BHSU book confuses Mormon, American Indian beliefs

Associated Press/December 11, 2003

Spearfish, S.D. -- A book written to help school teachers understand the varying religious beliefs of their students will be pulled after complaints surfaced about its accuracy.

The book was part of the curriculum at Black Hills State University's College of Education.

The book, "What Teachers Need to Know About Their Students' Religious Beliefs," is meant to be a handbook to help teachers learn the doctrines and customs of 25 different religions. It was written by Len Austin, an assistant professor of education at Black Hills State. Austin used it in his educational psychology course as optional reading.

But Dean Myers, dean of school's College of Education, said Austin would be told to pull the book from his curriculum. Myers said he learned that some beliefs of the Mormon church were included in the section on American Indian religion.

According to Mormon beliefs, Indians are descendants of Jacob and the House of Israel and therefore, Jewish by bloodline. But the book said that described Indian spiritual beliefs.

Austin is a member of the Mormon church.

American Indians do not hold that belief unless they happen to be Mormon, said Jace Decory, a Lakota woman who teaches American Indian studies at Black Hills State.

"He should have put that in the Mormon belief section," Decory said.

The idea that Indians arrived in the New World 600 years before Jesus Christ as one of the "lost tribes of Israel" is unique to the Mormon faith, said Ben Eicher, a Rapid City man who asked Myers and Austin to withdraw the book.

Eicher said the book had a number of other errors in it, but it was the confusing of Indian and Mormon theology that he found the most offensive and wonders whether Austin's own Mormon beliefs influenced him while writing the book.

Austin denied trying to convert anyone with the book but acknowledged that he may have overstepped his field of expertise when writing it.

"The book is not a great authoritative work," Austin said. "I do not claim to be a religious scholar or theological expert on the 25 religion that are addressed in the book."

Despite problems with the book, Austin described it as an "honorable attempt to do something good."

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