and they received and delighted in the Gospel until the fourth generation when they turned away and became so wicked that God cursed them with this dark and benighted and loathsome condition; and they want to sit on the ground in the dirt, and to live by hunting, and they cannot be civilized.”
2. War in Utah
March of 1849 – Brigham Young assigned thirty families, one hundred and fifty people in total, to settle in the Timpanogos territory. A few months after Brigham Young sent the settlers he said, “the old indians will not enter into the new and everlasting covenant or gain knowledge, but they will die and be damned”.
February 8, 1850, The Nauvoo Legion went to battle.
February 10, 1850, Brigham Young stated, “I am sent now to confiscate all their property – and then put them in the heat of battle and kill them.” After these events – when disagreements arose between Indigenous peoples and the Mormon settlers – it became practice to follow up with the Mormon Militia and more killings of the Native American people.
3. Indigenous families caught in the war.
“After the killings Dr. James Blake with the help of two militiamen decapitated the dead and used the bodies for research. The decapitated heads were sent to Fort Utah and hung on display in front of the prisoners. The heads were on display in front of prisoners, the prisoners were predominantly women and children. “
“The settlers had another meeting and it was decided among them to kill the remaining captured Indian people. One by one they were led out of the cellar, 24 in all—women, men, and children—and one by one their throats were cut ear to ear and their bodies held to the ground until they bled to death. Two young boys and one girl, seven or eight years of age, feeling the horror, decided to try to make their escape. When the door was opened for the next victim, the three made a break, forced their way past the guards and ran. The guards fired several shots at the three but were unable to hit them. One was shot in the side but the bullet barely grazed his rib—not enough to stop him. All of the Paiute males, five women, and two older children were killed.
4. The Daily Utah Chronicle – Article titled: It’s Time For Utah To Acknowledge It’s Treatment of American Indians by Elise Scott.
“Pioneers regularly bought children from tribes with the intent to spare them from torture from rival tribes and to “civilize” them. By the first decade of settlement, at least 400 children were enslaved, required to work for 20 years before having their freedom restored.” (I will add – At times parents were killed by Mormons, then the children were sold as “rescues” into slavery.)
“Territory was stolen and defended and entitlement was the seed of brutality. In 1849, three white men killed a Native American man named Old Bishop when he refused their orders to give one of them the shirt that he was wearing. He was pulled into a scuffle, and after the men killed him, they used rocks to sink his body into the river. All intended generosity and idealism aside, there are multiple cases like this where the pioneers slowly spreading throughout Utah’s valleys proved willing to show cruelty at a minor inconvenience.”
“It feels shameful how much history we are ignorant of until we go searching for it.”
5. After the Black Hawk war ended.
1973 – Payout to the Nauvoo Legion for dealing with the “Indian problem”. Bill titled, “Memorial of the Legislative Assembly of Utah”. “Awarded 1.5 million dollars for costs incurred dealing with Indians. According to the inflation rate current prices are 1897.1% higher than in 1873. Which in today’s market that amount would translate to $29,957,047.98, just under 30 million dollars.The payout covered expenses from just three years, 1865 – 1867.”
1919 – Chief Black Hawk‘s grave was desecrated and his bones were dug up. “For decades, the remains of Black Hawk, and those of an Indian woman and a child, were on display in the church museum on Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. While the living descendants of Black Hawk were outraged, their voices fell on deaf ears. Seemingly without conscience or remorse and church leaders made no apologies, in spite of a federal law passed in 1906 called the Graves Protection Act.”
6. Manifest Destiny and Assimilation 1954 to 2000
Some believed to assimilate, children would have to be taken from their culture and reeducated in residential schools. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints developed the Indian Placement Program – an education program for Indigenous children. A few conditions to qualify: Indigenous children must get baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, leave their families during the school year to live with Mormon families, and give up their cultural spiritual traditions. During the summer when they went home to their families, if they participated in their cultural spiritual traditions, they risked being dropped from the educational program. This is benevolent.
Spencer W. Kimball commented on the Indigenous children in the program, “At last the Indians are suitable… The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as AngIos; five were darker but equally delightsome. The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.”
(It is worth noting that the experiences of the Indigenous children in the Indian Placement Program varied. Some were treated with love and kindness and thrived in the program. Others experienced emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. All experienced incorrect teachings about their cultural identity.)
7. Double Standards
“We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.” (Doctrine and Covenants section 134, verse 4).
Hope for a Better Future
There are beautiful and amazing people both in and out of the church. There are beautiful beliefs which exist both in and out of the church. Sadly there are also beliefs both in and out which are not beautiful. I hope we can work towards understanding what Manifest Destiny actually is, and how it is still alive and well. I hope more people actively seek out and learn the history about what Indigenous people have endured. As an Indigenous child I knew all about Mormon pioneers and their hardships, everyone talked about them freely, proud of ancestors who were brave and survived. What I was not allowed to discuss, Indigenous hardships as they applied to Mormonism. I hope discussions around these issues continue to grow.
Though many church leaders claim that Christopher Columbus is the one prophesied of in the Book of Mormon, these are simply interpretations. Though his name is mentioned in lesson manuals, general conference talks, and magazine publications, Christopher Columbus was not directly named in the Book of Mormon. Even without the issue of Christopher Columbus there is still the challenge of Lamanite identity, because the Book of Mormon is often interpreted as a story of Manifest Destiny. By directly labeling specific tribes, groups, and cultures as Lamanite, it directly places Manifest Destiny on their shoulders.
Though I personally have no belief in the Book of Mormon, I do hope to leave room for religious freedom and respect those who find comfort in it’s pages. And with that I hope for a future where an Indigenous person ceases to be incorrectly labeled, regardless of what religion they freely choose. One in which they are welcomed as a fellow human being, without the weight of manifest destiny, appropriation of culture, or incorrectly labeled ancestry.
Aap′aga na lip Wilaaysgm – Remembering Our Own
Look for an article coming soon: Response to Literal Lamanite Descendant Teachings and Lamanite Apologetics. In the next few weeks it will be posted, and it deals more directly with the incorrect label. Follow the blog via email, or follow on Facebook – links on right sidebar towards the top of the page.
Assimilation Tool or a Blessing? By Alyssa Landry, Indian Country Today, 2016, Jan 7. Subject: The Indian Placement Program.
It’s Time For Utah To Acknowledge It’s Treatment of American Indians by Elise Scott: Daily Utah Chronicle, 2018, Dec 3.
The Religious Origins of Manifest Destiny by Professor of History Donald M. Scott. National Humanities Center
Imagining Lamanites: Native Americans and the Book of Mormon by Thomas W. Murphy
List of those labeled as Lamanite: Follow this link.
Remembering Our Ancestors: Follow this link.
ChurchofChrist.org – There are so many sources for teachings regarding Christopher Columbus on the church official website that I will not mention them directly here. Simply search his name on the church website.
Romney, Marion G., America’s Promise. Ensign, Issue 9, 1979. ChurchofChrist.org
Echo Hawk, Larry, Come Unto Me, O Ye House of Israel. General Conference. October 2012. ChurchofChrist.org