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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Two arguments for Great Lakes model not conclusive

Published: Monday, Dec. 13 2010 5:30 a.m. MST

In last week’s column, I pointed out five common claims advanced by those who propose a Great Lakes theory for Book of Mormon geography. In this issue, I will discuss the first and fifth claims.

1. The word “lake” is never used in the Book of Mormon (other than metaphorically). The word “sea” could easily refer to “lakes” just as the Dead Sea doesn’t denote an actual sea, therefore the Great Lakes could be the Book of Mormon “seas.”

This is a legitimate argument. All languages have words that can mean different things depending on a variety of factors including context. Dr. William Hamblin notes, for instance, that “dialectical variations of the same Hebrew word can mean ram, deer, ibex or mountain goat” due to “different dialects and different ecological zones” (quoted in "Shaken Faith Syndrome," p. 42).

Not only are some words ambiguous, some words actually can mean opposite things depending on the context. Following are just a few examples:

Buckle: This word can mean to hold things together — as in to “buckle your seat belt” — or to fall apart — as in to “buckle under pressure.”

Dust: This can refer both to the removal or sprinkling of fine particles. “Today I’ll dust the shelf,” or “the police should dust for fingerprints."

Fast: To move rapidly or not to move at all (“he held fast to his position”).

While the topic of language ambiguity will be discussed in greater detail in a future column, for now it’s important to understand that the Book of Mormon — which has a very limited vocabulary — undoubtedly has multiple meanings for various words and that “sea” could in fact denote oceans or lakes.

This does not necessarily mean that the Great Lakes region is the best fit for Book of Mormon geography; some of those who posit other geographies also believe that the word “sea” may refer to lakes as well as oceans. It does mean, however, that this particular argument does work in favor of the Great Lakes model as well.

5. Joseph Smith and the Doctrine and Covenants refer to the Native Americans in their area as Lamanites.

According to Great Lakes theorists, the fact that Joseph Smith referred to the local Native Americans as Lamanites (both in his personal writings as well as in the Doctrine and Covenants) is strong evidence (if not “proof”) that the Native Americans in the Northeastern United States are a remnant of the original Lamanites who lived in the same area during Book of Mormon times.

As discussed in an article earlier this year, the term “Lamanite” has at least three ways in which it can be understood: by genetics, by culture or through genealogy. My earlier articles on DNA and the Book of Mormon demonstrated that not all of one’s descendants will end up with the DNA genetic markers of one’s ancestors. So while the Native Americans of Joseph Smith’s local vicinity may be genetically descended from the Lehites, there is currently no way to demonstrate this link or the lack thereof.

All Native Americans can still be considered Lamanites from cultural as well as genealogical perspectives. Culturally, people of the United States are “Americans” even if they originally came here from Africa, Europe or Asia. And culturally, the descendants of this country’s indigenous inhabitants were once referred to as “Indians” — a term originally, and mistakenly, applied by Columbus.

Today they are often referred to as “Native Americans,” although they never referred to themselves as “American” until long after the name became popular by those who invaded the New World. Likewise, early Latter-day Saints commonly referred to all Native Americans as “Lamanites.” The use of the term “Lamanite” in the Doctrine and Covenants may simply be an extension of a common LDS vernacular of the time.

Lastly, and more importantly, it’s very likely that Lehi and his sons would appear on the ancestral slot of virtually all Native Americans today. Recent studies demonstrate that many large groups of humans are related in distinct ways and that most people are descendants of Abraham. In fact, studies suggest that all of the people on earth today have a common ancestor who may have lived as recently as the time of Christ.

Therefore, modern prophets have accurately referred to the people of North and South America — and even those of the Pacific Islands — as
Lamanites. This presents a problem for those who claim that true Lamanites must have a specific DNA found only among tribes in the Great Lakes region.

While the Doctrine and Covenants correctly refers to the indigenous people of Joseph’s vicinity as “Lamanite,” this does nothing to advance a theory on Book of Mormon geography.

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