I feel like I’m the bearer of bad news lately. It has come to my attention that George P. Lee, the most famous product of the great surge of LDS interest in Native Americans that defined much of the post-World War II era, died this week in Provo. Lee was a Navajo who excelled in the church’s placement, seminary, and university programs designed for Lamanites, and served as a mission president and a 70 in the 1980s. He was excommunicated in 1989, partly due to his public criticisms of the declining support for Lamanite programs in the post Kimball era. He also later admitted to attempted child sex abuse, which often has clouded his legacy. After his church service, Lee returned to the Navajo Nation and participated in local politics (as I understand it, over 20% of Navajos are on the church’s rolls). This SL Tribune article by Peggy Fletcher Stack has some great quotes by Armand Mauss:
?George P. Lee is one of the truly tragic figures in modern Mormon history,? Armand Mauss, an LDS sociologist in Irvine, Calif., said Thursday. He was ?both created and destroyed? by changing Mormon teachings and policies regarding native peoples.
?It was Elder Lee?s resistance to this change,? Mauss wrote in an e-mail, ?and his continuing claim to special leadership responsibilities for himself and his people, that brought him into increasing conflict with his colleagues among the general authorities.?
Although many people from my generation have never heard of Lee or that there was a Navajo 70, my father, who served an Indian mission in the late 1960s, spoke of Lee fondly when I was growing up. He was seen as a harbinger of the Lamanites blossoming as a rose. He’s now seen as an outspoken casualty in a quiet yet dramatic change in church priorities.
[Note: I’ve referred to Lee as a Lamanite, not necessarily because I think he was genetically descended from Book of Mormon peoples, but because he himself would have identified in that way.]