Culture: Nephi explains, by implication, an important distinction between his people and those of Laman and Lemuel. In contrast to Nephite industry and hand-labor, the Lamanites “did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey” (2 Ne. 5:24). Nephi cites their focus on hunting as evidence of their “idleness,” even though the hunter-gatherer way of life is hardly idle. Rather than an accurate description, this characterization should be seen as a contrast to the Nephites who are engaged in agriculture, arguably an equally strenuous but more sustained and less dramatic method of procuring food.
Nephi is describing not only a geographical and religious separation, but also a significant lifestyle difference. Although the Lamanites abandon the hunter-gather lifestyle by at least 200 B.C. when the story of Zeniff reports that they have cities and kings (see Mosiah 7), it is highly likely that they were city dwellers much earlier, perhaps even within a decade of the separation of the people. Laman and Lemuel had been men of the city, and longed for Jerusalem. It is not likely that they would be happy with the sparse accommodations and benefits of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
The important point Nephi makes here for future Nephite-Lamanite relationships is the psychological barrier. The Lamanites are pejoratively characterized as “idle” (regardless of the reality), in contrast to the “industrious” Nephites. The conflict between Lamanites and Nephites began between brothers but is becoming magnified between peoples. From this point on, the standard Nephite view of the Lamanites is that they are lazy, even when clear textual evidence exists that the Lamanites are as culturally complex as the Nephites and likely even more sophisticated.
How can the Nephites persist in a characterization contrary to fact? The answer lies in a different cultural worldview. Beginning with the Renaissance, the West has privileged the individual, making heroic the individual’s resistance to society and emphasizing the ways in which society oppresses the individual. Ancient cultures in both the Mediterranean and the New World, in contrast, privileged society over the individual. They were “collectivists.” One indicator of collectivist cultures is the tendency to assume that the most crucial information about a person is his or her ethnic or geographical origin. “Person” was a result of community, not individuality. Furthermore, as Donald E. Brown, an anthropologist at the University of California–Santa Barbara, has noted, it is a universal human trait to see other communities as inferior to one’s own.
Bruce J. Malina (a professor in the Department of Theology at Creighton University) and Jerome H. Neyrey (professor of New Testament studies at Notre Dame) observe that Paul, in speaking of “Judeans and Greeks” (Rom. 1:16, 2:9–10, 3:9), was following
the typical ancient custom of distinguishing people in terms of ethnos and place of origin, with prejudice against those who were different from the writer or speaker.…
Just as ethnic groups have their own geographical location, they likewise display geographically rooted ethnic-stereotyped features and characteristics by which other groups might assess them. For example Cicero observes how the Carthaginians are fraudulent and liars because their ports are visited by too many merchants; the Campanians are arrogant because of the fertility and the beauty of their land; and the Lugurians are hard and wild because they are just like all other people who struggle to make mountain soil productive. Josephus, in turn, notes how Tiberians have “a passion for war” and how Scythians “delight in murdering people and are little better than wild beasts.”
Nephi’s characterization of the Lamanites is typical of the ancient world. The way this pejorative description reappears consistently throughout the text tells us much more about the Nephite mind than Lamanite culture. We will do better to read the Lamanite history from more reliable clues than the collectivist pejorative characterization of anyone who is “not us.”