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Why Native Americans struggle to make their stories and traditions fit with the Book of Mormon

They’re raising their voices about problems that extend beyond scriptural verses about Lamanites, curses and dark skin to cultural issues.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) This scene from a Book of Mormon video depicts Lehi, his wife, Sariah, and their family as they sail to the promised land on the ship built by Nephi (Lehi's son) and his brothers (Laman, Lemuel and Sam). The split that occurs in Lehi's family is at the root of most the book's narrative and has led to difficulties for Native American Latter-day Saints as they try to navigate their tribal heritage and their faith.

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The Declaration of Independence, the eloquent and iconic document which has been celebrated by Americans on July Fourth for 245 years, famously declares that “all men are created equal.”

Everyone except for Native Americans, whom the Founding Fathers condemn in the declaration as “merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

No wonder many members of the nearly 600 federally recognized Native tribes don’t love this holiday.

“Like many things, July Fourth is complicated,” said P. Jane Hafen, a Taos Pueblo who lives in Las Vegas. “My uncle is a well-known war hero and survived the Bataan Death March. A number of our family served in the armed forces.”

But Hafen, who embraces irony, also has a T-shirt that reads: “merciless Indian savages.”

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also once had a love/hate relationship with a country that failed to support them.

At the same time, Mormons shared the prevailing views of the Euro-American colonists regarding the United States’ first inhabitants — but with their own twist.

The faith’s namesake scripture, the Book of Mormon, professes to be a record of two Israelite civilizations living in the New World. One derived from a single family who fled from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and eventually splintered into two groups, known as the Nephites and Lamanites.

The book’s title page explicitly says that the scripture is “written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel.” In this volume of scripture, the latter are depicted as dark-skinned, “cursed” and rebellious rivals to the fair-skinned and mostly righteous Nephites. The Lamanites eventually wipe out their enemies.

For most of the church’s 191-year history, members were taught that the Lamanites were the principal ancestors of American Indians and that the Book of Mormon was a history of this continent’s civilization.

In 1971, Spencer W. Kimball, who would become church president a couple of years later, said that Lehi, the scriptural family patriarch, was “the ancestor of all of the Indian and mestizo tribes in North and South and Central America and in the islands of the sea.”

That perspective has evolved, though, speeded in part due to DNA research showing no genetic link between Native Americans and Near Eastern peoples.

In 2007, the church changed the Book of Mormon’s introduction to read that Lamanites are “among” the ancestors of Native Peoples.

Still, many members continue to assume that Lamanites are synonymous with all Indigenous populations — which leaves many questions for American Indians who are Latter-day Saints.

They need to know how the stories and traditions handed down to them fit with what they were taught at church.

Now they are speaking out.

Finding their voice

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) In this Book of Mormon video scene, Lamanite King Lamoni's wife hears Ammon teaching about the creation.

Native Peoples have been “the objects of study, not subjects who exert their own agency, construct their own identities, and internalize their own perspectives of their Mormon experiences,” Hafen and Brenden Rensink, associate director of Brigham Young University’s Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, wrote in their 2019 book, “Essays on American Indian and Mormon History.”

Last month, several of the authors in the Hafen-Rensink volume joined their editors for a panel discussion, “New Directions and Questions for American Indian and Mormon Histories,” at a Mormon History Association conference in Park City.

In a first for a largely Latter-day Saint academic conference, the history association officially acknowledged — as did every speaker on the panel — that it was meeting on the ancestral lands of the Ute Tribe. And several panelists identified themselves by their tribal association.

The aim of both the book and the academic discussion, the participants said, was to highlight the variety of contemporary lived Native Mormon experiences.

It’s about time, said Hafen, who moderated the discussion.

While leaders in the Utah-based faith have acknowledged historic prejudice toward Black members (including a priesthood and temple ban, which ended in 1978) they have yet to address the faith’s treatment of Indigenous peoples.

“Race means more than Black and white,” she said. “There is marvelous scholarship going on in LDS history regarding [Blacks], as it should be. But there is a vacant hole and a need for reconsideration of Indigenous histories.”

Non-Indigenous people can ask some basic questions, Hafen said, “to help decolonize [the story] and assist in understanding Native Peoples.”

Such questions might include: On whose ancestral lands do you live? Who are the local Indigenous people? What is their history? Who is telling the story, and why are they telling it? What are individual relations with Mormonism?

For generations, most of the scholarship on Native Americans was “done by nonnative scholars, who were given a position of privilege,” Rensink told The Salt Lake Tribune. Now there’s a “rising generation of Indigenous scholars doing amazing work and getting academic jobs and being given the platforms to do it.”

If you are “going to cite somebody,” Hafen, who taught at both BYU and at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told The Tribune, “there will probably be a native scholar you can turn to.”

Scripture as justification

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) In this Book of Mormon video scene, King Lamoni, a ruler over the Lamanites (an ancient American people), is taught about God by Ammon.

Some observers have believed Mormons “were not like other settlers in their treatment of Indigenous people,” Elise Boxer, coordinator of the Native American studies at the University of South Dakota, said in a streamed presentation at the history conference, “but I argue not only were they similar, but they replicated some of the colonial goals here in the United States.”

Like many other 19th-century Americans, “Mormon Euro-Americans viewed American Indian Peoples as a vanishing people, a people in need of saving via civilization…'” Boxer, a Dakota from the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands, wrote in her essay, which “could be achieved only through their conversion to Mormonism, particularly their reclamation of the Book of Mormon as part of their Lamanite history.”

Believing that Native Peoples were the first immigrants, who “lost their inheritance or rights to their traditional homelands due to their own wickedness,” she wrote, Mormon settlers could justify “American Indian removal and displacement.”

