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In 1830, with the Book of Mormon hot off the press, Joseph Smith sent missionaries to the Native Americans to teach them of their heritage as descendants of Father Lehi and the house of Israel. The federal government threw them out and wouldn’t let them preach, but regardless, the idea that Native Americans will be blessed by the restoration of the gospel and the history contained in the Book of Mormon is rooted deep in Mormon history and doctrine [fn 1].

However, the Book of Mormon also teaches that God brought about the genocide against the Native Americans because they were wicked. According to the Book of Mormon, and as Church leaders continue to teach, Christopher Columbus was inspired by God to sail out and discover the Americas for the Europeans. Nephi saw this in vision (1 Nephi 13:12). Christopher Columbus wrote about how he felt the guiding hand of God in his explorations, and knew that he had a role in spreading Christianity. Latter-day prophets picked up on this and praised Columbus’s faith and courage to act on his beliefs. 

President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) revered Columbus as being inspired of the Lord: “A host of critics have spoken out against [Christopher Columbus]. I do not dispute that there were others who came to this Western Hemisphere before him. But it was he who in faith lighted a lamp to look for a new way to China and who in the process discovered America. His was an awesome undertaking—to sail west across the unknown seas farther than any before him of his generation. He it was who, in spite of the terror of the unknown and the complaints and near mutiny of his crew, sailed on with frequent prayers to the Almighty for guidance. In his reports to the sovereigns of Spain, Columbus repeatedly asserted that his voyage was for the glory of God and the spread of the Christian faith. Properly do we honor him for his unyielding strength in the face of uncertainty and danger” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1992, 73–74; or Ensign, Nov. 1992, 52). [Source]

Why was the land of the Americas taken from the descendants of the Lamanites and given to the Europeans? Because they were wicked. The idea that the Lord gives land to the righteous and takes it away from the wicked is firmly rooted in the Old Testament. From the destruction of Jericho to the destruction of the kingdom of Israel after King Solomon, land is passed around to different peoples based on their righteousness and God’s will. Nephi taught this while exhorting his brothers to help him build the ship. You can read the entire lecture in 1 Nephi 17:29-38 which he neatly summed up in verse 37-38. 

37 And he raiseth up a righteous nation, and destroyeth the nations of the wicked.

38 And he leadeth away the righteous into precious lands, and the wicked he destroyeth, and curseth the land unto them for their sakes

The Old Testament’s stories about how the Israelites conquered the promised land are pretty awful. The Lord commanded the Israelites to massacre entire cities. War crimes and atrocities were the Lord’s method of choice to clear the people from the promised land and give the land to the newly-freed Israelites. See the Old Testament books of Deutoronomy, Joshua and Judges. 

It’s equally as horrifying to read about the methods the European settlers used against the Native Americans. The Europeans enslaved Native Americans and worked them to death. They sent blankets infected with smallpox that wiped out 90% of entire tribes. They used guns against people armed with tomahawks. They slaughtered buffalo to deprive Native Americans of food. They passed laws and forcibly relocated entire nations of people.

The Book of Mormon teaches that this judgment came directly from God. “I have visited them [Lamanite descendants] in judgment, and smitten them by the hand of the Gentiles” (1 Nephi 13:34). Nephi’s younger brother Jacob echoed this teaching: “I will afflict thy seed by the hand of the Gentiles” (2 Nephi 10:18). The Native Americans suffered because they were wicked; they deserved it; God sent Europeans to do this to them, so all the atrocities committed by the European settlers were God’s judgment upon them. 

Saying that a race of people deserve to be persecuted and destroyed is racism. The Book of Mormon teaches a fundamental and damaging racism towards Native Americans, and then tries to turn it into a blessing. After the Gentiles “afflict” the Native Americans, they will be taught their Israelite heritage and blessed by the gospel (see 1 Nephi 22:5-9). Europeans will destroy the Native Americans, and then save them by preaching the gospel. The White Savior trope is also racist.

I’ve never seen the Church disavow that teaching the way they’ve disavowed (without apologizing) the racism that caused the priesthood ban against the Blacks. President Nelson has reached out to the NAACP, and was recently awarded the Gandhi-King-Mandela Peace Prize for his efforts to build bridges with Blacks.  

But what about trying to build bridges with the Native Americans? Or even just acknowledging the harm done? God promised Nephi that the Gentiles would not “destroy the seed of thy brethren” (1 Nephi 13:31). The Church needs to speak up and help this prophecy along, because the European descendants are still trying to destroy the Native Americans. 

In the past few years, news broke about the discovery of mass graves and unmarked graves where thousands of indigenous children died at residential schools in Canada. The residential schools were part of the government’s forced assimilation, in which it took some 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children over a period of more than 100 years and forced them to abandon their native language and convert to Christianity. America has similar blood on its hands. Residential boarding schools closed decades ago, though their legacy and damage done still exists. 

Currently, groups and individuals within the United States are working in several ways to destroy and weaken Native American culture, people and lands. The genocide is ongoing; it isn’t a past event that we, the descendants of the European colonists, can express regret over and move on. The idea that this land was given to Christians and they have a duty to convert the Native Americans continues to do significant damage today.

I’ve got one example for you today, but this is far from the only way bad actors within the United States continue to attack and erode the culture and rights of Native Americans.

Indian Child Welfare Act and Brackeen v. Haaland

The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 to stop the practice of taking Native American children from their families and tribes. As many as 35% of Native American children were being taken from their families—often without evidence of abuse or neglect that would be considered grounds for removal—and placed with non-Native families, with the intent to deprive them of their Native family or culture. These children were being removed from intact families, and taken from the reservation even when they had extended family who were willing and able to take them in. The Indian Child Welfare Act worked to protect the best interests of Native American children and keep them connected to their families and tribes.

