In an early April 2012 news story, the Deseret News reported that assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk was leaving the Washington, D.C., position to become "the only American Indian currently serving as an LDS Church general authority."
What's interesting about that sentence -- and the entire article -- is that it avoids an intriguing landmine in the LDS Church's history with Native Americans. Echo Hawk is the second Native American to join the First Quorum of the Seventy. The first was the highly controversial George P Lee.
While Echo Hawk is lauded in the story for improving federal relations with "Indian country," Lee's now apparently largely forgotten history in the Mormon church saw him feted by then-LDS President Spencer Kimball as a role model to devout Native American Mormons before Lee was subsequently excommunicated and revealed in the press as a child sexual abuser. Lee died in 2010.
In response to e-mailed questions, Armand Mauss, author of All Abraham's Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage, reflected on Lee's tragic history.
"From about 1950 to 1980, Mormons touted their commitment to Indians as their Rocky Mountain equivalent of the civil rights and other meliorative efforts being made in the eastern U.S. on behalf of black people, a claim that came to be increasingly questioned and criticized by the political establishment of both whites and Indians in the U.S. generally," Mauss writes. "In short, Lee was in many ways both a token and a symbol of the ongoing national ambivalence [and changing political fashions] regarding Native Americans."
During the church's drive to "redeem" what they call the Lamanites of North America, under Kimball's sponsorship, Lee rose through the ranks to join, in 1975, the Quorum of the 70, the first Native American to do so. He was just 32 years old. Lee embraced the church's doctrinal position that Lamanites were to play a key role in the establishing of Zion.
But after Kimball died, the LDS Church, Mauss recalls, shifted its interest in "Lamanites" to Latin America. Lee fought that shift, most notably former LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson's decision to end the LDS Church's controversial Indian Placement Program, which saw Indian children being fostered by white LDS families.
In 1989, Lee was excommunicated for "apostasy," apparently the most recent general authority to be so removed. Lee took his complaints to the media, arguing that Taft was betraying Kimball's legacy, but the church did not respond.
Four years later, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Lee had sexually molested a girl the same year he was excommunicated. In 1994, it reported he pleaded guilty to attempted sexual abuse.
Lee died in Provo in 2010. He was 67.
Mauss believes that Lee remains an ambivalent figure for Native American Mormons, at least of Lee's generation, "as someone who tried to do things the white man's way but could never quite get it right." He wonders whether Native American Mormons still remember Lee, and also questions how many of them are still active in the LDS Church.
One aspect of Lee's legacy, he notes, "is that once and for all the "redemption of the Lamanites," so often promised in early Mormonism, will always be in the hands of the white leaders, not ever to be turned over to the Lamanites themselves—at least not in North America."
Mauss doubts that Echo Hawk will have to deal with the same issue Lee did, namely being "touted—as poor old Lee was—as a Native American [or Lamanite] who represents what all Lamanites can become. I feel sure [Echo Hawk] will always be spoken of as a talented and interesting general authority who happens to have Native American [or Lamanite] ancestry."