Imagining Lamanites: Native Americans and the Book of Mormon
Doctoral Dissertation, University of Washington, 2003
308 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2012
Date Written: June 1, 2003
The Book of Mormon, first published by Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1830 in Palmyra, New York, draws upon colonial and antebellum biblical hermeneutics and nineteenth century myths of the origin and fate of an ancient American civilization of Mound Builders to construct a textual image of people of Hebrew descent called Lamanites. The author casts Lamanites as the antithesis of civilized, Christianized, white Nephites and employs legends of a Semitic patriarchal seed and a Hamitic curse of a dark skin to naturalize the authority of white men. The text formulates a model of conversion that conflates religious with economic, political, social, and biological transformation. Mormons of European heritage drew upon the portrait of Lamanites from this sacred text to target American Indians for conversion, adoption, and assimilation while justifying the usurpation of Native American lands. Rather than facilitating the disappearance of Lamanites, Mormon evangelization fostered the emergence of a new and dynamic Lamanite identity. American Indian converts to Mormonism in the United States, Mexico, and beyond have adopted, contested, and creatively reconstructed Lamanite status in ways that often defied Mormon attempts to turn them white. Meanwhile, Mormon scholars have struggled with archaeological, historical, and biological evidence contradicting claims of a Hebrew origin of American Indians and offered new images of Lamanites that narrowed the geographical range of the Book of Mormon from a hemispheric view to more limited geographies in places like Central America. Recent development of DNA research into American Indian origins has undermined claims of Hebrew ancestry for American Indians in Central America and beyond. Some Mormon scholars are now claiming the Hebrews of the Book of Mormon left no genetic descendants while others are entertaining the possibility that the scripture may be inspired fiction.
Keywords: Mormon, Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, American Indians, Lamanites, Native Americans, Hebrews, Mexico, naturalize, DNA, Mound Builders, patriarchy, body, skin color, race, Ethnicity
JEL Classification: Z10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation