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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

From the LA Times:


Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted

DNA tests contradict Mormon scripture. The church says the studies are being twisted to attack its beliefs.

By William Lobdell
Times Staff Writer

February 16, 2006

From the time he was a child in Peru, the Mormon Church instilled in Jose A. Loayza the conviction that he and millions of other Native Americans were descended from a lost tribe of Israel that reached the New World more than 2,000 years ago.

"We were taught all the blessings of that Hebrew lineage belonged to us and that we were special people," said Loayza, now a Salt Lake City attorney. "It not only made me feel special, but it gave me a sense of transcendental identity, an identity with God."

A few years ago, Loayza said, his faith was shaken and his identity stripped away by DNA evidence showing that the ancestors of American natives came from Asia, not the Middle East.

"I've gone through stages," he said. "Absolutely denial. Utter amazement and surprise. Anger and bitterness."

For Mormons, the lack of discernible Hebrew blood in Native Americans is no minor collision between faith and science. It burrows into the historical foundations of the Book of Mormon, a 175-year-old transcription that the church regards as literal and without error.

For those outside the faith, the depth of the church's dilemma can be explained this way: Imagine if DNA evidence revealed that the Pilgrims didn't sail from Europe to escape religious persecution but rather were part of a migration from Iceland — and that U.S. history books were wrong.

Critics want the church to admit its mistake and apologize to millions of Native Americans it converted. Church leaders have shown no inclination to do so. Indeed, they have dismissed as heresy any suggestion that Native American genetics undermine the Mormon creed.

Yet at the same time, the church has subtly promoted a fresh interpretation of the Book of Mormon intended to reconcile the DNA findings with the scriptures. This analysis is radically at odds with long-standing Mormon teachings.

Some longtime observers believe that ultimately, the vast majority of Mormons will disregard the genetic research as an unworthy distraction from their faith.

"This may look like the crushing blow to Mormonism from the outside," said Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who has studied the church for 40 years. "But religion ultimately does not rest on scientific evidence, but on mystical experiences. There are different ways of looking at truth."

According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an angel named Moroni led Joseph Smith in 1827 to a divine set of golden plates buried in a hillside near his New York home.

God provided the 22-year-old Smith with a pair of glasses and seer stones that allowed him to translate the "Reformed Egyptian" writings on the golden plates into the "Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ."

Mormons believe these scriptures restored the church to God's original vision and left the rest of Christianity in a state of apostasy.

The book's narrative focuses on a tribe of Jews who sailed from Jerusalem to the New World in 600 BC and split into two main warring factions.

The God-fearing Nephites were "pure" (the word was officially changed from "white" in 1981) and "delightsome." The idol-worshiping Lamanites received the "curse of blackness," turning their skin dark.

According to the Book of Mormon, by 385 AD the dark-skinned Lamanites had wiped out other Hebrews. The Mormon church called the victors "the principal ancestors of the American Indians." If the Lamanites returned to the church, their skin could once again become white.

Over the years, church prophets — believed by Mormons to receive revelations from God — and missionaries have used the supposed ancestral link between the ancient Hebrews and Native Americans and later Polynesians as a prime conversion tool in Central and South America and the South Pacific.

"As I look into your faces, I think of Father Lehi [patriarch of the Lamanites], whose sons and daughters you are," church president and prophet Gordon B. Hinckley said in 1997 during a Mormon conference in Lima, Peru. "I think he must be shedding tears today, tears of love and gratitude.... This is but the beginning of the work in Peru."

In recent decades, Mormonism has flourished in those regions, which now have nearly 4 million members — about a third of Mormon membership worldwide, according to church figures.

"That was the big sell," said Damon Kali, an attorney who practices law in Sunnyvale, Calif., and is descended from Pacific Islanders. "And quite frankly, that was the big sell for me. I was a Lamanite. I was told the day of the Lamanite will come."

A few months into his two-year mission in Peru, Kali stopped trying to convert the locals. Scientific articles about ancient migration patterns had made him doubt that he or anyone else was a Lamanite.

