Boycotting General Conference 40 Years Ago: The Lamanite Generation, the American Indian Movement, and Temple Square

By April 12, 2013


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.?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. That’s an interesting snapshot in more ways than one.

    Comment by Saskia — April 12, 2013 @ 9:42 am

  2. Fascinating, Amanda.

    (Having read George P. Lee’s book when I was at an impressionable high school age, and then following the heart-breaking real-life post-script to the book, I’ve always wondered about the larger cultural background preceding Mormon relations with American Indians. So, I’m esp. grateful for your post.)

    Comment by Robert C. — April 12, 2013 @ 9:57 am

  3. This is a book (or at least an article) waiting to be written.

    Thanks, Amanda.

    Comment by Ben P — April 12, 2013 @ 10:02 am

  4. If you haven’t read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Dee Brown, 1970), I’d suggest you may want to do that the first time you have a pause in your studies. Although I have a faint memory that academic historians didn’t care for the book, it has outlasted anything that any of them wrote; was a vital part of the American Indian Movement; and continues to be a classic work of American history and literature.

    Comment by Amy T — April 12, 2013 @ 10:03 am

  5. This is interesting, and related to some research I’ll be doing soon on Native Americans in Mormon novels. I think this history is not well known among Mormons–and I think Mormonism’s complex relationship to/with Native Americans continues to present fascinate sites for inquiry. For example, when I was visiting BYU last month, I was surprised to see that they still held a Miss Indian BYU pageant–or, based on the photographs hanging in the Wilk, they did up until the last decade. I don’t know much about the pageant itself, but the title, Miss Indian BYU, seemed like a odd throwback to the “Lamanite Generation” days like those you describe in this post.

    Comment by Scott Hales — April 12, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

  6. I am embarrassed to realize that I am old enough to remember that the skulls and a couple of mummies actually were on display at the old Information Bureau building on Temple Square in the 1950’s. I vaguely recall the AIM protests, but not the details. It would be interesting to see if there were any formal responses to the demands by the Church.

    Comment by kevinf — April 12, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

  7. Thanks all!

    Robert C., I’ve always been interested in the context for some of the depictions of indigenous people as well. There’s simply not enough work done on the connections between Polynesian and Native American Mormons and their connections to the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s. I really do wonder how the men and women who self-identified as Lamanites interacted with the radical movements of those time periods? Were there Mormon members of AIM? How did they view their Mormonism? I just don’t know the answers to those questions and I wish I did.

    Amy, I read that book as a teenager but haven’t looked at it since (as a teenager, I read whatever was available at our local used bookstore since there wasn’t much available). I should get back to it.

    Scott, I’ll be really interested to see what your research discovers. What time period are you focusing on?

    Kevin, that’s fantastic! I hadn’t realized that there mummies and skulls on display – do you remember the context? Were they presented as Lamanites and a part of church history? Or were there as part of the history of the West with no mention of specific religious beliefs of the Saints. I’ve seen responses in the media from church officials, which basically say that the church is spending far more than a million on American Indian welfare every year, but no official statement. I also wonder what happened to the skulls and mummies.

    Comment by Amanda — April 12, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

  8. I remember AIM and its protests (generally and with the LDS Church). Growing up on the edge of two reservations (in ID and WA), I was sympathetic to NA concerns in the 1970s (supported the preservation and return of tribal lands, fishing, and occupations, return Mt. Adams lands to the Yakima nation, etc.).

    I discussed AIM with my Mormon NA friends at BYU in 1980, who held paradoxical views. They were disillusioned with Church programs for NAs (the Placement program, and “Lamanite” programs) while appreciating scholarships, and revering the Book of Mormon (in spite of colonization themes).

    They viewed AIM as courageous and accurate, but as too radical, confrontational. I would interview NAs who were Mormon at BYU and other Utah schools in the ’70s, ’80s. The complex identities and situations of Mormon NAs during the ’70s and ’80s offer a compelling lense.

