Native woman seeks truth about LDS teachings, indigenous identity
By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
June 30, 2018
GALLUP — For most of Sarah Newcomb’s life, she was a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And as a Native American woman, she was also a devout “Lamanite,” the Book of Mormon term given to indigenous people of the Americas, whose ancestry, the Church has taught, goes back to the Israelites of the Old Testament.
But several years ago, Newcomb embarked on a personal journey to discover the truth about LDS Lamanite teachings, as well as the truth about her own identity as an indigenous person. That personal journey came to a climax in 2016, when Newcomb and her husband officially requested their names be removed from membership in the LDS Church.
Newcomb has since established an online presence in the form of a “Lamanite Truth” blog and Facebook page – with the subheading “The truth about Lamanites and why it matters” – to spark dialogue among Native people who are current or former Mormons.
“What motivates me is truth,” Newcomb said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Texas. “I’m always seeking truth.”
Newcomb, who was born in Utah, said her mother is from the Tsimshian tribe in southeastern Alaska and her Anglo father is a sixth generation Mormon. Her mother, she said, is the only family member to have left the Tsimshian community in Alaska and the only one to join the LDS Church.
According to Newcomb, her mother joined the Mormon Church at 19, served as a missionary on the Navajo Nation, and then enrolled at Brigham Young University in Utah. She then met and married Newcomb’s father while they were both BYU students. Newcomb, the youngest of four children, was named after her Tsimshian grandmother in Alaska, Sarah Wellington.
“We were very devout,” Newcomb said of her family, explaining they attended church faithfully and participated in Family Home Evenings and other Mormon programs. Both her older brothers served on LDS missions, Newcomb said, while she and her sister “went the marriage route” and married Mormon men. Newcomb said she and her husband were married in an LDS temple in 2000.
Growing up, Newcomb explained, she never questioned LDS religious teachings about Lamanites.
“I never doubted it,” Newcomb said, explaining she was taught that everything in the Book of Mormon was backed up historically. “I had zero doubt. I never questioned anything.”
Newcomb said her faith in LDS teachings, particularly those regarding Lamanites, began to change about five years ago. She was pregnant with her fourth child and on medical bed rest, she said, when she decided to use the time to study LDS history.
“I’m going to use this time to truly get to know the history of the Church,” Newcomb recalled thinking. Newcomb said she decided to only research information found on official LDS Church and BYU websites. Newcomb said she also committed herself to following all the cited sources back to the original documents.
“I would follow the source trail,” Newcomb said. “Of course, that was jumping down the proverbial hole – that was history.”
According to Newcomb, as a Native person growing up in the LDS Church, she was subjected to many teachings about Lamanites that taught they were an evil people who had turned their backs on God, and God had darkened their skin as a sign of his curse upon them.
“I was fully raised with that doctrine,” Newcomb said, explaining it troubled her growing up as she compared her lighter skin to her darker relatives in Alaska or as she was discouraged from connecting with the traditional culture of her Tsimshian family.
Newcomb was also raised with the teachings of LDS Church leaders like the late Spencer W. Kimball, the 12th president of the LDS Church, who spoke of how Native Americans became visibly “white and delightsome” after joining the LDS Church.
“It’s all due to the Book of Mormon story,” Newcomb said.
By the end of 2015, while Newcomb was preparing for the baptism of one of her sons, she found herself in the middle of a crisis of faith. Until then, she said, she had kept her growing doubts about the veracity of LDS teachings to herself.
Now, however, she began to share them with her husband. Newcomb said her husband was supportive, and within a few months the couple decided to leave the Church.
“It was very quiet, low drama,” Newcomb said of their exit.
With the free assistance of Utah attorney Mark Naugle, who operates a QuitMormon. com website, the couple officially requested the LDS Church remove their names from church membership.
After leaving the LDS Church, Newcomb said she came to the realization that her life in the Church had come at a personal price.
“My core identity as an indigenous person has been hijacked by something that wasn’t beautiful,” she said.
Newcomb said she began looking online for stories from other Native Mormons and ex-Mormons, but she couldn’t find them. According to Newcomb, there’s a lot of validation online for ex-Mormons regarding a diversity of issues, but not for Native American ex-Mormons.
“I kind of felt like I had the responsibility to give these issues a voice,” she said, adding that “there is variety” in Native people’s experiences within the LDS Church.
A year ago, Newcomb started her Lamanite Truth blog and Facebook page to spark that conversation for Native people. She also connected with John Dehlin, the founder of the Mormon Stories Podcast, and became one of several people Dehlin interviewed for his “Losing the Lamanites” series, which can be viewed on YouTube.
As a result of speaking out, Newcomb said she has been contacted by many indigenous people with similar experiences within the LDS Church. Newcomb said she tries to share her own experiences and beliefs in a respectful way. Because of what she has experienced, Newcomb said she isn’t trying to force her beliefs on others.
“I’m not trying to attack Mormonism,” she said, “but bring light and truth to these issues.”
As for the future, Newcomb said she would like to publish more stories of healing among Native people. Newcomb said she hopes by adding such stories – of indigenous people reconnecting with their traditional cultures, languages and identity – she can give other people hope and direction.