"Once you do research and start getting other viewpoints, you're toast," said Kali, who said he was excommunicated in 1996 over issues unrelated to the Lamanite issue. "I could not do missionary work anymore."

Critics of the Book of Mormon have long cited anachronisms in its narrative to argue that it is not the work of God. For instance, the Mormon scriptures contain references to a seven-day week, domesticated horses, cows and sheep, silk, chariots and steel. None had been introduced in the Americas at the time of Christ.

In the 1990s, DNA studies gave Mormon detractors further ammunition and new allies such as Simon G. Southerton, a molecular biologist and former bishop in the church.

Southerton, a senior research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, said genetic research allowed him to test his religious views against his scientific training.

Genetic testing of Jews throughout the world had already shown that they shared common strains of DNA from the Middle East. Southerton examined studies of DNA lineages among Polynesians and indigenous peoples in North, Central and South America. One mapped maternal DNA lines from 7,300 Native Americans from 175 tribes.

Southerton found no trace of Middle Eastern DNA in the genetic strands of today's American Indians and Pacific Islanders.

In "Losing a Lost Tribe," published in 2004, he concluded that Mormonism — his faith for 30 years — needed to be reevaluated in the face of these facts, even though it would shake the foundations of the faith.

The problem is that Mormon leaders cannot acknowledge any factual errors in the Book of Mormon because the prophet Joseph Smith proclaimed it the "most correct of any book on Earth," Southerton said in an interview.

"They can't admit that it's not historical," Southerton said. "They would feel that there would be a loss of members and loss in confidence in Joseph Smith as a prophet."

Officially, the Mormon Church says that nothing in the Mormon scriptures is incompatible with DNA evidence, and that the genetic studies are being twisted to attack the church.

"We would hope that church members would not simply buy into the latest DNA arguments being promulgated by those who oppose the church for some reason or other," said Michael Otterson, a Salt Lake City-based spokesman for the Mormon church.

"The truth is, the Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science," he said.

Unofficially, church leaders have tacitly approved an alternative interpretation of the Book of Mormon by church apologists — a term used for scholars who defend the faith.

The apologists say Southerton and others are relying on a traditional reading of the Book of Mormon — that the Hebrews were the first and sole inhabitants of the New World and eventually populated the North and South American continents.

The latest scholarship, they argue, shows that the text should be interpreted differently. They say the events described in the Book of Mormon were confined to a small section of Central America, and that the Hebrew tribe was small enough that its DNA was swallowed up by the existing Native Americans.

"It would be a virtual certainly that their DNA would be swamped," said Daniel Peterson, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, part of the worldwide Mormon educational system, and editor of a magazine devoted to Mormon apologetics. "And if that is the case, you couldn't tell who was a Lamanite descendant."

Southerton said the new interpretation was counter to both a plain reading of the text and the words of Mormon leaders.

"The apologists feel that they are almost above the prophets," Southerton said. "They have completely reinvented the narrative in a way that would be completely alien to members of the church and most of the prophets."

The church has not formally endorsed the apologists' views, but the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — http://www.lds.org — cites their work and provides links to it.

"They haven't made any explicit public declarations," said Armand L. Mauss, a church member and retired Washington State University professor who recently published a book on Mormon race and lineage. "But operationally, that is the current church's position."

The DNA debate is largely limited to church leaders, academics and a relatively small circle of church critics. Most Mormons, taught that obedience is a key value, take the Book of Mormon as God's unerring word.

"It's not that Mormons are not curious," Mauss said. "They just don't see the need to reconsider what has already been decided."

Critics contend that Mormon leaders are quick to stifle dissent. In 2002, church officials began an excommunication proceeding against Thomas W. Murphy, an anthropology professor at Edmonds Community College in Washington state.

He was deemed a heretic for saying the Mormon scriptures should be considered inspired fiction in light of the DNA evidence.

After the controversy attracted national media coverage, with Murphy's supporters calling him the Galileo of Mormonism, church leaders halted the trial.

Loayza, the Salt Lake City attorney, said the church should embrace the controversy.