    Comment by M.Hanks — April 12, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

  9. Amanda,

    There is a book, unfortunately not handy right now for the exact title, that deals with the rise of the Red Power movement, and in it you will find that BYU’s Feathers of Many Tribes club sponsored a number of Red Power conferences and some of the most militant leaders and an eventual president of the movement came from BYU. At the time–late 1950s and 1960s–BYU was a place where many discussions were going on about the role of the Indian in American society and the idea of Lamanites was important in those discussions. They were exciting times but eventually the university administration and Utah politics changed. The problem today for American Indians in the church is that both conservatives and liberals fail to understand their plight and their need for identity and self-determination. Conservatives want them to assimilate fully and liberals don’t want them to call themselves Lamanites–even though many choose that name because of a religious and spiritual significance. Interestingly, the only one that carries that name proudly is the only Indian General Authority we have. When you take both philosophies together you find that American Indians have no space in the Mormon cultural world and given the almost absence of Native American Mormon scholars, it is not likely to change soon.

    Mormon studies that deal with people of color need people of color to speak for themselves. As much as Armand Mauss and other have tried to do good work they still don’t understand what it means to be a person of color.

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — April 12, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

  10. Fascinating, thanks Amanda. Mel Thom, a Paiute and BYU student, was the first president of the National Indian Youth Council, a pre-AIM group. He was also the president of the BYU organization that Dr. Garcia mentioned.

    Comment by David G. — April 12, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

  11. I also wonder what happened to the skulls and mummies.

    At various dates in the 1990s and early 2000s, all Native American human remains and (some? most? all?) associated grave goods in the Church museum and the BYU museum collections were returned to the Native groups that could be identified with them. I’m not sure — I haven’t researched it, but avidly followed the news at the time — but think I remember that the Church followed the regulations of NAGPRA even though they were possibly exempt from that law (not a federal agency, not the recipient of federal funds). (Don’t blast me anybody, if I’m not quite right; I’ve already said I’m no expert and I’m working from memory.)

    The report of one repatriation in progress in 1996 illustrates what was going on at BYU to return remains.

    Remains that could not be associated with any particular Native American tribe were interred in a crypt built on the grounds of the This Is The Place State Park. That was nobody’s first choice, and everybody is aware of the irony, but that’s what the state legislature funded, and unidentified repatriated remains were (and continue to be) interred there with the blessing of Native American ceremony.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 12, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

  12. Amanda : As Ignacio says (#9), I can’t bring to bear an insider perspective as a person of color, but if you would like a fuller account than the few pages in my Dialogue article, of the Church’s efforts, whether well-intentioned or ill-advised, to cultivate helpful relationships with the native peoples, see Chapters 3, 4, and 5 of my 2003 book, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (U. of Illinois Press). This will give you the evolving organizational context in the Church for the LDS relationship with the “Indians.”

    Comment by Armand L. Mauss — April 13, 2013 @ 12:58 am

  13. Thanks for the post, Amanda. This is all really quite fascinating, and I second others’ comments that something more needs to be researched and written on the subject.

    Comment by Christopher — April 13, 2013 @ 2:31 am

  14. Armand’s book remains the starting point for understanding Mormon Indians during the Red Power era, and really should be consulted by anyone writing on the subject.

    On Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, it was a powerful re-narration of the American West from the perspective of Native peoples, rather than the traditional “Winning of the West” perspective of westering whites. Other books had been written using Brown’s approach before 1970, but Brown was an effective writer and he published it at a time when many whites opposed the Vietnam War and hippies and environmentalists appropriated Indian symbols, which created a broad popular audience for Bury My Heart. Academic historians did criticize Brown’s use of sources and his pro-Indian perspective (many white historians at the time argued for a “balanced” approach to Indian history that assumed that both Indians and whites were good intentioned, but fundamentally misunderstood the others’ cultures).

    As important as Brown’s book was (and is), it has serious limitations. Although he re-invisioned the history of the West, he was unable to transcend underlying narrative conventions that had dominated the writing of Indian history prior to 1970s. Most importantly, he accepted the prevailing notion that Indian history “tragically” ended at 1890 at Wounded Knee and failed to recognize how Native nations have not only survived but also in many ways been revitalized in the 20th and 21st centuries. Vine Deloria, writing a few years after Brown published his book, complained about white liberals who loved to read about the military defeats of Native peoples in the 19th century, but made very little effort to understand contemporary reservation communities.