(The Church’s Indian Placement Program, which operated from the 1950s through the 1990s, was directly related to its theology about the destiny of Native Americans, and a way to assimilate Native American children into Christian culture. I’m not very familiar with the Indian Placement Program, but it appears to have been voluntary and open only to those whose parents requested it and for people who had already been baptized. The Church opposed the ICWA. See Entangled Histories: The Mormon Church and Indigenous Child Removal from 1850 to 2000, Margaret D. Jacobs, Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 42, No. 2 (April 2016), pp. 27-60 at page 51. The ICWA did not interfere with the Church’s Indian Placement Program because those children were not adopted – merely sent to live with a white LDS family during the school year.)

The ICWA, passed in 1978, is an early example of woke politics. “Woke” is basically the idea that white Christian America has harmed people of color and minorities, and that we should do something to stop the harm and even heal problems as much as we can. The ICWA identified a serious harm – white Christians were taking 25% to 35% of Native American children away from their families and tribes and giving them to white Christians to assimilate into mainstream culture – and stopped it from happening.

In 2016, the Brackeens, an Evangelical Christian couple who felt God had called them to open their home to more children, began fostering a baby boy who had been born to a Navajo mother and Cherokee father. They were ultimately able to adopt the boy, though it was difficult. When the Brackeens tried to adopt the boy’s sister, they were blocked. There are a lot of details that I’m skipping, but the result was that the Brackeens challenged the ICWA for, among other things, discriminating on the basis of race because the ICWA prefers to place Native American children with Native American families, either extended family or other non-relatives in the tribe.

The legal argument is complex because the various Native American tribes are sovereign nations and so tribal membership is a political identity, not necessarily a racial one. The Brackeen’s case has been combined with several other cases involving white families who want to adopt Native American children. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Brackeen v. Haaland. The case was argued on Nov. 9, 2022 and the decision is expected sometime this spring.

If the Supreme Court invalidates the ICWA, it will have a devastating impact on Native Americans, and renew conservative Christian efforts to erase Native American heritage by taking their children away. Words fail me when I try to describe the trauma that must cause to parents, children, extended family and their community. There is plenty of precedent that would allow the Supreme Court to uphold the ICWA, but this particular Supreme Court has shown itself willing to mow down precedent in pursuit of a conservative agenda.

In essence, racism is hurting Native Americans from both directions. For decades, Native Americans were targeted with the racially discriminatory practice of taking their children into the foster care system in disproportionate numbers and placing them with families who would erase their connection to their roots and assimilate them into mainstream culture. This was the stated goal. Healing that damage means considering race in order to protect a race. It’s disingenuous for white people to argue that they’re being racially discriminated against because a people who have been the target of racial discrimination now have a law to protect themselves. Fairness and wokeness require that Native American identity be considered so that it can be protected. 

The Church and Native Americans

The Church is not involved in the Brackeen v. Haaland lawsuit. It has quietly stepped away from advocating for the conversion of Native American tribal members, and we don’t hear much about this issue anymore. However, the damage done by the Christian attempt to convert Native Americans has never been healed. (Note that various Christian denominations had this same goal; this wasn’t unique to the LDS Church.)

There is much concern rightly expressed about the racial discrimination that kept Blacks from holding the priesthood. The Church has disavowed (without apologizing) all of the justifications and policies that were used to support the priesthood and temple ban for so many years.

No one is pressuring the Church to apologize for racism towards Native Americans. The Church can’t disavow the doctrine behind the genocide against Native Americans and the attempt to convert them. It’s baked into the scriptures. Not only did Joseph Smith believe the American continent was given to the Europeans by God because the Native Americans were wicked, but this doctrine was explicitly taught by Nephi, Enos and Moroni. To state that the way the Native Americans were treated was a tragedy would gut a major message of the Book of Mormon.

The Church has sought to excuse its racism against Blacks as policy, not doctrine. There’s a consensus that the priesthood ban came from Brigham Young and not Joseph Smith. There is no comparable loophole that would allow the Church to excuse its racism against Native Americans. The Book of Mormon teaches clear and undeniable racist doctrine against Native Americans.

[fn 1] The Book of Mormon title page claims that it is written to the Lamanites, that they might be brought to a knowledge of their forefathers and their heritage as descendants of the house of Israel. Enos received a promise that the Book of Mormon would be used to teach the Lamanites of their heritage (Enos 1:11-14). The Book of Mormon promises that the Native Americans will be part of building Zion in the latter days. In this General Conference talk from 1980, Elder Gene R. Cook rhapsodizes about the faithfulness of the Lamanite descendants in South America, telling several stories about miraculous conversions, and then using language that now is outdated for the way it sets up the white people as the wise ones bringing knowledge to the simple and humble native people of color. “There are few problems with respect to teachableness among this people. They are teachable, meek, open in their hearts, and, in this respect, much like submissive children.” You hear less language like that in the decades since then, perhaps because people have identified the White Savior trope as harmful and have pushed back against it.


  1. Do any of you remember the Indian Placement Program? Tell a story.
  2. At what point did you start to get horrified at the teaching that racism and exploitation isn’t so bad if it brings people to Christ? [I was going to try and phrase that more neutrally, but I can’t do it. Destroying a nation of people because some might get converted to Christ is horrible and I hope no one thinks conversion is a benefit of genocide, slavery and racism.]
  3. Should Mormon culture and Church leadership do more to heal the wounds of racism against Native Americans?
  4. Given how deeply Native America racism is baked into our theology, do you think the Church will ever do anything to address this issue?