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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.
In October 1994, accused of exploiting his position of trust as a church leader several years earlier, he pleaded guilty to attempted sexual abuse of a child, admitting that he fondled a 12-year-old family friend. The girl testified that Lee molested her while telling her that polygamy would be "brought back to Earth and we would be asked to live it."
"Brother Lee told me he had fallen in love with me," she said, " ... and that the Lord said it was OK."
Lee was sentenced to probation and ordered to undergo counseling. In 2009, he was picked up by police in St. George for not registering as a sex offender.
Still, Navajos remember Lee fondly as one of those who paved the way for later generations of tribal members seeking advanced education, said George Hardeen, spokesman for the Navajo Nation.
"Thousands of Navajos are graduating from college now and hundreds are going on to master's degrees and doctorates," Hardeen said. "Dr. Lee was one of those who led the way."
a father of seven children, is perhaps best known in the Tuba City area, where he was a high school principal in the 1980s, Hardeen said.
"He moved off [the reservation], he lived in Salt Lake, but he never forgot that he was a five-fingered person with his four principal clans that identified him as a unique Navajo individual," Hardeen said. "Even though he did other things with education and his faith, he always remained a Navajo."
Despite his fall from grace, Lee's rise in the LDS Church remains a point of pride among Navajos, Hardeen said. "The Navajo people are a forgiving people. He will be remembered for the good things that he did."
And the church he once served has opened its doors for his funeral, which will be held Tuesday at the Buena Vista LDS Stake Center in Washington, Utah, just outside St. George.
Funeral services for George P. Lee are set for Tuesday at 11 a.m. at the LDS Buena Vista Stake Center, 860 N. Fairway Drive, Washington, Utah. A viewing will take place Monday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Spilsbury Mortuary, 110 S. Bluff St., St. George. A visitation time also is planned before the funeral Tuesday from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. at the stake center. Interment will take place in the Washington City Cemetery.