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 in 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, destroying their civlization.
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? The problem in answering these questions require more context than what some critics and members have assumed.
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 answers 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, for our discussion, 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 Bibles use of the term “Gentile”, which basically means anyone who is not a Jew.
Lamanite Statements by Church Leaders
This open or general definition of “Lamanite” is important to understand for Mormon 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. 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.
The fact that in the minds of early Church members this term never referred to a specific small group in a limited area can be attested in the writings of early leaders. 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 a different perspective.
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. 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)
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”)
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 Natives this way, because it’s genetically impossible. However, all these statements don’t have to be entirely incorrect. Perhaps some Native Americans are direct blood descendents 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 they 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. However, I consider myself a Lamanite in the general sense that 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.
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. 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.