Thursday, June 23, 2016

KnoWhy #128 - What Did It Mean To Be “King Over All The Land”?

Book of Mormon Central gives us yet another KnoWhy that focuses on Mesoamerica here, complete with this passage: "In fact, both Mesoamerica and the ancient Near East had systems of kings similar to that described among the Lamanites." Of course, such a system of kings is common throughout the world, wherever human cultures have developed. Often such rulers are called a "high king" or "king of kings" because they ruled lesser kings. They are known in Europe and Asia as well as Mesoamerica and the ancient Near East.

It was also a common system in North America, where the Indians were organized as tribes, with rulers we call "chiefs" but have also been called kings. In some areas, they had "paramount chiefs" who ruled over regional chiefs. Unlike in Mesoamerica, we don't have ancient records of the North American civilizations (which is why we need the Book of Mormon to know their history*). Nevertheless, the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon align with what we know about ancient North America and the traditions that survived until European contact. These are the people designated by the Doctrine and Covenants as Lamanites.

Here's an example of a hierarchy of rulers among Native American Indians from a National Park Service web page, discussing the tribes in the Chesapeake region.

Political Systems
The political and government systems of the Chesapeake natives were complex, and they varied from tribe to tribe.

Most tribes had a chief, called a werowance or weowansqua in the Algonquian languages. A chief's duties were primarily in military, diplomatic, and religious matters. They governed with the assistance of priests and councilors. Some tribes were led by a council.

In some cases, tribal chiefs paid tribute and allegiance to a paramount chief. Tribute often took the form of food and goods in return for leadership, protection, and support in times of difficulty.

For example, at the time of John Smith's voyages, Powhatan's paramount chiefdom included as many as 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes (not all of the Algonquian-speaking groups in the region). It is quite possible that Powhatan perceived Smith as the chief of the English and wanted to bring him into the paramount chiefdom.

The power of a paramount chief was not absolute and had to be earned. Powhatan acquired his position partly through inheritance but also through his own leadership, personal charm, force and spiritual reputation.

Captain John Smith called Powhatan and other paramount chiefs "kings" or "emperors." While this is not a perfect metaphor, it gives an idea of how the English perceived the high status of paramount chiefs.
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*One wonders why we would need the Book of Mormon to know the history of people living in Central America, because those people left abundant records that archaeologists and linguists can read today. By contrast, the indigenous people in North America--the ones designated as Lamanites in the D&C--did not have written records. Without the Book of Mormon, we would have no way of knowing their history. 

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