Ousted LDS leader dies

The Salt Lake City Tribune/July 30, 2010

George P. Lee once enjoyed such widespread respect as the first and only American Indian LDS general authority that many Mormons believed he someday might become an apostle or even higher.

But such talk ended in 1989, when Lee, who died this week at age 67, was excommunicated for "heresy" and "conduct unbecoming a member of the church." Later, he admitted to attempted child sex abuse, and his wife divorced him.

"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.

Lee died Wednesday at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo after a long battle with many physical ailments.

"We offer our condolences to his family," LDS spokesman Scott Trotter said Thursday. "We have tried to stay close to him and his family over the years, and we pray for the Lord's blessings to be upon them at this tender time."

Lee left his home in the Four Corners area at age 12 to move to Orem, where he lived with a Mormon family as one of the first Navajos in the LDS Church's Indian Placement Program. He was studious and gregarious, excelling at academics, sports and student government. After high school, he served as a Mormon missionary in the Southwest Indian Mission, where he later would return as mission president.

Lee was the first American Indian to earn a doctorate from LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University and later served in Arizona as president of the College of Ganado and principal at Tuba City High.

Meanwhile, Lee rose in the ranks of the LDS hierarchy. He was named to the church's First Quorum of Seventy in 1975 at age 32 and served in that body until 1989, when he was excommunicated.

It marked the first - and last - time that a Mormon general authority was excommunicated since apostle Richard Lyman's ouster in 1943.

Unbowed and angry, Lee claimed the disciplinary action by then-President Ezra Taft Benson was triggered by his opposition to the faith's shifting approach to its Indian members.

Mauss, author of All Abraham's Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage , sees some truth to that.

Lee grew to maturity during decades when the LDS Church launched a comprehensive campaign of education and economic development to "redeem" North America's Lamanites, who had so tragically languished under both U.S. and Canadian "Indian" policies throughout the 20th century.

Mauss said Lee took seriously the perspective espoused by then-President Spencer W. Kimball that the Lamanites, a Book of Mormon term used to describe many Native American peoples, would become leaders in building Zion.

Benson succeeded Kimball in 1985 and later discontinued the placement program, shifting the church's emphasis from North to South American indigenous members.

"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."

After losing his church position, Lee ran for president of the Navajo Nation in 1990 and 1994, falling short in the primary both times.

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