As a Navajo Indian, this question has always interested me. Am I a Lamanite? What are Lamanites?
The Lamanites are one of the main groups of people from the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon begins with a small Israelite family who journeyed from Jerusalem to the Americas at about 600 BC. Eventually, this family split into two groups: those that followed Nephi became the Nephites, and those that followed Laman became the Lamanites. The Nephites and Lamanites continuously warred against each other for a thousand years. At the end of the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites overthrow the Nephites civilization.
Naturally, many have wondered where the Lamanites are today. Can we find Lamanite DNA or any archaeological evidence? Did Church leaders reveal where they were? Answering these questions require more context than what some critics and members have assumed.
The Definition of “Lamanite”
What is the definition of a Lamanite? While there are many opinions, it’s best to go back to the text source itself. The Book of Mormon gives an answer to this question. After naming multiple groups of people, the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob said:
But I, Jacob, shall not hereafter distinguish them by these names, but I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi. (Jacob 1:13-14)
Basically, Jacob is saying that bloodline doesn’t matter so much as political alliance. Anyone who is against the Nephites is considered a “Lamanite”. This point is made more times in the Book of Mormon.
Research has demonstrated that the Book of Mormon peoples were a small group of Israelites surrounded by large groups of Native Americans who were already in the Americas. This means that the Maya could be considered “Lamanites”, as well as other Native American groups around the Nephites. The term basically means ANYONE other than the Nephites. Perhaps it is similar to the Bible’s use of the term “Gentile”, which basically means anyone who is not a Jew.
Lamanite Statements by Church Leaders
This generic definition of “Lamanite” is important to understand for Latter-day Saint history. It was used so generically that the early Church considered all Native Americans, from South America to North America, as Lamanites. Did the early Church understand that this term was being used so liberally in the Book of Mormon? Perhaps not. We already know that early church leaders had a hemispheric view of the Book of Mormon, so they naturally assumed all New World Indians were Lamanites. It wasn’t until about the 1900’s when Latter-day Saints started realizing the Book of Mormon happened in a much smaller area. The early Church was so busy with being persecuted, you can’t blame them for not looking at the text more closely. And archaeology as a science was still being established.
Although they may have been wrong genetically in using the term, the use of the term is still in line with the Book of Mormon’s open definition.
Early Church leaders referred to Lamanites all over the Americas
Even though they didn’t use the term genetically correct, early Church leaders still used it for all Native Americans. For example, Joseph Smith received revelation to send missionaries “among the Lamanites” (D&C 28, D&C 32) into the Indian Territories in North America. While this may at first seem like the Lamanites were only in that specific area near the United States, if we look at the accounts of these missionaries, we can see how they considered the Lamanites all over the Americas.
For example, Parley P. Pratt, who served on this “Lamanite mission”, later said that,
“Four-fifths, or perhaps nine-tenths of the vast population of Peru, as well as of most other countries of Spanish America, are of the blood of Lehi.” (Parley P. Pratt to Brigham Young, 13 March, 1852, in Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography, 368.)
“Spanish Americans! a vast majority of you are the descendants of the ancient race of the Mexican, Peruviana, Chilena and other nations of original Americans. The origin of that entire race is now revealed . . . by the discovery and translation of their ancient records, (the book of Mormon.) . . . And you, their descendants, are known in their ancient records as Lamanites, Nephites, etc.” (Parley P. Pratt, Proclamation Extraordinary! To The Spanish Americans)
Oliver Cowdery, while on this Lamanite mission, claimed that Lehi landed somewhere in Chile. He also said the Navajo were Lamanites as well. This goes to show that those who actually served on this Lamanite mission didn’t think that the Lamanites were limited to that single area. To them, all New World Indians in the entire Americas were Lamanites.
There are many more examples throughout Church History. In a letter sent to Joseph Smith, the writer said that:
This Committee is therefore led to take a brief view of the South and Western part of North America together with the Floridas, Texas, West India Islands and the adjacent Islands to the gulf of Mexico, together with the Lamanites bordering on the United Territories from Green Bay to the Mexican Gulf all crying with one voice through the medium of their chiefs. (letter to Joseph Smith, sent by Lyman Wright in 1844)
Brigham Young Jr. told the Saints,
The time is now come to preach to the Lamanites. The leaders of the Church have in view the 5,000,000 of Lamanites located in Mexico. (Minutes of Eastern Arizona Stake Conferences, 1883–1885, 25 March 1883, in Charles W. Peterson, Take Up Your Mission: Mormon Colonizing Along the Little Colorado River 1870–1900 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1973), 216.)
President Spencer W. Kimball once said,
Our Lamanite work has been going forward. The American Indians and others of the Lamanites, 60 million or more of them in South and Central America and Mexico and the islands, are accepting the gospel. (A Report and a Challenge, Spencer W. Kimball)
“I should like to address my remarks to you, our kinsmen of the isles of the sea and the Americas. Millions of you have blood relatively unmixed with gentile nations. Columbus called you ‘Indians,’ thinking he had reached the East Indies. Millions of you are descendants of Spaniards and Indians, and are termed ‘mestizos,’ and are called after your countries, for instance: Mexicans in Mexico; Guatemalans in Guatemala; Chilianos in Chile. You Polynesians of the Pacific are called Samoan or Maori, Tahitian or Hawaiian, according to your islands. There are probably sixty million of you on the two continents and on the Pacific Islands, all related by blood ties. The Lord calls you ‘Lamanites.’” (Spencer W. Kimball, “To You . . . Our Kinsmen,” Improvement Era, December 1959, 938.)
