When Larry Echo Hawk was sustained as a Seventy earlier this month, he became just the second self-identifying North American indigenous person to serve as a General Authority. His call came over two decades following the excommunication of his predecessor, George P. Lee, and three decades following the church’s decision to discontinue its programs aimed at American indigenes: the Indian Student Placement Program, the Indian Seminary, and BYU’s Indian programs. Echo Hawk’s experience therefore presents a window into how at least one Mormon Native reared during the twentieth-century’s “Day of the Lamanite” continues to appropriate and utilize a Lamanite identity, at least for a predominantly white audience. Since the early 1990s, Echo Hawk has commented on this subject in talks given at BYU, LDS Church News interviews, and his recent conference talk .
As Armand Mauss has argued, “the Lamanite identity had different meanings and uses depending on the experiences and relationships that the Indian Mormons had had with their white coreligionists and the church more generally” (All Abraham’s Children, 129). Mauss suggests at least four ways that Mormon Natives have self-identified as Lamanites. First, some never fully internalize the identity, preferring instead to appropriate it “for short-term access to certain material and educational resources accompanying membership and activity in the LDS Church” (All Abraham’s Children, 134). Others seek to balance both Lamanite and Indian identities, but Mauss contends that this often proves difficult, as these individuals eventually emphasize one over the other. Another group embraces the positive aspects of a Lamanite identity as a way to assimilate into Anglo-dominant Mormon culture, which results in a rejection of much of their traditional heritage. A fourth group utilizes a Lamanite identity to claim special status in the church, to the point of asserting superiority over those they consider gentiles, or members of European descent (All Abraham’s Children, 129-35). In his public discourses and statements, Echo Hawk fully embraces the more positive aspects of a Lamanite identity, and even incorporates more negative aspects to explain why his Pawnee ancestors were devastated by colonialism. Yet Echo Hawk also speaks proudly of his Pawnee heritage and some traditional practices, suggesting that he fits loosely in Mauss’s second group of Mormon indigenes who seek to balance their competing identities.
Echo Hawk was born on August 2, 1948 in Cody, Wyoming, although he was raised primarily in Farmington, New Mexico. As a child, he heard oral traditions of his nineteenth-century Pawnee forebear, who was given the name of a Hawk to symbolize his prowess as a warrior who preferred others to proclaim and “echo” his deeds throughout the village. The first Echo Hawk endured the devastating impact of colonialism and forced removal of the Pawnees from their Nebraska homeland to a small reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). “That is a painful history,” Larry Echo Hawk stated in a BYU speech. “But the pain was not limited to one generation. In his childhood my father was taken from his parents by the federal government and sent to a boarding school far distant from his home. There he was physically beaten if he spoke the Pawnee language or in any way practiced his native culture or religion” (BYU 2007, 1). Echo Hawk felt the sting of his sister being sent home from school, apparently for being indigenous. He himself recalled “sitting in a public school classroom and hearing the teacher describe Indians as ‘savage, bloodthirsty, heathen renegades’” (BYU 2007, 1). Yet at home, Echo Hawk witnessed aspects of his parents’ culture that he deeply admired:
My parents practiced a tradition that had been handed down from generation to generation in our family known as the “Indian giveaway.” In times of celebration as well as in times of mourning, in the Indian culture you give what you have to others to bless their lives. Thus, when I was growing up, I saw my parents take people into our home to help sustain them. In the early years of my life I thought I had more brothers and sisters than I really did. I saw my father give his prized possessions away to other people simply because they admired something that he had, and he demanded that they take it. My father exemplified strength of character through giving what he had to help other people (BYU 1995, 5).
In the late nineteenth century, the US government applied strict regulations in an effort to stomp out the “giveaway” among indigenous peoples confined to reservations, reasoning that the practice was socialistic and inconducive to the “American way of life.” Yet the practice survived, often in clandestine forms, and instilled in young Natives such as Echo Hawk cherished values.
