The Asia Pacific headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) – commonly known as the Mormons – is an impressive and opulent complex in Honolulu. The Polynesian Cultural Centre is owned and operated by the church. Mormons don’t drink, smoke or gamble – and neither do I for that matter. Polygamy is not a relevant issue – what a person does in their bedroom is their own business.
However, when the Mormon zealots, in pursuit of a theologically-influenced sectarian pseudoarcheology, go digging up indigenous American sites and remains – that is an unpleasant and disrespectful project. It elevates a holy book into an archaeological text, and that is an enormous disservice to the field of archaeology, and especially to the indigenous nations in the Americas.
The Mormons were in the news only recently, deploying a team to a town in Iowa for an archaeological dig. The purpose? To uncover the remains of what they believe is an ancient Biblical Hebrew metropolis of Zarahemla. The Mormons, in line with their philosemitic ideology, believe that one of the lost tribes of Israel, Lehi, constructed a ship and sailed to the Americas thousands of years ago. This seeding event, they contend, is the starting point for the peopling of the Americas. The indigenous nations are but descendants of, or the admixing result from, the original lost Jewish tribes.
Hewing to their theme of a ‘chosen people’ escaping slavery, the Americas are the purported ‘promised land’. This alleged history, preserved on gold tablets, has been passed on down the generations, and finally made its way into the foundational scriptures of Mormonism. What is the harm in this kind of fabricated wisdom? It demeans and degrades the indigenous people, who are cooped into a sectarian rendering of pseudo history.
It is one thing to appreciate Jewish culture and people; philo-Semitism however, transforms the biblical Hebrews and the Jewish experience into a politically-charged religious sectarian experience. The Mormons have an obsessive preoccupation with philo-Semitic themes and subjects. Mormon politicians have a mezuzah in their keeping, and Utah – the closest thing the United States has to a theocratic state – produces pro-Zionist and pro-Israel politicians every generation.
Fundamentalist Christianity and pro-Zionism have found common cause in the United States. Utah, a state founded as a Mormon homeland, mimics the Biblical Hebrew story, escaping from persecution to seek out a new holy land. The Mormons strongly identify with the Zionist story – seeking out a land, excluding the natives, and building a religiously-sanctioned ‘homeland.’ The American Protestant experience has a long history of spiritual Zionism – a ‘return’ to the holy lands.
Immediately next to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem stands the Jerusalem centre of Brigham Young University, named after the second presidential of the LDS church, first governor of Utah and philo-Semitic politician. The identification of the Mormons with the Zionist state is strong, and Mormons provide pro-Zionist voters to the US Congress.
The peopling and settlement of the Americas is a fascinating subject in archaeology and anthropology. The entrance of geneticists and DNA studies has vastly expanded our understanding of this mysterious and interesting topic. It speaks to us because humans want to understand our origins; both biological and cultural.
The current mainstream views holds that the Beringia land bridge was the mostly likely route, from the West Asian land mass, accessible to paleolithic hunter-gatherers, prior to the formation of the Bering strait. As the ice retreated, migrants made their way across modern-day Alaska and peopled the American continents. Geneticists have identified common haplogroups between the Siberian people and today’s indigenous nations in North America.
The Book of Mormon, authored in the 1800s, contains numerous references to species and technologies that were simply not present in the Americas during the times they purportedly describe. References to chariots, metallurgy – these may be familiar to our picture of biblical lands as described in the Old Testament, but they are a complete departure from anything resembling Native American civilisations. There are numerous biologists who are religious – but none of them are seriously searching for evidence of the talking snake from the Book of Genesis.
None of this is intended to invite ridicule or mockery of the LDS church and its followers. The intention is to protect indigenous American archaeology and history from being subsumed by sectarian pseudoarcheology.
Indigenous Americans already have a fraught relationship with the field of anthropology and archaeology. It is incumbent on non-indigenous people to respect the artefacts and stories of indigenous people. We may not always agree, but we can cooperate in order to understand and build mutual respect.