The Latter-day Saint scripture’s treatment of Lamanites as one main group, Boxer wrote, “not only ignores the diversity of Indigenous Peoples completely, but ignores their unique history that intimately connects them to the land.”

It also strips them of distinctive creation accounts.

There is no “generic ‘American Indian’ experience or Mormon-Indian experience, nor is there a Lamanite identity that can be uniformly applied to all Indigenous peoples,” she asserted. “The inclusion of varied perspectives that challenge the Lamanite history and identity will enrich the historical narrative and empower tribal nations and peoples to tell their own stories.”

As to skin color, the Book of Mormon describes Lamanites as cursed with a “skin of blackness,” Boxer wrote. “This curse could be reversed if they repented of their wickedness. In contrast, Nephites were ‘white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome,’ and rewarded for their righteousness. … Despite moments of righteousness, the majority of Lamanites never fully rid themselves of their cursed, ‘blackened’ skin thus reinforcing a racialized hierarchy.”

She is not challenging the Book of Mormon’s veracity or “its ecclesiastical authority,” Boxer wrote in her essay, “but [its use] as a definitive history of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas.”

Oral tradition as holy text

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) This scene from a Book of Mormon video depicts inhabitants of Zarahemla kneeling and praying to God when their spiritual and governmental leader, King Benjamin, invites them to do so.

If you put aside the question of whether the Book of Mormon is literal history, the story it tells is not so different from other Indian traditions, said anthropologist Thomas Murphy, whose dissertation topic was “Imagining Lamanites: Native Americans and the Book of Mormon.”

And if there were actual gold plates from which the Book of Mormon sprang, as church founder Joseph Smith professed, “those plates belong to someone else,” Murphy said at the conference, mentioning the Seneca or Mohawk tribes who lived in the New York region where Mormonism was born.

Their oral traditions parallel the “radical message in the Book of Mormon,” the scholar said. “Indigenous stories coming from this place have sacred value as much as scripture.”

The two Indian communities tell of a great peacemaker, who comes at a time of battle, and brings a message to the people, reminding them of their earlier commitments, said Murphy, who teaches at Edmonds College in Washington. “This peacemaker brings an era of peace and restores some balance to the people.”

This echoes the Book of Mormon story of Jesus in the Americas, he said, who “brings a period of great peace.”

In this signature Latter-day Saint scripture, the Christian Savior chastises the people for leaving out some of the story, the professor wrote in his essay. “The more culturally inclusive approach Christ encouraged can be pursued by turning to other sacred narratives.”

Like the Iroquois’ oral tradition.

According to them, the peacemaker worked with the Mother of Nations, who served as “a negotiator and representative of the women,” Murphy said at the conference. She gave land ownership to the women and pushed “clan mothers” into the governing structure.

“If we read only the Book of Mormon,” he said, “we miss the voice of the mothers.”

No single Lamanite nation

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) This Book of Mormon video scene, filmed in Hawaii, shows Alma the Elder baptizing in the Waters of Mormon.

Many speakers on the MHA panel addressed the diversity of Native Peoples.

For Farina Noelani King, Diné (Navajo) of the Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House) clan, the search for identity began with her name.

Why am I called this? she wondered. Why do I have a Maori name, Farina? Who are these namesakes?

King grew up in the 1980s on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, whose population consisted of Navajos, whites and Polynesians.

“There was a strong presence of Pacific Islanders in her ward [Latter-day Saint congregation],” King said on the panel, particularly two female educators — named Farina and Noelani — whom “my mother wanted me to emulate.”

The Pacific Islanders, mostly from Hawaii, ended up on the reservation, she said, because some of them had been sent there as Mormon missionaries.

“Whether they viewed each other as fellow Lamanites, as the ‘True Israel,’ or as Indigenous Peoples…,” concluded King, who teaches at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, “diverse Navajos and Native Hawaiians willingly embraced the Mormon faith and became brothers and sisters in the church.”

Michalyn Steele, who teaches at BYU’s law school, is part of the Seneca Nation in New York.

She remembers fondly her parents and others working all night making Iroquois corn soup on the first Saturday of every month at the Latter-day Saint meetinghouse. It was dubbed the “Corn Soup Social.”

The soup, taken from dried white corn and then cooked with kidney beans and salt pork, is ground into a kind of masa, Steele said, which is “almost like Play-Doh.”

In her tribe, she said, “it’s a specialty delicacy.”

People came from all over the reservation to buy the soup by the quart, she said, which was a way for members to earn money for their church building fund.

“The two identities of being a member of the Seneca Nation and of the LDS Church have peacefully coexisted,” Steele said in a Zoom presentation. Her experience of the two was “a uniquely symbiotic, cooperative relationship. … The church contributes to the community and is a gathering place. The Corn Soup Social preserved and perpetuated important cultural touchstones within the reservation community.”

Into the future

Boxer is at work on a book about the Book of Mormon, and how to view what it says about Native Peoples in a new way.

“It will be a good place to start this discussion,” Rensink said, “and for the next 50 years, people can chew on it.”

Such discussions will be uncomfortable — not just for Indigenous members but also for “settler peoples,” he said. They also will show that “there can be safe places where we can deal with this uncomfortable stuff.”

A lot of things are happening on the ground level in the church “where you have native leadership in native areas,” Hafen said, “instead of having to default to white leadership.”

What is her granddaughter to think, Hagen asked, if she “goes on trek,” a reenactment of Mormon pioneers crossing the Plains with handcarts, without any mention of their treatment of American Indians?

Members have “to get past things like that,” she said, if they want Native Peoples to be “more visible” in the church.

Let those stories of resilience and redemption, she said, be heard and heralded.

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