Native Americans Are Not Tools for Colonization
What does colonization, cultural erasure, and ancestral appropriation look like for Native Americans being labeled as Lamanite in the year 2020?
Well, in Mormonism it looks a little something like this church article titled Lamanite Identity:
“Thus, the terms Nephite and Lamanite came to describe cultural and religious distinctions as well as ethnic differences. Eventually, Lamanites who did not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ overcame and destroyed the Nephite nation. Nephite prophets had foreseen this future destruction and prayed that their teachings, as preserved in the Book of Mormon, would one day be the means of converting the descendants of the Lamanites to the gospel. The Lord promised that in the latter days, the Lamanites would “come to the knowledge of their Redeemer,” that they would participate in building the latter-day Zion as a part of God’s covenant people, and that the “powers of heaven” would be in their midst.”
No, that is not correct. None of that is Native American history. In fact, it is religious persecution to label Native American religious identity, “those who did not believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ,” as if their cultural beliefs were somehow less valid. Native Americans are many distinct groups, with many spiritual beliefs, and Mormonism is not somehow “superior.” It is simply different. Is it not possible to celebrate Mormonism without pushing down and standing upon Native Americans? Perhaps the church might call the Book of Mormon Lamanite history, but stop labeling Native Americans as Lamanite.
Sadly, this is not the year Native American will no longer be labeled as “Lamanite” by official representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Earlier this month I recorded a conversation with missionaries who once again told me, among other things, that Native Americans are the descendants of Lamanites. I am still transcribing this conversation, it will be posted in the next few weeks on the blog.
Will the church use plausible deniability against their own missionaries? Answer, they already do. Here is another quote from the article. “While some early Latter-day Saints speculated about which specific groups were the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples, most considered the Native Americans broadly as heirs to Book of Mormon promises.”
“Some…” There was zero speculation from some, it was taught as fact by all leadership beginning with Joseph Smith himself. Apparently, current missionaries fall in the “some speculate” category. If they are simply teaching speculation about Native Americans what does that say about the missionary program? Should we respect the missionary program? Those youth serving faithfully deserve better from leadership, but that is an entirely different frustration I have. I find myself torn between my own mother like protectiveness of missionaries and frustration with the church leadership. But what also annoys me with this paragraph is that “some” is hidden behind “as heirs to Book of Mormon promises.” As if it shouldn’t matter that they were incorrectly labeled, because of pretty promises. Take the land, kill the people that don’t accept Mormon leadership, take away the children that survive, label them all Lamanites, and cheer them up with a promise? Or in modern times, blame it on “some” early leaders, but tell living Native Americans it was all ok because look, there are pretty promises.
This next quote I find even more troubling, “For many Latter-day Saints, however, embracing a Lamanite heritage has been a source of strength. Recognition of the promises to the Lamanites has helped many Saints take pride in their native heritage, and celebrations of native culture have appeared in Church settings such as temple dedications, talks, and programs. Saints who have identified as Lamanites have made substantial contributions to the Church and to their communities as they have aimed to realize the Lord’s promises to His covenant people.”
The church here is using an extremely small portion of Indigenous population that is Mormon, which carries generational trauma and survival of genocide, it is using them against their own people in it’s colonization efforts. As if saying “look, these people accept what we’ve told them, even through they are lies, they really like the lies.” No leaders, they do not know they are lies because you are still lying. Another generation of Indigenous children raised on colonization and incorrect labels. This is continued abuse and gas lighting. This is using a people hurt by cultural erasure to continue that erasure. Native Americans are not tools for colonization.
The church article also states the following, “The Church’s first major mission, in 1830, was to groups considered to be Lamanites.”
The first tribe on that Mission was the Seneca Nation. I wonder if they are the people the church is talking about that embrace the Lamanite heritage? Or perhaps it was the Huron Nation that they taught a month later on that mission, were they the ones who embrace Lamanite heritage over their own true heritage? By the third month of the mission the Delaware Nation was being proselytized to. Again I wonder if any of these tribes would appreciate being used to further the church’s Lamanite narrative.
Still waiting for the “honest in our dealing with our fellowman.” Do leaders understand the privilege they claim and uphold when ignoring these issues? The church does not need to stand on the back of Native American ancestors and living Indigenous people for the Book of Mormon to have spiritual value. It is unnecessary. I hope they will at some point correct it from “some that speculate” and replace it with “stop speculating.”