    Comment by David G. — April 13, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

  15. […] Mormons and the American Indian Movement. […]

    Pingback by Sunday Morning Medicine | Nursing Clio — April 14, 2013 @ 8:35 am

  16. The LDS Church and Native Americans have a unique, complex and ironic history.

    Here you have the creation of the LDS Indian Student Placement Program back in 1947, which helped foster this religious rhetoric that it was the Euro-American LDS members? responsibility to help Natives. To do this Spencer W. Kimball was given permission to instate the ISPP which resembled Captain Richard Henry Pratt?s Carlisle Indian Industrial School?s motto, ?Kill the Indian, Save the Man.? Kimball wanted to help Natives survive in a white America and education was the key. But you had to take Native children away from the negative influences of reservation life and place them into LDS members? home who volunteered to take these children in. Indian seminaries and BYU?s Indian programs were all created to support these Indian children and help them gain a college education. With today?s perspective the ISPP can be looked down on, but at the time it was a better solution for many who did not want their children to suffer the hardships they went through, namely government boarding schools.

    But during the exact same time member of the LDS community holding political clout also caused some of the most harm. Ernest L. Wilkinson pushed for the Indian Claims Commission created a process for tribes to address their grievances against the U.S. due to lands being taking away from Natives illegally. It found that Natives could not have their land back, but they could be compensated financially. Compensation would total the amount the price the land was going for at the time it was take and tribes would lose any chance to raise future concerns. Some tribes also had to give up federal tribal status if they accepted the money. Wilkinson made his millions off the Ute tribe doing this. There was also Arthur V. Watkins who pushed for the Termination Act and using a band of Paiutes in Utah to show its effectiveness.

    The 1970s was the apex of Mormon Indian relations. Here you have Spencer W. Kimball pushing for Native pride, remembering Native culture and history, and proclaiming the Lamanites are important to the Church. As a result we get the 1st Native American apostle (George P. Lee) and Native Programs throughout being funded by the Church. Just from a brief look at the newspaper reports boycotting the LDS General Conference was more about having the Church not just limiting their funds to LDS Natives, but to all Natives.

    A number of Natives all throughout Utah were attracted to AIM?s discussions on social injustices and also to the American Indian Women?s Activism. Despite the LDS Church?s push for Native Americans, they were and still are not fully embraced by the Church. You can still find many Natives who were caught in this conundrum, which could also explain why many euro-American LDS Members have asked Native LDS members, ?are you a Mormon or are you an Indian?? forcing many Natives to question their self-identity. Many Natives from BYU and the University of Utah joined AIM and even traveled to Wounded Knee incident of 1973 and other events.

    But once Spencer W. Kimball died in 1985, Ezra Taft Benson came in and decided to end all of these Indian programs within the Church, he ended Indian Missions, and cut back the ISPP significantly, especially since he has to deal with having a global church. With the champion of Native Pride within the LDS Church gone and Benson no longer willing to spend the time and resources solely on Natives, what were Natives to think?

    SCOTT HALES: When people want to talk to me about Native American ? Mormon history, I usually ask them, what do learn about this at Church or in your manuals? There is a reason for this! No one wants to hear about the colonization of Mormonism and the problems that have resulted from this. I guess it doesn?t sound like a good faith promoting lesson for church. LOL

    BYU?s Tribe of Many Feather was created back in 1950 by euro and Native Americans back in 1950, making it the 2ns oldest club at BYU. From this BYU?s Miss Indian BYU and the Harold A. Cedartree Memorial Pow-wow were spawned. If I remember Miss Indian BYU was created around 1956-66, which is completely different from how the old Miss BYU beauty pageants were held until 1991 and resumed in 2001 and went until 2007/08. I think Lamanite Generation or now known as Living Legends was created back in 1971 under a different department and is used more as a performing art missionary program. This also allowed Arlene Nofchissey to create the song, ?Go, My Son? which has become a rally song for Living Legends and is used by LDS and Non-LDS Natives throughout the country.