"They should openly address it," he said. "Often, the tack they adopt is to just ignore or refrain from any opinion. We should have the courage of our convictions. This [Lamanite issue] is potentially destructive to the faith."

Otterson, the church spokesman, said Mormon leaders would remain neutral. "Whether Book of Mormon geography is extensive or limited or how much today's Native Americans reflect the genetic makeup of the Book of Mormon peoples has absolutely no bearing on its central message as a testament of Jesus Christ," he said.

Mauss said the DNA studies haven't shaken his faith. "There's not very much in life — not only in religion or any field of inquiry — where you can feel you have all the answers," he said.

"I'm willing to live in ambiguity. I don't get that bothered by things I can't resolve in a week."

For others, living with ambiguity has been more difficult. Phil Ormsby, a Polynesian who lives in Brisbane, Australia, grew up believing he was a Hebrew.

"I visualized myself among the fighting Lamanites and lived out the fantasies of the [Book of Mormon] as I read it," Ormsby said. "It gave me great mana [prestige] to know that these were my true ancestors."

The DNA studies have altered his feelings completely.

"Some days I am angry, and some days I feel pity," he said. "I feel pity for my people who have become obsessed with something that is nothing but a hoax."

Mormons finally admit truth

Book of Mormon change prompts reflection among Native American members

By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune

Article Last Updated: 11/17/2007 12:50:51 AM MST

Mormon scholars may not have believed that all American Indians descended from Book of Mormon figures known as "Lamanites," but scores of Indian members do.

Many joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints precisely because they felt the church's sacred text was telling their history. Being a "Lamanite" (pronounced Lay-man-ite) was part of their new identity in the church. They enjoyed their privileged status among white Mormons, flocking to Utah to live among "their people" and in their "homeland." They joined Brigham Young University's song-and-dance troupe, the Lamanite Generation, and attended the Lamanite ward in Provo.

Now the term, "Lamanite," is declining among Mormons. The Lamanite Generation has become "Living Legends" and Indians worship at Provo's Franklin Second Ward (it has some services in Navajo).

Though not LDS, Forrest Cuch says the Mormon Indians he knows resent the change. He worries that it may accelerate the church's shifting emphasis from American Indians to Guatemalans and Mexicans.

There is already enough tension between Latinos and Indians, says Cuch, director of Utah Division of Indian Affairs. "Saying the only true Lamanites are in Central America is an insult to all of us."

Others, though, welcomed the change.

Jon Kissner, of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, grew up near Fort Hall, Idaho, in the 1970s.

It wasn't easy being singled out as a Lamanite.

"The expectations made me uncomfortable," says Kissner, who now lives in Murray. "It was tough to be told you were part of the chosen people."

This recent move may help Indians integrate more fully into the LDS community, he says, diminishing the differences with fellow Latter-day Saints.

Others don't feel the word change means a thing.

Harding Walker, on the board of American Indian Services in Provo, will always see himself as a Lamanite. When missionaries came to his childhood village near Gallup, N.M., his family embraced the Mormon faith immediately. It mirrored the traditions and legends he was taught by his Zuni grandfathers.

"Everything we already believed was in the Book of Mormon," Walker says. "Our religion is so close to Mormon theology, we had no problem accepting it."

His traditions even have an answer for DNA evidence, suggesting that all American Indians came from Asia across the Bering Strait.

Some, like the Navajos, did come from Siberia. But Zuni traditions say others came from the south "through the waters."

If anyone wants to dispute the Book of Mormon, they have no leg to stand on from an Indian point of view, Walker says. "People from the waters do exist."


Special Report

Mormons, Mayans and Mystery
The Book of Mormon's version of history continues to be challenged — and championed — by skeptics and faithful

By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 11/17/2007 12:50:39 AM MST

LDS biologist Trent Stephens thinks he may have triggered the change in the Book of Mormon's introduction that became public last week.

Stephens' efforts came after a lifetime of hearing Mormon leaders and members talk in glowing terms about the link between American Indians and the Book of Mormon's small band of Israelites who sailed from Jerusalem to establish a civilization in the Americas. After centuries of warring among themselves, the book says, the last ones standing were known as "Lamanites."

