So here’s how this started: a Mormon friend of mine had never heard living people referred to as Lamanties, as in ‘our Lamanite brothers and sisters in Mexico.’ He’s Finnish and has never lived in the States, but still: I thought using the term ‘Lamanite’ to refer to indigenous peoples of North America, South America and/or Polynesia was fairly basic in Mormon culture. (I’m no social scientist, so forgive my clumsiness in dealing with these terms.) I grew up with the word ‘Lamanite,’ hearing it from people my parents’ age. I’ve tried to recall whether I heard it used by BYU students or missionaries other than ironically, but I can’t remember much from those years other than ironically , so who knows? Certainly, the leadership of the church referred to those populations as Lamanites throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. I assumed that if they stopped it was probably because of the DNA controversy of the last few years.
With a hypothesis and a song in my heart, I went to lds.org, and I did a search for the term ‘Lamanite’ in General Conferences. The church magazines are online starting from 1971, so that was my beginning point. I got 120 hits, and then read through them to see if the talk referred to Lamanites in The Book of Mormon or Lamanites being alive and well, so to speak. (I ignored the ‘News of the Church’ entries.) I found 26 references to contemporary Lamanites :
Within these 26 references are off-hand references (‘our Lamanite friends’), but also the term is used to reinforce the unique position that indigenous peoples have within Mormon theology, and there are several references to welfare service programs offered to native Americans using the term Lamanite.
The numbers are too small to see any significance in variations between 1971 and 1982, but the contemporary Lamanite references dry up in the early 1980s: of the four references after 1982, three are historical quotations. Spencer W. Kimball is the most common speaker here, with seven of the talks; four others either quote him or refer to him in some way. The fact that 1982 is the last conference in which President Kimball was well enough to speak seems significant.
President Kimball obviously had a special relationship with those he referred to as Lamanites. When he was no longer well enough to run the church, there seems to be evidence here that someone de-correlated the contemporary Lamanite references. For corroboration, I searched the dedicatory prayers (ldschurchtemples.com) for the temples of South America, Central America and the Pacific. Contemporary Lamanites are mentioned in three prayers: Laie (1919, Grant), Laie’s re-dedication (1978, Kimball) and Sao Paulo (1978, Kimball). None of the others mention Lamanites.
I was getting pretty excited, thinking that I had discovered a shift in policy or doctrine from the early 1980s resulting from the decline of Kimball and the ascendancy of Hinckley. Then I noticed the phrase ‘children of Lehi’ used in some of the talks and decided to use that in a search. In General Conference, there is only one use of ‘children of Lehi’ besides the ones that also used ‘Lamanite:’ Clate W. Mask Jr., in April 2004. In that talk, he quotes President Hinckley from a temple dedication prayer in Guatemala, referring to the ‘sons and daughters of Lehi’ attending the temple. Hmm.
So I went back through the theoretically geographically appropriate temple dedications  and found that references to the descendants of Lehi were used in dedication prayers. I’ve tried to break down the frequency by decade:
number of Central and South American temples dedicated: 5
dedicatory prayers mentioning descendants of Lehi: 4
number of Central and South American temples dedicated: 17
dedicatory prayers mentioning descendants of Lehi: 5
number of Central and South American temples dedicated: 8
dedicatory prayers mentioning descendants of Lehi: 1
So. Although this has not turned out the way I planned, here is my attempt at some conclusions:
- ‘Lamanite’ was a term used to refer to the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Pacific Islands as a means of identifying their special link to Mormon theology. The use was so widespread that it was also used casually and independent of any specific theology.
- In the early 1980s, ‘Lamanite’ was dropped in favor of ‘descendents of Lehi,’or some variation thereof. I would guess that the term was seen as less pejorative. The decline of President Kimball’s health and power might be relevant as he was a primary user of ‘Lamanite.’
- Between 1982 and 2000, references to the special status of the descendants of Lehi are rare in General Conference but reasonably common in temple dedications, suggesting that those references were seen as more appropriate for the people in question than for the church as a whole. The growth of the church internationally might be an explanation. The fact that phrase is not used in Pacific Island temple dedications during this period suggests a change in thinking about the link between Pacific Islanders and The Book of Mormon.
- Since 2000, references to the ‘descendants of Lehi’ are rare, Elder Mask’s talk being an exception. The DNA controversy might help explain this, but other factors are probably relevant.
This is, of course, a very limited study based on my limited access to primary sources. For instance, at one time BYU had a Lamanite Studies program. Do they still? When did it end, or was it renamed? Are there other ways of measuring the Church’s official language use? To what degree does the official use of language trickle down to individual members?
 Here is a complete list of all of these talks and links to the talks themselves.
 Statistically, this is a mess. I looked at the Pacific Island temple dedications, but none of them came up positive, so I dropped them from the total. I checked San Diego on a whim and it had a reference, but none of the other temples from the southwestern United States did, so I included San Diego in the count but none of the others. Snowflake, AZ is also included.