I admit, talking with the missionaries this month has once again exhausted me. They deserve all the kindness and space in the world. Kindness – all while teaching me things that brought me tremendous pain, but they had no idea. I had to take a break from transcribing, because honestly listening back to their young voices pushing a false belief about Native Americans is heartbreaking. I want to protect them, but also want to respect their own spiritual path and space. So I stepped back from the conversation. I suppose my frustration had to go somewhere though, and apparently that is this article. I would much rather the leadership correct the narrative from the top, so that missionaries like this hear the correction in their own spiritual space rather than strangers having to correct them. Especially strangers who have been labeled and hurt by the Lamanite narrative.
“Lamanite Identity.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, http://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/lamanite-identity?lang=eng. Web 24 September, 2020.
As always, your thoughts are deeply personal, thought-provoking, and relevant to our current societal problems. My heart is always filled with sympathy and empathy reading your . . . well, I would call them righteous rebukes of Mormonism’s awful errors. Your suggestion to separate the goodness (little that there is) of the Book of Mormon from the Native Americans is a good one, but there really isn’t much left of the Book if that is done. Having been raised in Mormonism, I heard all the “speculations” about Lamanites, and they were not speculations, but prophetic declarations by LDS Church leaders, that Lamanites were truly the Native Americans, the Pacific Islanders, and that they would be “changed” from dark and unbelieving into “white and delightsome”. I heard the prophetic declarations with my own ears, and I am so very sorry that I believed such. I taught indigenous people from Peru that the Book of Mormon was “their” heritage as a missionary, because that is what I was taught to do as doctrine from LDS leaders, and now, I too, am thrown under the bus as a “speculator”. Thank you again for your courage in writing this.
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Thank you once again for your thoughts and support. Yes, I agree it is challenging. I’ve considered the challenges of adjusting the narrative. I do not suggest saying Lamanites never existed or don’t exist somewhere. Though the evidence suggests they never existed, I am willing to give space for a belief. But I do suggest the leadership takes a stronger stance in advising all official representatives (both missionaries and leadership) that it is unknown who and where the Lamanites are, and that it is unethical towards already existing population – who have a very different history – to push the Lamanite identity on them. I at least hope that would give space for faith as well as supporting the true heritage and cultures of Native American populations. I guess I just hope for middle ground with honesty at the center. Do you think that is possible, or does my idea have flaws too? Perhaps I’m too close to it…
I too heard it pushed on Indigenous people from the time I was in primary, and I too believed it all, and feel sorry for that. I was one of those “Lamanites” proud of my heritage. But I was also equally if not more hurt by that heritage as well. I guess we are fellow speculators. 😉
Once again you offer a thoughtful response to Latter-day Saint assaults on Indigenous people’s history and identity. Your label of “religious persecution” is apt. The Book of Mormon is rooted in a settler colonial worldview and attempts to make Indigenous people responsible for the invasion and losses that resulted from it. Yes, it offers some promises about restoration of land but it makes them conditional. It subjugates Indigenous sovereignty to religiosity. This is, at a minimum, a rhetorical assault. Historically, it has served to justify actual violent assaults on the lands of the Shoshone, Ute, Paiute, and other nations of the Great Basin.
I find the claim that ancestors of American Indians, identified as Lamanites, wiped out a white nation of Nephites particularly preposterous. This simply did not happen. There is no physical evidence from archaeology or genetics to support this claim and Indigenous oral traditions tell very different stories about the past. The most appalling thing about this unfounded accusation is that it was, in fact, the settler colonists who were themselves engaged in acts of genocide at the same time they spun the stories of white mound builders, upon which the Book of Mormon account is based.
Thanks again for your work raising these important issues!
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Hi Thomas! Yes, so much everything you added. What disgusts me about the history of the genocide is that in Book of Mormon theology – genocide is the result of Native American ancestors becoming evil and losing protection of their promised land and being swept from the land. This is told of in the Book of Mormon when Lehi warns his sons Laman and Lemuel, when he is close to dying and giving his children and grandchildren blessings. Thereby laying the fault of the genocide of Native Americans at their own ancestors feet (when they are labeled Lamanite). I’m absolutely horrified that I was taught and believed that. None of it is true, and should not be placed on Indigenous people. Thanks so much for your comment.
Pleased to see that you are continuing with the good work. Given the nature of things, I suspect that this issue will not be resolved for a very long period of time–too essentially tied to the core of Mormonism. At the same time, I think that you are having an effect and your effect will continue to grow.
Here’s hoping that your family is doing well.
With warm regards, Arland
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Thank you so much for your encouraging words. I agree, it will likely be years before an official change. Hopefully there will be change eventually though. I’m ever the optimist.
And yes, we are well! Busy, but everyone is good. Hope your and your wife are doing well too.