To the LDS faithful, Lamanites were real people with a real history.

Every Mormon prophet since the church's founding in 1830 has taught that Indians descended from Lamanites. The perceived link explains the church's initial outreach to Indians in the northeast and later in Utah. It is why the church created an Indian Placement Program, urging members in the 1950s to care for those they saw as part of their religious family. Mormon missionaries working in Central and South America have always told potential converts the Book of Mormon is their ancestors' story.

Sometime in the past decade, Stephens learned about DNA evidence suggesting American Indian origins were in Siberia, not the Middle East. It was no crisis of faith for Stephens, a former Mormon bishop and Idaho State University professor. He found lots of ways to explain the discrepancy.

Besides, Book of Mormon text makes no claims about lineage. The book's 1981 introduction was the only text that said "Lamanites were the principal ancestors of American Indians," and that could be changed.

On March 23, 2004, Stephens told his LDS stake president in Pocatello that critics were using DNA evidence against the book, pointing to the introduction's wording. The leader recognized the problem and took it to the LDS Area Authorities, who took it to the LDS Missionary Committee in Salt Lake City.

Sometime last year, LDS authorities instructed Doubleday, which published the only unofficial version of the Book of Mormon, to change its introduction to read: "Lamanites were among the ancestors of the American Indians."

The move didn't satisfy critics, such as Simon Southerton, a former Mormon excommunicated for the arguments in his book, Losing a Lost Tribe: DNA, Native Americans and the Mormon Church.

"The change raises more pressing questions for those seeking the truth. If science was right all along about the dominant Siberian ancestry of American Indians, are they also right about the timing of their entry?" Southerton wrote in an e-mail from his home in Australia. "There is abundant evidence, some now coming from the DNA research, that their Siberian ancestors arrived over 12,000 years ago. How does such a date fit with other LDS beliefs?"

DNA is not the only challenge to the Book of Mormon's version of history.

Mormon founder Joseph Smith said the book was written in "Reformed Egyptian," which he claimed to translate from the writings on gold pates he unearthed in Upstate New York. Non-Mormon scholars have never heard of such a language and wonder why Jews would use the language of their oppressors rather than Hebrew to record their sacred history.

The book mentions metals, elephants, horse-drawn chariots, wheat, and barley — all of which had yet to be discovered in Meso or South America during the scripture's time period, 2200 B.C. to 400 A.D. Critics see no sign of Book of Mormon kings, no palaces or tombs, no mention of important names from the scripture, no site of the book's final battle that included thousands, if not millions of soldiers.

Non-Mormon archaeologists take the whole thing "as a complete fantasy, that this is a big waste of time," said Michael Coe, an emeritus professor of Mesoamerican studies at Yale, in last spring's PBS documentary "The Mormons."

"Nothing can ever come out of it because it's just impossible that this could have happened, because we know what happened to these people. We can read their writings: They're not in reformed Egyptian; they're in Maya."

Mormon scholars at Brigham Young University's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and at FAIR (The Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research), though, think they have an answer for every critique. They've spent decades collecting relevant pieces of archaeological, geographical and linguistic evidence to prove it.

Finding correspondence: For the past 55 years, John Sorenson has inhaled every detail of Book of Mormon life and history. It was Sorenson who first proposed that the scripture's action likely took place in Guatemala and southern Mexico, rather than encompassing both North and South America. This idea, known as the limited geography thesis, better explained the book's description of a "narrow neck of land" and the Land Northward and Southward, and helped solve some of the earlier archaeological challenges and is now the consensus view.

Sorenson, 83, retired from BYU's anthropology department about 21 years ago but still comes every day to the school's Museum of Peoples and Cultures. He is completing what he says will be his final work, tentatively titled, The Mormon Codex.

"The intent will be to show that only a Mesoamerican native from about fourth century A.D. would have known enough to write what's in the Book of Mormon," Sorenson said. "I have hundreds of correspondences between the [Mormon] text and archaeology. I will put down the most persuasive, cogent ones of those with the aim to demonstrate that it was written by an eyewitness in Mesoamerica."

