Mormon Missionary conversation with a Native American
Religious trauma is an odd thing to process. Especially when people keep telling me it wasn’t that bad, that I misunderstood, or that it was in fact beautiful beliefs from God. Early this year I thought I had done it, I thought I had healed from that past trauma. I could talk about the religious and racial issues and do research without getting triggered. Yet recently I found myself struggling during a simple conversation as my body processed an uninvited stress response, and the person I was talking to had no idea.
I promised months ago the transcript of that conversation, the one I had in September with Mormon missionaries. It took some time before I was able to listen to the recording. I tried a number of times, but each time found I had to step back. I may move slowly through this work, but eventually I do move. Thank you all for your patience, and to all of you who reach out to me with support and kindness. It makes a difference.
(Note: Missionary names will not be included in this transcript. Mormon missionaries go on missions around 18 and 19 years of age. I will respect both their young age and their personal journey in life. It is not my intent to shame young people, or anyone for that matter, for their religious beliefs. Only to bring attention to the specific beliefs and teachings about Native Americans and Indigenous peoples’ identity, and how they impact those people.)
It was casual at first. We talked about the weather, where we were all from, kids and family, and had an enjoyable and relaxed conversation. After that we spoke about the Bible for a bit. The first main point I was taught was, “The Church of Jesus Christ is just like any other Christian church because we believe in Jesus Christ and that He died for our sins.” Soon after this the conversation turned to the Book of Mormon.
Missionary, “And yes, The Book of Mormon is all about Jesus Christ! The biggest part of the Book of Mormon is where Jesus Christ goes and visits the people of the ancient Americas. He teaches them His gospel, and tells them that they are His other sheep, like the scripture from John! Have you ever heard of the Book of Mormon before?”
(I paused for a little too long as I thought about what they said. One of those awkward pauses, but I quickly realized I was still quiet and replied.)
Sarah, “I’m so sorry. Trying to take it all in. Thank you for taking the time with me. So Jesus visits America?
Missionary, “It’s really okay, I know this is a lot of information. Jesus Christ does go and visit the Americas, shortly after He was resurrected. He loves us all, and wanted to give the people of the Americas an opportunity to hear His gospel. He taught them, blessed them, and let them feel the wounds from His death. Is it okay if I share a scripture with you from this part of the Book of Mormon?”
Missionary, “Okay, awesome! I’ll share the verse where Jesus is telling the people of the Americas about them being the other sheep He mentioned. It says, ‘But behold ye have both heard my voice and seen me, and ye are my sheep, and ye are numbered among those whom the Father hath given me.”
Sarah, “That is a beautiful belief, that he would visit other people.”
Missionary, “It really is beautiful, right!” The Book of Mormon is a record of the people that lived in the Americas. However, their story is absolutely amazing… Jesus Christ visited a group of people called the Nephites. They are descendants from a group that left Jerusalem.”
Sarah, “Where do the Nephites live now?”
Missionary, “That is such a good question. The Nephites became wicked and were killed by another group called the Lamanites, and the Native Americans are the descendants of the Lamanites. I really enjoyed talking to you. Can I get your number so we can talk more about the Book of Mormon and maybe read it together? No pressure, only if you want to.”
I felt it important to clarify what I had just been told about Native American lineage, so asked more directly.
Sarah, “I think that would be ok. So… the Book of Mormon is about Native American ancestors?”
Missionary, “Yes, the Book of Mormon is about the people who eventually become the Native Americans. What is your number?”
At this point I did give the missionary my phone number. About a week later I received a text inviting me to continue our conversation. During that continuation we talked about family and life again for a bit, and I told the missionary about one of my friends that has been encouraging me to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it.
I feel like it is worth taking a minute to say that I have a number of active and believing Mormon friends and family. They are extremely kind and loving, and when they are trying to save me or encourage me to return to Mormonism it is meant in kindness. It is also worth noting that the Missionary was not aware that I was once a member. (More on how my views have changed on this last fact at the end of the blog post.)
Once we were done with small talk our conversation returned to religion and beliefs. I let the missionary know I had some concerns about what they had previously told me, “The biggest part of the Book of Mormon is where Jesus Christ goes and visits the people of the ancient Americas.” And that, “…Native Americans are the descendants of the Lamanites.” Then I shared my view of the Book of Mormon timeline.
Me: “Native Americans have been here far longer than the Book of Mormon timeline.”
