In an earlier post, I argued that, early Mormon traditions to the contrary, we should not view the story of Laman and Lemuel’s curse as an etiological tale about the origins of Native Americans. In this second post, I will argue that, after a certain point in the text, it is not even correct to see the this story as an etiological tale about the origins of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon. At this point, the definition of the term “Lamanite” shifts to include things that cannot be accounted for by the curse narrative in 2 Nephi 4.
I cannot locate this point exactly in the text, but I am pretty sure that it occurs some time between two crucial passages set during the two continental wars that frame the book of Alma.
In the first passage, which occurs during the Amlicite War, Mormon describes how the Amlicites marked themselves to appear less like Nephites and more like Lamanites:
And the Amlicites were distinguished from the Nephites, for they had marked themselves with red in their foreheads after the manner of the Lamanites; nevertheless they had not shorn their heads like unto the Lamanites. (Alma 3:4)
We can reasonably infer that, at this point in the text, the terms “Nephite” and “Lamanite” still function as some kind of ethnic description. Given the etiological narrative that Joseph Smith and other early Mormons accepted, it is at least possible that we are meant to read “marked themselves with red in their foreheads” as an attempt to mimic an ethnic trait (skin color) rather than simply a cultural marking. But even if it is the latter, there is no ssuggestion that joining with the Lamanites and adopting their grooming habits constitutes “becoming Lamanites.” It would make no sense to talking about members of one ethnic group becoming members of another. Ethnicity doesn’t work that way.
Something similar happens with the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, who convert to the Nephite religion and join their society but are not yet called “Nephites.” They always maintain their own ethnic identity as Anti-Nephi-Lehies, or as Ammonites, or as “Sons of Helaman,” or something other than just plain-old “Nephites.” The ethnic boundaries go both ways. But look what happens just a few years later during the Amalekite War, which is in many ways a remake of the war with the Amlicites:
For behold, it came to pass that the Zoramites became Lamanites; therefore, in the commencement of the eighteenth year the people of the Nephites saw that the Lamanites were coming upon them; therefore they made preparations for war; yea, they gathered together their armies in the land of Jershon. (Alma 43:4)
The Zoramites do not simply join with the Lamanites, or mark their skin to look more Lamanity; they become Lamanites. This would not be possible if “Nephite” and “Lamanite” still functioned as ethnic designations. One might argue, I suppose, that the wicked Zoramites were cursed too and became Lamanites the same way that Laman and Lemuel did. But certainly Mormon would have found that worth mentioning. The stronger inference is that, a generation after the Amlicite War, the terms “Nephite” and “Lamanite” began to lose their ethnic connotations and became terms for political alignments.
We see evidence of continuing evolution of these terms as the BOM narrative continues. In 3 Neph, the converted Lamanites “became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites” (3 Nephi 2:16). And in 4 Nephi, of course, two hundred years after the coming of Christ, terms like “Nephite” and “Lamanite” become simply the names of different religious beliefs with no more ethnic connotation than “Lion’s Club Member” or “Bears Fan”:
And it came to pass that in this year there arose a people who were called the Nephites, and they were true believers in Christ; and among them there were those who were called by the Lamanites—Jacobites, and Josephites, and Zoramites; Therefore the true believers in Christ, and the true worshipers of Christ, (among whom were the three disciples of Jesus who should tarry) were called Nephites, and Jacobites, and Josephites, and Zoramites. And it came to pass that they who rejected the gospel were called Lamanites, and Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites; and they did not dwindle in unbelief, but they did wilfully rebel against the gospel of Christ; and they did teach their children that they should not believe, even as their fathers, from the beginning, did dwindle. (4 Nephi 1:36-38)
The Book of Mormon consistently uses the terms “Nephites” and “Lamanites” as designations for its principal tribes. But the kinds of tribes designagted change significantly over the narrative. Initially, these terms refer to family clans (or coalitions of clans) with some component of physiological difference. Later, they describe political alignments during times of protracted conflict. And finally, they become terms for elective religious affiliations. This evolution of tribal identity–from family to state to religion–corresponds nicely to the ways that collective identity has evolved in other parts of the world, from “Luceres” and “Benjamites,” to “Romans” and “Israelites,” to “Christians” and “Jews.” And even “Mormons.” Humans have always been tribal, but we have displayed great variety in the governing logic of our tribes.
And this all has implications for the way that we read the Book of Mormon. One such implication is that we cannot take the text on its own terms and attach any etiological significance to the original curse narrative, since the “Lamanites” who survive the great war at the end of the Book of Mormon represent a self-selected political and religious faction and not a tribe of lineal descendants. It also means that the text will not support many of the common conceptions (and most of the paintings) about who was fighting who in the later part of the Book of Mormon.