Penthouse Retrospective

by Jon Stewart and Peter Wiley Originally Published: June, 1981

Mormon Roots | 40 Years Ago This Month

Are there other motives? Perhaps. “Indian people are sitting on one-third of the low-sulfur strippable coal and sixty-five percent of the uranium supply in America,” says Gerald Wilkinson, a Cherokee and the director of the Albuquerque-based National Indian Youth Council since 1969. “Some people estimate that maybe one-quarter of the nation’s natural-energy resources are on Indian land.”

Bill Armstrong, the burly, cigar-chomping Anglo director of the Navaho Reservation’s Minerals Department, ticks off the numbers pertaining to Navaho land with nonchalant ease: 2 billion tons of coal under lease, 80 million barrels of oil, 25 million cubic feet of natural gas, from 75 to 80 million tons of uranium, $20 million a year in royalties.

Ironically, this resource-rich Indian land was once believed to be worthless, which is why the Indians were forced on these lands in the nineteenth century. It was only in the last few decades that the government and mining and energy corporations began to realize what had been given away. And, curiously, it is only in these same years that the Mormon church has revved up its great missionary machine to undertake again the destined task of saving the Indians.

That effort today is two-pronged, aimed at the Indians’ two greatest resources — Indian children and Indian land. On the one hand, thousands of young, white Mormon men, aged 18 to 21, roam the reservations in dark suits, ties, and close-cropped hair, spreading the Word and gathering up the Lamanite children for “placement” in white Mormon homes. On the other hand, a small and powerful clique of attorneys, officially tied to the Mormon church in Salt Lake, scour the canons of Indian law, significant parts of which they wrote, searching for ways to “extinguish”. Indian land claims, thereby enriching themselves and paving the way for mineral development by corporations to which the church is tied financially. These same Mormon attorneys also represent, as general counsels, many of the Indian tribes in the Southwest, including the Hopi, the Ute, the Gosiute, Paiute, and Shoshoni.

Tom Luebben, a young white attorney in Albuquerque who used to work exclusively on Indian law cases, has confronted the Mormons on both fronts. He characterizes the “extinguishments” as “the biggest land transfer of the twentieth century.” The “placement program” for Indian children, he says, is “nothing short of cultural genocide.”

“I’m a Nephite, and I’m also a Lamanite. I’m an Israelite.” The man of many identities is George Lee, 37, a full-blooded Navaho and the son of a medicine man. Today he is the highest-ranking Indian in the church hierarchy, a member of the Quorum of Seventy, the body that implements and administers the policies formulated by the Council of the twelve Apostles and the First Presidency. Lee’s climb to the top began in a humble if significant way: he was among the first batch of Indian children selected for placement in the white Mormon world. As such, he is routinely held up to Indian youth as the shining example of what Mormonism can do for the Lamanite.

Lee’s story is worth telling in some detail, because in many ways it is typical of the way the Mormon Placement Program is supposed to operate. One of a large family, Lee was raised on the reservation. His parents were both illiterate, “very traditional and very unexposed to the world. We lived off the land, had a herd of sheep. I was raised on prairie dogs [small rodents] and rattlesnakes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The first six years of my life I ran around naked. Dad taught us the traditional ways, to get up early and pray facing the rising sun, and his prayers were long. We slept on a dirt floor on a sheep-skin, no toilets, no electricity.

“And then one day an Anglo couple, traders who lived near us, came over and started talking to us about the Mormon church. Mom and Dad said we should not listen to these people, because they were trying to convert us to their ways. So, whenever they came around, we’d head for the hills,” George Lee recalls.

“So they tried another approach. Next time they came they brought sacks of canned goods, potatoes, and so on from the trading post. Mom and Dad liked that. And finally it came around to religion again. This man helped the government school twenty miles away, recruiting students and signing up the kids for the church they wanted to attend. He was not only a trader, but he was also a missionary for the L.D.S. (Latter Day Saints].”

Thus did George and his brother join the Mormon church and begin attending services at the church near the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) school. Two years later the trader showed up again and convinced George’s parents to place their sons in Mormon homes near Salt Lake City, 500 miles away.

“He took us as we were, torn T-shirts, worn-out Levi’s, no shoes. On the bus everyone was crying, all the kids, saying, ‘I want to go home; I want to go home.’ I cried till I fell asleep.”

In Provo, Utah, where the bus journey ended, ten-year-old George was picked up by his new foster parents, who immediately began his cultural transformation. He says he didn’t speak a word to them for two long months, though they showered him with gifts, new clothes, even a cowboy outfit.

“I had to make a complete transition from one way of life to another. I got sick a lot, because I wasn’t used to their food. Back home I never got sick; we were immune to disease. I had hives all over my body.”

All religions have roots in concurrent uplifting and occasionally horrific experience. The Mormon church followed Western settlers in general.