Missionary: “I’m glad that you feel comfortable enough to share your concerns… And ya, those are really valid concerns to have honestly. I really do appreciate you for being interested enough to actually try to look for things and try to seek those answers. That is really important, that is actually something God wants us to do. He doesn’t just say it in the Book of Mormon, but in the Bible as well, that if we lack wisdom that we need to ask of God. To put in a little bit of work for ourselves like you did, and then we need to ask him.”
Sarah: “I don’t suppose there are any answers you have for me, surrounding the issue about the Native Americans being from Jewish people and of their skin being darkened as a sign of a curse? I don’t think that is ok to say they inherited dark skin because their ancestors were cursed or that they are cursed.”
The feeling in the conversation changed a little, and I could tell the missionary had become uncomfortable. Please note above I was careful to say that it was “their ancestors” who were cursed, not current people. The church is attempting to show that they aren’t racist by stating that current Native American people with dark skin are no longer viewed as cursed – it was only in ancient times that it was a sign of a curse on their ancestors. So I wanted to ask the questions while framing them in current teachings. Sadly, this is obviously still extremely racist but few acknowledge that. The missionary goes on to teach the church’s direction on this issue below.
Missionary: “That is a really good question, and actually we don’t believe that Native Americans have dark skin because they were cursed for their wickedness. So in the Book of Mormon that group of people (Native Americans) did have a curse that was placed upon them, however because everyone has the ability to change and to repent, and that group that was originally cursed actually repented and became better than that original group when they split off. Because of that ability to change, the skin color was not a sign of the curse anymore. The Book of Mormon doesn’t say that there isn’t any other groups of people that are living on the continent at that time, it doesn’t have that record of them. So there could have been other people there that the people in the Book of Mormon were getting married to and having children with. And as a result of being out in the sun all the time their skin naturally turned darker to be able to withstand that much sunlight and all the things they were out doing.”
The missionary just admitted that Native American ancestors were cursed with dark skin, but they repented and then their dark skin color was no longer a sign of a curse anymore. Then the missionary added there were other people here, and they were in the sun, as if this removes what they previously said.
Adding those last two facts, that people were already here and that they were all in the sun, does not negate the teaching that Native American ancestors were darkened as part of a curse. In an attempt to clarify, not jump to conclusions, or leave anything to interpretation I tried a direct question.
Sarah: “Are you saying Mormons don’t believe that Lamanites skin was darkened as a sign of a curse?”
Missionary: “First they did look different, however that sign of their skin being darkened was no longer attributed to being cursed. Because the Lamanites at some point in the Book of Mormon do repent. They actually become even better than the Nephites, and the Nephites turn away from God. There are so many different people, there are good Nephites and there are bad Nephites, and there are really amazing Lamanites. One of them actually becomes a prophet of God like Noah and Moses and he was Lamanite, but that dark skin wasn’t considered a curse. That is not something we believe anymore either. There are tons of other people that all look different. Just because your skin is darker doesn’t mean you are cursed. The Native Americans, just because their skin is darker doesn’t mean they are cursed.”
Above the missionary states that Lamanite skin was indeed darkened as a sign of a curse, and then the missionary added positive information as if in an attempt to make it not so bad, this does not negate racist teachings. Again, I asked a direct and clarifying question.
Sarah: “I think I understand what you are saying. So when their ancestors turned away from God, their skin was darkened as a sign of a curse?”
Sarah: “But when they became righteous did their skin get lightened again, or was it just no longer considered the sign of a curse?”
Missionary: “The Lamanites stayed dark, but it wasn’t considered a sign of the curse anymore. Samuel the Lamanite, of course we don’t know exactly what he looks like, but he was a Lamanite and in all his depictions he is with dark skin. Honestly he is one of my favorite Book of Mormon prophets. He set such a good example. Does that help answer your question a little bit?”
I wanted so bad at this point to be able to be positive for this young person. This missionary was trying so hard to make sense of racist teachings in a positive light. I wondered how they would feel if they were Native American? Would they understand the ramifications of the racist teachings if it was less of an idea, and was part of their identity? I kept my voice as gentle as possible, but could not respond with the positive answer they wanted.
Sarah: “It still is saying that their ancestors were darkened. It still is saying that the curse is the whole reason their dark skin is even there, even if it is no longer considered a sign of a curse for descendants, their dark skin is still connected to where it originated. Yes, you answered my question, but I still see issues with it.”
Missionary: “That is completely understandable.”
Sarah: “I don’t want to overwhelm you with my questions or thoughts. I am sure this is a hard topic to teach or explain.”
Missionary. “For sure. It is kind of similar to things that appear in the bible, because it is Cain who gets marked because of his evilness. There are records of things like that which have happened in the Bible that we really have to reconcile ourselves with.”
