Justin Butterfield had an interesting Book of Mormon Stories post at Mormon Wasp, with a discussion of the hand motions associated with that Primary song. Through those hand motions, Primary children are taught to associate “Lamanites” with “American Indians” -- something that limited geography theories dispute.
Reading his post, I was reminded that there is another audience that receives a similar teaching, but in a much more official way: American Deaf. The Church recently completed the translation of the Book of Mormon into American Sign Language (it takes up fifteen videocassettes). Some years ago, the Church established a committee to develop and standardize ASL signs for uniquely or distinctively LDS terms. One of my ASL teachers at BYU, Jack Rose, was on that committee. He explained to us a little bit about the process. For example, the sign for “baptism” in other faiths indicates a sprinkling motion. But since we believe in baptism by immersion, a different standard sign was chosen -- one that indicates the motion of immersion and coming back up out of the water. It expresses the symbolism we teach very nicely, too, since aspects of the sign are easily connected with the idea of death and resurrection.
Other signs that differ from other faiths include signs for priesthood offices, such as deacon, priest, or bishop. And then there are signs that are uniquely LDS, such as the idea of a “stake.” And, of course, there are unique things like Book of Mormon names.
In ASL, while there is a representation of the English alphabet, name signs are more often used to indicate people, rather than spelling out their name. The name sign typically reflects some characteristic of the person. For example, my name sign uses the letter “C” (my first initial) and then mimics the sign for “blond” -- the color of (what’s left of) my hair. This also helps to distinguish individuals who have the same first name, as one person named Christopher would have a different name sign than another person named Christopher.
The official LDS sign for “Nephite” and “Lamanite” use the first initial of the name and then mimic the sign for “Indian”: a feather shape with the hand, formed by making an “Okay” sign with the thumb and forefinger closed and the last three fingers up, reminiscent of feathers. The tip of forefinger and thumb are then placed near the corner of the mouth, then moved up and back to touch near the ear, reflecting the American Indian use of feathered headdresses. This standard ASL sign for “Indian” is modified in the official LDS ASL lexicon by changing the shape of the hand to an “N” shape for “Nephi(te)” and an “L” shape for “Laman(ite).” These signs are used in the ASL translation of the Book of Mormon.
By using these signs, the Church establishes a connection for the Deaf between Nephites and Lamanites and American Indians. If limited geography theories of the Book of Mormon are correct, this connection may be unfortunate, particularly as it comes from a more official source than the hand motions that go along with “Book of Mormon Stories.”