BY DAN EGAN
THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
Generations of Mormons grew up with the notion that American Indians are descended from a lost tribe from the House of Israel, offspring of a Book of Mormon figure named Lehi, who left Jerusalem and sailed to the Americas around 600 B.C.
For faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lehi's story is neither fable nor parable. It is truth. Historical fact. Every bit as real as the Pilgrims dropping anchor at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
The problem is mainstream science has failed to back that story. Instead, archaeologists, linguists and genetic experts outside Mormon culture say all the evidence points to Asia as the place from which American Indians originated.
But science and faith could some day collide. And some say it might even happen at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, where one of the largest genetic testing studies in the history of the world is under way.
As Mormon doctrine holds, Lehi's children split into two warring groups after arriving in the New World -- the kind-hearted, white-skinned Nephites and the marauding, brown-skinned Lamanites.
The Lamanites, Mormons believe, ultimately exterminated the Nephites in the 5th century A.D., and their offspring today are among the people the rest of the world commonly refers to as American Indians.
Because of that, Mormons believe American Indians have a special place in their church. It is a constant theme for their missionary efforts in South America and the Pacific Islands, and Mormon President Gordon B. Hinckley even uses the story of Lehi to inspire converts at temple dedications abroad.
"It has been a very interesting thing to see the descendants of Father Lehi in the congregations that have gathered in the temple," Hinckley said at an August 1999 temple dedication in Ecuador. "So very many of these people have the blood of Lehi in their veins, and it is just an intriguing thing to see their tremendous response and their tremendous interest."
But most scientists outside LDS culture argue that if a band of Israelites did come to America 2,600 years ago, they left neither a linguistic nor an archaeological trace.
"I don't think there is one iota of evidence that suggests a lost tribe from Israel made it all the way to the New World. It is a great story, slain by ugly fact," says Michael Crawford, a University of Kansas professor of biological anthropology and author of Origins of Native Americans, published by Cambridge University Press.
BYU researchers are in the process of taking DNA samples from 100,000 volunteers around the world, including South America and Israel. The program will take the inherited "genetic markers" gleaned from the DNA and match them with volunteers' family histories. The genetic markers are passed down directly from generation to generation, so the pairing of that information with an individual's history of his ancestors' birth dates and birth places will allow researchers to create a map that puts certain genes at specific places and times. This will allow researchers to track migrations of people around the globe.
Such information could also help individuals with no recorded family history locate their ancestral homelands simply by taking a blood test. This could be a powerful tool for a Mormon culture that is enthralled with genealogy. Members believe ancestors can be baptized into the church.
Research project director Scott Woodward stresses "this is not a [LDS] church project," and Woodward says researchers have no intention of trying to prove or disprove anything contained in the Book of Mormon.
But some contend that the vast database he is compiling will underscore the fact that there is no evidence of American Indian/Israel connection.
"There is a lot of interest, particularly locally, about the Lamanite-Hebrew connections, but there isn't any intention in any of these studies to somehow prove Mormon doctrine," says Woodward, a professor of microbiology at BYU and a member of the LDS Church.
Past DNA studies at other universities have shown no evidence of a connection between American Indians and Israel, notes Simon Southerton, a former Mormon bishop and molecular biolgogist who has extensive background in DNA research. He predicts BYU's data will show the same. He says it will also refute the Mormon belief that some Pacific Islanders can trace their roots to the Jews. The Book of Mormon states that some of Lehi's descendants set sail from the Americas, and LDS have traditionally believed that they eventually peopled the lands of Polynesia.
"The [existing] DNA research shows overwhelmingly that Native Americans and Polynesians are descended from Asian ancestors," says Southerton, who quit the church after he started researching the issue. "Is it honest to keep [church] members in the dark about the mountains of evidence for these facts while discussing the power of this technology to reveal genealogical relationships?"
Woodward says the American Indian ancestry question is far from answered by studies already done.
"Anyone who would draw hard and fast final conclusions based on the DNA evidence we have right now is going to be sorely disappointed," he argues. "I'm not saying future evidence is going to completely overturn the strong Asian component we have in Native Americans, but I believe we are going to see evidence for multiple migrations [to the Americas] at multiple times."