And this right here is where I finally became less patient. Perhaps it is through educating myself this year about issues that persist in the Black communities. Perhaps it was being told by a church member when I was 16 that I should stop dating my high school boyfriend because he was Black, and they then taught me about Cain’s lineage. Thankfully I ignored their advice, but sadly I had believed it, just as I had believed Lamanite teachings about my own heritage. Perhaps it is everything that we as a society have seen this year that has opened my eyes. Perhaps it is learning about the beautiful and amazing mixed race Black/ Indigenous people and the struggles they have had. Education has changed me. Experiences have changed me. I can’t convey my tone in this transcript, but my voice reflected I wasn’t happy with what they had just said bringing Cain into it when I continued.
Sarah: “Is this the teachings about Black people in the church?”
Missionary’s voice sounded panicked, and there was some backpedaling.
Missionary: “The whole thing about Black people’s skin being dark because of the curse of Cain, that is also something we no longer believe or teach in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Because that leads to a lot of hate and we know God wouldn’t do that. Maybe Cain himself was marked. We just believe Black people are the result of where they live, but we don’t believe that Black people are black because they are the descendants of Cain.”
I find it telling that the missionary said that “God wouldn’t do that” when addressing Black people and the curse of Cain, yet the missionary teaches that God did indeed do that to Lamanites and Native Americans ancestors. There is this invisible aspect Native Americans experience within racism. This is an example of that.
Sarah: “Thanks for sharing that. So, you compared the Lamanite mark to the bible when Cain is marked. The church specifies Native Americans, isn’t that like Cain? You can’t say people are descendants of the Lamanites, just like you can’t with Cain. Native Americans have been through so much. They told people who they were and where they came from, and no one listened to them. So I do have issues with that.”
Instead of hearing me on this, instead of acknowledging or engaging in conversation, the missionary goes on to tell me below that Native Americans are the descendants of the people from the Book of Mormon.
Missionary: “That is really great, and thank you for being willing to ask. Something really great that I’ve been learning about recently is that I am related to someone that when the church arrived in Salt Lake, the pioneers, he actually was sent on a special mission to become friends with the Native Americans and to start trading with them. And something that he was taught when he went on his mission was to respect those Native Americans because they were those descendants of the people from the Book of Mormon. And actually in the Book of Mormon there are so many blessings that are placed upon those people saying that God would never forget them and He will never let them be destroyed completely off the face of the land. When we learn more about Native Americans, their culture and their heritage and things, they are just so deeply rooted to it and their spirit and they are honestly so amazing. And that is something my ancestor was taught, and something I grew up believing which is super cool. I just wanted to share that with you.”
Of all the things that stood out to me in what they just said it was this, the missionary just stated above that God promised he would never let all of the Native American ancestors be destroyed. The missionary said that as if it was a blessing. What isn’t stated is that God did intended for most of them to be destroyed. You see, the skin is not the curse, it is the “sign of the curse”. God warned the Native American ancestors that if they turned away from God he would completely remove His spirit from them, and He would no longer protect their promised land (the Americas) from outsiders. The Book of Mormon teaches that Native American ancestors turned away from God and became evil, and that is why they lost their land and were killed, and God made way for righteous people. Native American ancestors caused the genocide of their own people, their blood in their own hands. If only they had been righteous…
At this point I was already emotionally shutting down in the conversation, and the missionary had no idea. How would this kid know that stating some belief about a blessing of God not letting all Native Americans die was actually as ugly and racist as it gets? This belief had caused me more pain than the ugliness around skin. Native Americans did not become evil and cause their own genocide or loss of land. The real history of Native American loss of land was one group of humans taking resources from other groups of humans, not about one group being righteous and the other evil. I am always left after these conversations wondering why people do not see this?
I would also like to point out how much the missionary’s own ancestor’s story meant to them, and how their pride for their ancestors’ actions impacted their current Mormon identity. How would they feel if this good and decent man they descended from was called evil and cursed because of his spiritual beliefs, and his skin color was changed as a sign to the world? I point this out because our ancestors matter. The missionary’s ancestor does indeed matter, as do Native American ancestors. How we speak their truth also matters.
Sarah: “Thanks for sharing that, I can see how that would be a beautiful belief to some. That still is viewing them as Lamanites. The Native Americans in Utah have been there way longer than the Book of Mormon timeline, they predate it by thousands and thousands of years. So if it happened, I don’t know that I would attribute that ancestry to the people who have their own heritage. It is disrespectful to their unique ancestry. But I do appreciate that your relative viewed it as something positive in their mind.”
