A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation at the University of Michigan on what benefits there might be to considering Utah as a settler colonial space. As part of a section on the political implications of adopting such a posture, I included some photos of the Lamanite Generation, a group of BYU students who toured the United States as part of an all-native choir. Afterwards, one of my friends who studies twentieth-century American Indian history came up to me. She was horrified: “That’s when the American Indian Movement was happening. Hadn’t they heard of it?”
I didn’t know the answer. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was a radical movement founded in the late 1960s that protested the poverty and violence that was endemic among native communities in the twentieth century. They staged massive protests that insisted that Americans recognize that its treaties with native tribes were not being honored and that many of the most iconic buildings and monuments in the United States were on land that, by treaty, belonged to American Indians. Although the American Indian Movement influenced native politics in Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Colorado, and scores of other western states, Utah had always seemed to me to be strangely sealed off from the radical politics of the 1960s and 70s. My friend’s comment, however, prompted me to begin to explore what influence the American Indian Movement might have had on Utah politics in the mid-twentieth century. The answer was, not surprisingly, a lot more than I had anticipated.
In 1973, a group of over one hundred members of the American Indian Movement boycotted the church’s annual conference, beating drums and demanding that the church donate one million dollars to Indian social programs. The event was covered in local newspapers like the Salt Lake Tribune and the Church News and in national outlets like the New York Times. The following year members of AIM issued a challenge from the gates of Temple Square to the Mormon Church to donate ten million dollars to Indian self-help programs and to return native skulls from the church’s history museum. Doing this research has made me feel a little stupid. This would have a great post for Annual Conference, since this year was the fortieth anniversary of the event, but historical memories are short and few people today seem to know or care that forty years ago members of the AIM were picketing temple square and demanding that the church give funds to help native communities.
I haven’t done much research yet, nor will I have time to until I finish my next dissertation chapter, but I have read some of the newspaper accounts of the event. What follows below is an article from the Lewiston (Idaho) Morning Tribune on the second challenge. People who are interested in finding out more can also check out footnote 29 in Armand L. Mauss’ “Mormonism’s Worldwide Aspirations and its Changing Conceptions of Race and Lineage,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought vol. 34 No. 3/4 (Fall/Winter 2001): 103 – 134, which helpfully outlines the coverage in Utah. The Church History Library also has video of the KCPX news coverage from 1974 and the full text of the challenge that AIM offered to the Mormon Church. The latter doesn’t specify whether it’s the challenge from 1973 or 1974. I’ve asked it be digitized but haven’t heard back yet.
“AIM Demands Mormon Funds”
Lewiston Morning Tribune April 8, 1974
“The American Indian Movement issued a “challenge” Sunday to the Mormon Church to set up an Indian-dominated board to spend about $10 million in church funds in the next 10 years on Indian self-help programs.
Vernon Bellecourt, AIM national field director, issued the challenge at a news conference at the gates of Temple Square here as more than 8,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) began the last session of their 144th annual general conference.
Some Lutheran denominations have already accepted similar AIM challenges and AIM will issue challenges to 31 other religious denominations, Bellecourt said.
The challenge asks the church to set up a national board with 76 per cent Indian members to support “Indian groups in their efforts to determine their own needs, priorities and actions.”
It asks the board to spend $1 per year for the next 10 years for every American Indian. That would be about $1 million for 1974, the challenge says.
Mormon missionaries are active in converting Indians, known as “Lamanites” and thought to be the original chosen Americans. The church also has a program, criticized by some, of taking Indian children from their reservation homes and placing them with Mormon families.
An AIM “spiritual leader,” Mad Bear Anderson, demanded that the church turn over Indians skulls in a Temple Square museum so the Indians could give them a “proper burial” and “send them back to the spirit world in the proper way.”