OREM -- Were the Native American tribes, once honored for their agriculture and building prowess by the pilgrims and others, demoted to mere savages by the  United States government as a way for them to lose their history and to be better controlled?

Steven E. Smoot believes so, and he shared his story with nearly 800 people attending the Saturday session of the Book of Mormon Evidence Conference at the SCERA Center for the Arts.

The 13th semi-annual conference is neither sponsored nor supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, SCERA's Xango Theater was filled to capacity with LDS church members seeking more information on a variety of topics all focused on the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi and his descendants, where and how they lived, and how they vanished into thin air.

Smoot's hypothesis is based on earthen mounds and archaeological artifacts found throughout Ohio, Mississippi and other heartland states between the Canadian border and the Gulf of Mexico. Most notable are the mound cities and burial grounds like those found in the Mississippi Valley.

"This was a more highly advanced civilization than previously thought," Smoot said. 

In a recent documentary Roger Kennedy, retired director of the Smithsonian Institute, said he had never heard of such civilizations. He had never considered the numerous mounds throughout the area to be more than piles of dirt. But that has changed.

After archaeological digs and significant artifacts and documentation had come forward over the years, Kennedy said the Smithsonian had to take another look.

"We now realize that tens of thousands of archaeological consequences are now hidden in our ground," Kennedy said.

"One city across the river from St. Louis, the Cahokia Mounds, are bigger than the pyramid of Giza," Smoot said. "There are 500 mounds in just one county dating back from 1,000 B.C. to 400 A.D."

The fleeting notion that Columbus was the first to step foot on American soil is more sullied by the findings of modern archaeologists, Smoot said.

"The question is, who wasn't here," Smoot said. He noted the evidence of Vikings, Greeks, Polynesians, Welsh, Chinese and others.

So where did all this history go? According to Smoot, at one time there were 500 Native American languages and 50 linguistic families.

"Explorers were amazed at what they were finding in the early 1800s. They were finding symbols with old-world connections," Smoot said. "We found early Jesuits seeking the lost 10 tribes. They thought the American Indians were of Jewish descent. They believed the Indian people worthy of salvation."

Smoot said there were notes with opinions of the Jesuits stating that Indians in the Pennsylvania area were similar to the Jews of England.

All that changed when three men -- John Wesley Powell, Lewis Henry Morgan, and E.B. Squier -- first documented the mounds in the mid-1800s. They formed an association for the advancement of science and promulgated the evolution of societies.

The evolution began with savages, then to barbarians and eventually civilized man. They categorized Indians as savages, thus sufficiently taking away their societal influence. Religionists like Joseph Smith and his church were considered barbarians.

Smoot quickly noted that both Powell and Morgan's fathers were Methodist ministers who preached in Palmyra, N.Y., in 1830 and were instrumental in spreading some of the radical thinking against Smith, founder of the LDS Church.

Smoot believes the Indian history got lost through political debunking and battles over opinions that escalated in the late 1800s. Powell wrote the blueprint for how to handle Indians based on them being deemed savage.

By 1894 the mound investigation and archaeological digs had ceased. With the Indians now considered savages it was easier to convince people that Native Americans needed to be put away on reservations.

"The ancient inhabitants of this country must be lost," Powell said.

"They pictured them in loin clothes running around with tomahawks in their hand," Smoot said. "There are those who would seek to close the history book for a better world."

With renewed interest in the mound cities and the early Native Americans, Smoot believes it's time for people to look at all the possibilities.

"There is a larger history with implications for our day," Smoot said.

For more information about the conference visit www.BookofMormonEvidence.org.

Daily Herald reporter Genelle Pugmire can contacted at gpugmire@heraldextra.com, (801)344-2910, Twitter @gpugmire

A 32-year veteran of covering news in Utah County, Genelle covers Provo, Orem, Faith/Religion, including the LDS Church and general assignments.