Missionary: “We obviously don’t say that all Native Americans are descendants of the Lamanites, but we do say among the Native Americans are some of the descendants of the Lamanties, because of course when the people in the Book of Mormon got here they most likely weren’t the first people here, because of how land was connected and migrations. However the people in the Book of Mormon did come here, and of course different people interact with different people, and they are going to mix, and get married and have children and things like that. So we do believe that not all Native Americans are Lamanites, but there is still some of that blood line that is traced through there.”
Maybe it was my emotional state at the time. Maybe it is my annoyance transcribing this and now rereading it. But that last bit was so gaslighting. The entire conversation was all about Native Americans being the descendants of Lamanites and the Book of Mormon being their history. I asked direct and specific questions and the entire time Native Americans were all Lamanites. To suddenly shift to “We obviously don’t say that all Native Americans are descendants of the Lamanties…” It does not change racist teachings.
Welcome to Mormonism, let plausible deniability reign. Dang, my apology for the insert here of my sarcasm. I’m coping. But I need people to know how this impacts living Indigenous people and their identity. For years now I’ve been writing this blog, and I have tried desperately to be kind towards active and believing members. What I want to show is that not everyone gives that same consideration or understanding, and so often they aren’t even aware. This missionary was young, and is still figuring life out. Why do those leading the church continue to not listen to Native American’s? Christopher Columbus and manifest destiny teachings are in the current lesson manuals printed this year 2020, as is the Lamanite myth and Native Americans being the descendants. Missionaries are official representatives of the church and will continue to teach current theology as they were taught it.
Native American beliefs, history, ancestry, skin, and especially the children all deserve more respect than what I was taught during this conversation. As a Native American mother, what if I had let the missionary teach my children? What if I didn’t know anything about Mormonism and accepted only what the missionary shared instead of asking direct questions? Native American families are still being taught these things. It is still current. I was so upset at this point all I could do was end the conversation as peacefully and non-confrontationally as possible.
Sarah: “Ok, um… well, I don’t want to give you too much information or ask too many questions of you. Thank you so much for answering my questions. So with DNA, Jewish DNA is not in Indigenous heritage at all.”
Missionary: “If you have a copy of the Book of Mormon I would love to invite you to just read a little bit of it, starting at the beginning. We don’t have full archeological proof of everything that happened in the Bible, however I do know that the Book of Mormon is true because I’ve read it and prayed about it. And I would love to invite you to start doing that with the Book of Mormon, even if you just read a little bit of it. And even if you don’t believe in it there are still some really beautiful stories about families, and about how families need to stick together through hard times, which I love so much. You are a mom, and you have kids, and the Book of Mormon starts off talking about a family. They are not perfect and they fight, and there are older brothers and their actions and what they say sometimes aren’t super kind, but we just learn about their journey and their struggles and the miracles they receive as they try to stay together.”
Sarah: “Ok, well thank you so much. You’ve been so great, thank you for taking the time with me.”
We said our goodbyes and the missionary offered to answer any future questions if I had them at a later date.
I’ve added all the thoughts I am able to at this point. Please view my other blog posts for additional information. Also, at the top of the page on the menu is “List of Lamanites.” On that page you will find a list with sources of all those who have been labeled as the descendants of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon.
I mentioned that the missionary was unaware that I was previously a member, and that this has changed me a little. Up to this point anytime a missionary and I have engaged in conversation I have left that detail out. There are two other blog posts in which I talked to missionaries. I wanted them to simply share their beliefs uninhibited, and teach me what they believed in. Early on in this blogging journey I naively hoped that I would learn from missionaries that perhaps I had misunderstood what I was raised to believe about myself and my ancestors, or that the church teachings were changing, or at the very least that the younger generations were changing their views within Mormonism. After this conversation I feel strongly about letting missionaries know I was once a member. I want them to have the information necessary so they may decide for themselves if they want to continue the conversation. Yes, this conversation was hard on me. But it was also hard on the missionary who did the talking. I heard it in their voice – the panic, the confusion, the holding on to spiritual experiences of their own ancestor, I heard it all. So if, though highly unlikely, I respond or engage in conversation with missionaries, I want the conversation to be as authentic as possible. I want them to understand I am not interested in joining, and to only engage with me if they really want to. I want to treat them with love and kindness as a fellow human being. We are all growing and learning on our individual paths. On my own path this is something I feel is growth for me. I think this conversation is important enough to release on my blog. It will however be the last of its kind.