Larry Echo Hawk is leaving his position as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs after he was named to the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints' First Quorum of the Seventy during a recent general conference of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Utah.
George P. Lee, Navajo, was the first Native American called to the Seventy in 1975. He served for 14 years before he was excommunicated for "apostasy" or desertion of his religious principles and "conduct unbecoming a member of the Church." Lee died in 2010 at age 67.
The Mormon Church has a history of rocky and contradictory dealings with Native Americans or Lamanites, as they were known in the beginning.
According to Brigham Young, "There is a curse on these aborigines of our country who roam the plains and are so wild that you cannot tame them. They are of the House of Israel; they once had the Gospel delivered to them, they had oracles of truth; Jesus came and administered to them after his resurrection and they received and delighted in the Gospel until the fourth generation when they turned away and became so wicked that God cursed them with this dark and benighted and loathsome condition."
Prophet Spencer W. Kimball, the man who sent out the call to Mr. Lee to join the Seventy, said in 1960, "The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome and they are now becoming white and delightsome as they were promised." He described different Indian children who were "as light as Anglos. "These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated."
The Mormon Church, as it has evolved, has been forced to rewrite the Book of Mormon in order to accommodate its efforts to convert Native Americans and African-Americans. Both races were excluded from leadership in the Mormon Church prior to the recent revisions of the Book.
In an article titled, "Is the Mormon Church stuck with an embarrassing book it cannot historically support?" Rick Ross wrote, "Mormons grow up with the belief that Native Americans are somehow related to a lost tribe from Israel. That tribe, they are told, came across the ocean about 600 B.C. to America, led by an otherwise unknown Jewish prophet named Lehi."
The Book of Mormon originally stated that when Lamanites converted they would then become "white and delightsome." In 1981 the Church decided to replace the word "white" with "pure."
Most white Americans have looked upon the stories of the Lamanites as racist. In 1971 the official Mormon publication the Ensign stated, "As we attempt to solve the complex puzzle we call life, there is a constant search for elements that will clarify the picture. For [Mormons} one of the keys to this great pattern of existence is the group of people known as Lamanites."
He continued, "Those not of the Church call these people Indians, although the term actually refers to a broader group than that. Most members of the Church know that the Lamanites, who consist of Indians of all the Americas as well as the islanders of the Pacific, are a people with a special heritage."
A study done at BYU revealed, "Ironically, the database compiled by BYU can only conclude that there is no evidence of a Native American/Israel connection. In fact, no DNA study at any university has ever demonstrated otherwise." Ross added, "However, it is doubtful that BYU would ever release any research that could potentially prove embarrassing to the Church."
So here we have the LDS Church faced with potential errors in the Book of Mormons, that started off with faulty data that proved to be an embarrassment and has been pointed out by some church members and by many Native Americans as racist: the whiter the skin the closer to God.
Many Native Americans were converted to Mormonism over the years. The Indian tribes living in the lands settled by the Mormons found they were losing their land and resources until they were forced into a state of extreme poverty. The Indian tribes living in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico soon became dependent upon the welfare handed out by the Mormon Church in order to survive. Thousands of Navajo and other tribes saw their children taken from them and moved into the homes of Church members where they were used extensively as child labor. Along with the hard work they were converted into the faith without truly understanding their status within the church hierarchy.
Larry Echo Hawk served as an ineffective Assistant Secretary of the Interior. Will he make a difference as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy for Native Americans? History will be the judge of that.
The question lingers: Is the Mormon Church stuck with an embarrassing book it cannot historically support? Will the Book of Mormon one day be rationalized as simply an allegory conceived and used by Joseph Smith, the founder, to inspire his followers? In the final analysis it all comes down to whether faith will triumph over fiction.
And I will continue to ask myself why any sensible Native American would belong to a Church that will not fully accept them until they become white.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born and educated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was founder of the Native American Journalists Association and of Indian Country Today newspaper. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991.