Indeed, Woodward surely would find support from "diffusionists," a growing group of academicians who question the orthodox notion that the Americas were settled only by people who crossed over from Asia on the once-frozen Bering Strait.
The BYU study is being funded with private dollars from Utah businessman James Sorenson and Arizona homebuilder Ira Fulton. Sorenson, a Mormon who made his fortune in the medical industry, says he believes the research may shed light on the American Indian-Lamanite connection, but that's not what is driving him to donate millions to the cause; he wants to bring humanity together by demonstrating how closely related all people are.
Sorenson said he believed the Lamanite issue may be examined once the database is complete, but only because this is a project meant to demonstrate ties among all peoples.
"We're searching for the truth," said Sorenson. "Let the chips fall where they may."
Some BYU researchers are already bracing for a fight. Scholars at BYU's Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), a group that tries to prove through historical research the stories told in the Book of Mormon, acknowledge that some people may be licking their chops at the prospect of using DNA evidence to refute the story LDS Church founder Joseph Smith told. They are drafting a paper to argue their point.
"Science will bring more information [on the issue], but when and how much remains to be seen," says FARMS' John Sorenson, no relation to James Sorenson. "It will be a long time, or take a lot of effort and expense before a muddy picture is clarified."
Others say the picture is already crystal clear.
Author Crawford said all the evidence gathered so far so powerfully demonstrates the Asian-American Indian connection that it is as close to a "truth" as science can get.
"Of course, we [scientists] will never say never ever ever ever," he says.
And that likely will keep the debate alive.
Indeed, BYU's Sorenson says DNA evidence likely may never yield a definitive answer on the question. He points to the fact that the first hurdle is to identify a specific gene pool for ancient Jews. He also notes that most DNA sampling so far has been tied to maternal lineages, which makes it impossible to find a direct line back to Lehi, a male.
Sorenson has already argued that Lamanites may well only comprise a sliver of the American Indian population, and that they may never be found in samples of DNA testing.
"With [DNA] sampling, you may or may not find evidence of a connection to the Old World," he says. "If you do, that says something. If you don't, that says more research needs to be done."
Art Allison, a Navajo Mormon from Farmington, N.M., who attended BYU, acknowledges that American Indians are often drawn to the church that singles them out as special.
"You don't get that from other Christian religions," he says. "That is what really opens a lot of Native Americans to the teachings of Mormonism."
The work at converting American Indians and Pacific Islanders began with Joseph Smith's 19th-century efforts to convert tribes in New York and Ohio. There were pushes earlier this century for white adoption of Indian children living on Western reservations, and today's aggressive missionary work continues in South America and the Pacific Islands.
The Book of Mormon originally stated that once Lamanites convert they will become "white and delightsome," though in 1981 church officials replaced the word "white" with "pure," citing agreement with an early church manuscript.
That isn't the only thing that has changed in recent decades. Where once all Indians were referred to as Lamanites, researchers like Sorenson emphasize that only a small portion of American Indians are descendents of the man known as Lehi.
They also say most of the descendants of those people likely live in Central or South America.
Indeed, Sorenson says it is "nonsense" to believe [like Joseph Smith and Moroni did] that all Native Americans are Lamanites.
But if that is true, then generations of Mormons have grown up with the incorrect idea that the words Lamanites and Native Americans are interchangeable.
Consider this statement in a "Special Lamanite Section" in a 1971 edition of the Ensign, an official publication of the LDS Church.
"As we attempt to solve the complex puzzle we call life, there is a constant search for elements that will clarify the picture. For [Mormons] one of the keys to this great pattern of existence is the group of people known as Lamanites. Those not of the church call these people Indians, although the term actually refers to a broader group than that. Most members of the church know that the Lamanites, who consist of the Indians of all of the Americas as well as the islanders of the Pacific, are a people with a special heritage."
Subsequent statements by church officials backed off the notion that the terms Lamanite and Native American are interchangeable, but the concept seems to persist at the highest levels of the church. Even the introduction in recent printings of the Book of Mormon states that Lamanites "are the principal ancestors of the American Indians."
Navajo Allison isn't too worried about labels, and he says he doesn't need science to settle the question of whether his people own a special place in the Mormon church because they can trace their roots back to Lehi.
"It really doesn't matter," he says. "It's just a value (we) hold."