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — April 14, 2013 @ 7:17 pm

  17. I agree with Ignacio about the unclaimed or unarticulated space of Mormon “Lamanites” due to complexity of intersecting identities. They don’t fit into conservative or liberal space, language, identity. They struggle for self-identification. They offer needed readings of the Book of Mormon regarding colonization and “history” but also beyond both, seeing sacred patterns in the text relevant to NA religion.

    I’ve tried to convince my NA friends to write books about Mormon/NA identity, but they lack interest in speaking to white culture. I agree about the glaring absence of NA Mormon scholars, and the need for people of color to speak for themselves. I sought women of color for WA and only found one or two willing to share something for the personal voices section.

    Comment by M.Hanks — April 15, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

  18. Amanda,

    Didn’t get back to this over the weekend and was traveling much of the time. My best recollection is that the mummies, which I remember best, were merely identified as Native American remains, and where they had been found. I do recall that my young response (somewhere between 5 and 10 years old, I assume), was along the lines of “Wow, cool, dead Lamanites.”

    Surely there must be some record somewhere of the old Information Bureau, somewhere.

    Comment by kevinf — April 15, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

  19. More info on the Information Bureau:

    An article written by Glen Leonard gives some history to various LDS church museums, and identifies the mummies on display there as Anasazi remains, and part of a natural history collection on the American West. That seems similar to my young recollection. My inference of Lamanite connections was truly self inflicted.

    Comment by kevinf — April 15, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

  20. Maxine, I’ve had a similar experience in graduate school. Although many of my Native American friends find Mormon history interesting, they don’t want to touch it as an academic subject with a ten foot pole. For them, Mormonism is interesting because in many ways it claims a native identity. I can only imagine the tensions inherent in being identified as a “chosen people” in a religious community that is, for the most part, unresponsive to indigenous issues.

    I’m not sure exactly how change can/should come about. I’ve watched the debates about whether women should actively agitate for change within the church with a lot of interest. On the one hand, I can sympathize with those who want to work within church structures and to take a less vocal approach to advocacy. On the other hand, I’m not sure how change can occur if no one is troubling dominant narratives about the differences between men and women and their roles. The problem is even more pronounced. So many white members are unaware of indigenous and Latino issues that it seems that the only way there can be any change is for an advocacy group to take shape, but the tensions over the acceptability of advocacy remain.

    Ignacio – Thank you for your poignant response. I agree that self-advocacy and an emphasis upon people of color speaking for themselves is the only way for there to be any positive change within the church. One of the things that I found interesting about the church’s response to AIM was that they missed the movement’s emphasis upon self-determination. AIM asked for a million dollars a year to be given to groups led by native activists. The church’s response was to say that they already donated more than that to the welfare of native groups. What they failed to recognize was that the groups and programs they set up weren’t always ran by native men and women – and thus, didn’t fulfill that part of AIM’s demands.

    Ardis – As always, you are an amazing repository of knowledge. The tidbit about “This is the Place” State Park is particularly interesting and ironic.

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 15, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

  21. Armand – Thanks for pointing out your book. It provides an important institutional context for what was going on with the church.

    David – Thanks for the analysis of Brown’s book. I remember really liking the book in high school, but haven’t revisited it since. The critiques within the American Indian activist community are particularly interesting.

    Smallcanyon, Thanks for your extended analysis. I think that your last question about “Why we don’t learn about this in church [or in school] is an important one. One of the things that really bothers me about the way that many Mormon historians talk about race is the focus on a black-white binary. A lot of the work about race focuses on the Priesthood Ban without seriously considering the place of the people who have been identified as Lamanites in the church in the 20th C. In many ways, focusing on the Priesthood Ban allows people to talk about the progress that has been made without recognizing that little to no progress has been made for Native Americans, Polynesians, and Latinos.

    Kevin – I’m sure you aren’t the only one who had that reaction, though!

    Comment by Amanda — April 15, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

  22. Amanda, well said. Complexities and paradoxes of intersecting identities always challenge. And real progress arises from both inside and outside simultaneously, a critical mass turn of mind.

    Comment by M.Hanks — April 16, 2013 @ 1:58 pm


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