Metals were used much earlier than most archaeologists believe, for example, and 50 purported horse bones have been found, some of which may be old enough to fit the scripture's time frame, he said.

Then there's the question of naming.

"We are dealing with the names, horse, cattle, goat, and sheep, but that's in English," Sorenson said. "There are a variety of animals native to the Americas that could qualify as bearing those names."

To find clues, Sorenson has poured over Mesoamerican scholarship and matched it with Old World findings, suggesting a connection between the two.

Sorenson belongs to a renegade group of anthropologists known as "diffusionists," who believe numerous voyages carried people and animals to the New World. Last year, he collaborated with Carl L. Johannessen, a non- Mormon geographer at the University of Oregon on a paper, "Biological Evidence for Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Voyages." In it, they cited 99 plant species that appeared in both the old and new worlds before the Spaniards' arrival.

Such views are scorned by most conventional archaeologists, Sorenson said, but it doesn't deter him.

"I don't have time to wait for it all to become clearer to everyone else," he said. "I need to publish everything I've learned."

On the ground: While Sorenson and the Maxwell Institute are careful about declaring a certain site to correspond directly to a Book of Mormon city or story, Joseph L. Allen is more confident.

Allen, a retired teacher in the LDS Church Educational System with a doctorate in Mayan studies, has been leading Book of Mormon tours for 40 years. He has taken more than 200 trips to Guatemala and southern Mexico with groups eager to walk where scriptures say important episodes happened.

More than 80 percent of the book's action takes place between the Land of Nephi and Zarahemla, which are described as being about 30 days of travel apart, or some 250 miles, he said. "It is a small area."

Allen believes the book's final battle took place in Veracruz, Mexico, not in New York where Smith said he found the plates. He sees many connections between the Mayan civilization and Nephites and Lamanites. He sees the myth of Quetzequatl, the white god who appeared in the Americas, as a possible link to the Book of Mormon tale of Jesus Christ appearing in the New World after his resurrection.

"We've learned more in last 30 years about the history and geography of the Book of Mormon than in previous 170 years," Allen said. "The best days of this research are still ahead of us."

Despite such enthusiasm, Allen knows it is not archaeology that persuades readers to believe in the scripture's authenticity — it is faith.

"When all is said and done," he said, "it's a spiritual book."

That's why Stephens, the Idaho biologist, works so hard to explain the lack of DNA evidence for Lamanites.

He sees a parallel between the Mormon text and the Bible.

Biblical writers viewed themselves as the stars on God's center stage, a favored people. To everyone else at the time, the Hebrew prophets and people were little more than a footnote in the epic histories playing out around them.

Though some biblical names, places and episodes have been identified by archaeologists, scientists have not found any hard evidence that the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt even took place.

The same could be true of the Book of Mormon, said Stephens, co-author with Jeff Meldrum of Who are the Children of Lehi: Lamanite Identity, DNA and Native American Origins, is due out later this year.

"It tells the story of a small group of people among a lot of other groups who were largely unaware of this tiny colony," he said. "How small would a subpopulation have to be before it would be completely missed?"

On top of that, Stephens doesn't believe every group arrived via the Bering Strait.

"To think that over a 30,000 year history, every hominid came in one single migration over a few year period is ridiculous," he said. "There's an arrogant naivetι about how accessible the Americas were before Columbus."

Mormons, too, have their own arrogance, he said.

The revised wording in the Book of Mormon's introduction "should cause members to rethink their perspective on Native American traditions," Stephens said." I do think it will change people's minds, but it will take it a long time."

Rob's comment
The Mormons' belief is similar to claims that Indians are descended from Hindus or got their cultural knowledge from Atlantis or ancient astronauts. See these postings for why such claims are pernicious as well as false.

See Mormon Questions Belief That Indians Are Lost Israelites for a previous posting on the subject.

Readers respond
Mormonism is based on the "racist conceit...that the Natives were inferior and incapable of so much as even making a really big pile of dirt."

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