Harold B. Lee
We witnessed a short while ago the outpouring of love and fellowship that was in evidence in the great regional conference of our wonderful Lamanite Saints from Central America and Mexico, assembled in Mexico City in August. (Harold B. Lee, “May the Kingdom of God Go Forth”)
Quorum of the Twelve (1845)
“We also bear testimony that the “Indians” (so called) of North and South America are a remnant of the tribes of Israel; as is now made manifest by the discovery and revelation of their ancient oracles and records. And that they are about to be gathered, civilized, and made one nation in this glorious land. They will also come to the knowledge of their forefathers, and of the fulness of the gospel; and they will embrace it, and become a righteous branch of the house of Israel.” (Proclamation of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To All the Kings of the World; To the President of the United States of America; To the Governors of the several States; And to the Rulers and People of all Nations (New York: 6 April 1845), 2–3)
Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Quetzaltenango Guatemala Temple dedicatory prayer
“Thou kind and gracious Father, our hearts are filled with gratitude for Thy remembrance of the sons and daughters of Lehi. Thou hast heard their cries and seen their tears. Thou hast accepted their righteous sacrifices. We thank Thee for the sacred record of Lehi, Nephi and Jacob, Alma and Mosiah, Benjamin and Mormon, and of Moroni. We thank Thee for this voice that has come from the dust to bear witness of the divinity of Thy Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Dieter F. Uchdorf, dedicatory prayer of Quetzaltenango Guatemala Temple Temple (11 December 2011))
Parley P. Pratt
Peruvians, Mexicans, Guatemalans, descendants of every tribe and tongue of this mysterious race, your history, your gospel, your destiny is revealed. . . . [God] purposes your restoration as a righteous branch of Israel. The Book of Mormon, the record of your fathers, will soon be published among you . . . so that to say the least you may have the gospel of your forefathers, and some knowledge of their history and prophecies. (Parley P. Pratt, Proclamation! To the People of the Coasts and Islands of the Pacific; of Every Nation, Kindred, and Tongue(Sydney, Australia: C.W. Wandell, 1851), 9–10, spelling standardized.)
We can see that from early on in Church History to modern times, Church leaders and members have referred to Native Americans inside and outside of North America as the “Lamanites”. Today, some members simply use the term Lamanites to refer to any Native American generally.
Critics might claim that Church leaders were wrong in labeling American Indians this way, because it’s genetically impossible. However, perhaps some Native Americans are direct blood descendants of the Lamanites, or perhaps some Native Americans groups have a very small percent of Lamanite blood due to Book of Mormon migrations. Or perhaps, in some form, all Native Americans are adopted into the family of Lehi, due to promises in the Book of Mormon. A good example of this last idea is 1 Nephi 14:2, where it says that the Gentiles (anyone who is not a Jew) will be “numbered among the seed of [Nephi’s] father” … “if it so be that they harden not their hearts against the Lamb of God.”
I am actually 50% Navajo Indian. I’ve had apostles and prophets come to the Navajo reservation and say that we are Lamanites. I treat such statements as generically true, due to being adopted into Lehi’s seed and promises. I know that the archaeological evidence strongly supports that the Navajo came from Alaska, and I consider that likely true. Alaska tribes and Navajo tribes have very similar languages. However, I consider myself a Lamanite through either adoption or the mixing of Book of Mormon blood after hundreds of years. In a general sense. all New World tribes are brought under the generic meaning of “Lamanite”.
This hemispheric, open, liberal and generic use of the term “Lamanite” can help explain many concerns and misunderstandings people may have about the Lamanites. Critics like to point to the Introduction of the Book of Mormon, and how it was changed from defining the Lamanites as the “principal ancestors” of the America Indians to “among the ancestors” of the American Indians. Critics like to claim that once the Church found out that DNA doesn’t support Indians as having Hebrew DNA, they changed the introduction to be safe. The first thing to realize is that the Introduction to the Book of Mormon was never part of the Golden Plates. The Book of Mormon itself never claimed what the introduction said. The Introduction was added much later, around 1970, and some even objected to that wording. The second thing to understand is that a open hemispheric view of the Lamanites was still prevalent when the Introduction was written, and so it’s understandable why the Church would assume such a term. Critics don’t allow mistakes like this, expecting everything to be perfect. When in reality, whether that term was right or wrong, it doesn’t affect core Mormon doctrine, or what the Book of Mormon claimed. And all Native Americans can be Lamanites by adoption or mixing of blood.
On the other end of the spectrum, some overly zealous members might take a literalistic view of the term “Lamanites” and consider such wording or accounts, such as the “Lamanite mission”, to prove and pinpoint where the Lamanites are. But a literalistic reading often neglects a contextual reading, and taking into account all that has been stated so far. From the examples shown above, it’s clear that the Church, throughout its history, has used the term “Lamanite” to refer to every Native American in the Americas. Joseph Smith, or the missionaries on this Lamanite Mission, never assumed that the Lamanites were only located in that area.
So where are the genetic Lamanites now? There is probably no answer. They probably spread across the Americas, mixing a bit of blood everywhere. While there have been some modern prophets, such as Gordon B. Hinckley, who thought the vast Lamanites were in Central America, we don’t know for certain. I personally believe, due to archaeological evidence, that the Book of Mormon mainly happened in Central America, but as far as genetics and DNA, we can’t say for certain. We know that DNA studies can’t figure this out so far. Genetic studies can’t detect such a small group, living thousands of years ago, yet. And so we are left with no specific answer, other than it being a open topic. But hopefully, you got a lot of context from this article.