When he was fourteen, Echo Hawk’s family converted to Mormonism. A diligent Priests Quorum advisor challenged Echo Hawk to read and pray about the Book of Mormon, which he did after suffering an injury that nearly took his eyesight. Echo Hawk later stated: “I’m very proud of my Indian heritage. . . . I think that my Indian identity was strengthened by reading the Book of Mormon. In the early years of my life, there were times when I questioned who I was as a person and what my Indian identity meant. But after I was baptized and read the Book of Mormon, that all changed. I did not feel inferior but very proud of my heritage” (Church News 1991). Although he does not mention the word “Lamanite” here, this statement suggests that Echo Hawk found in the Book of Mormon an identity that was far preferable to the images he saw in school and elsewhere in white American society. Echo Hawk expanded on this theme when he told BYU students that
it seemed to me that the Book of Mormon was about my Pawnee Indian ancestors. The Book of Mormon talks about the Lamanites, a people who would be scattered, smitten, and nearly destroyed. But in the end they would be blessed if they followed the Savior. That is exactly what I saw in my own family’s history. When I read the Book of Mormon, it gave me very positive feelings about who I am, knowledge that Heavenly Father had something for me to accomplish in life, and instruction in how I could be an instrument in His hands in serving the needs of other people” (BYU 2007, 4-5).
Echo Hawk therefore drew upon Book of Mormon prophecies to interpreted his people’s experience with American colonialism and to develop a hope that he, as a descendant of the Lamanites, would be blessed. To paraphrase the title of his 1995 BYU speech, he found in the Book of Mormon the key to “achieve and preserve the promise of America.”
There is no indication, at least in his public statements, that Echo Hawk participated in the church’s programs for indigenous youth, such as the Indian Student Placement Program or the Indian Seminary. In this sense, his experience was very different from Navajo George P. Lee, five years Echo Hawk’s senior and one of the first Native children placed in an LDS home under the ISPP. Yet the two young men shared a deep admiration for then-apostle Spencer W. Kimball. Echo Hawk explained that “he was one of my greatest mentors. At church in New Mexico, people talked about the apostle who had a great love for Indian people. The name of Spencer W. Kimball was revered. . . . The wonderful thing about him was that he befriended us [Indian youth] all very quickly. This was a real feat because it is not easy to get close to Indian youths” (BYU 2007, 5). As for BYU, Lee attended in large part because the university was the next step in what Mauss calls the “conveyer belt” of the church’s programs (All Abraham’s Children, 83). Echo Hawk attended BYU on a football scholarship, where he played safety. He did, however, participate in the school’s Indian programs upon arrival (BYU 1995, 4). Kimball continued to impact Echo Hawk as an undergraduate, even sealing the Pawnee to his wife, Terry, in 1968. The apostle spoke to the student body about a vision of the Lamanites obtaining educations, entering professions, and being elected to political office. Echo Hawk carried an excerpt from Kimball’s talk in his scriptures for years, which served as a challenge and a blueprint for his life (BYU 1995, 4-5; BYU 2007, 5-6).
Upon graduating, Echo Hawk attended law school at the University of Utah, specializing in Indian law. He was tribal attorney for the Shoshone-Bannock tribe in Idaho from 1977 to 1985, as he sought to utilize new laws to increase tribal self-determination and economic independence. From 1982 to 1986, he served in the Idaho state legislature, and from 1986 to 1990 as the Bannock County prosecuting attorney. In 1990, he was elected the attorney general of Idaho, and was the first Native American elected to a statewide constitutional office (i.e., governor, secretary of state, attorney general, etc). Four years later, he launched a bid to become the first Native governor in American history. Upon losing, he joined the faculty at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, and serving as a bishop and stake president at the university. In 2009, he accepted Barack Obama’s invitation to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs. During the confirmation process, Echo Hawk faced substantial opposition in Indian Country, as many found his commitment to Mormonism suspect and interpreted his opposition to gaming as attorney general as evidence that he did not sufficiently support tribal sovereignty. Echo Hawk evidently overcame those doubts, at least to the point of getting confirmed, but it remains uncertain to what degree his image in Indian Country improved during his time with the BIA.
In April 2012, he was called as a Seventy and he left Obama’s administration. Echo Hawk’s October 2012 conference talk continued themes and repeated stories shared with predominately white Mormon audiences for at least two decades, and likely longer. He quoted the Book of Mormon title page, which indicated that it was written for the Lamanites, although he was careful to add that the book was also for Jews and gentiles. He quoted the introduction, revised in 2007, to state that the Lamanites “are among the ancestors of the American Indians.” Echo Hawk quoted 1 Nephi 13:10-14 to interpret indigenous peoples’ devastating experience with European colonialism as fulfillment of prophecy that the gentiles would be instruments of God’s wrath in scattering, smiting, and nearly destroying the Lamanites. Like he had done on previous occasions, he placed his ancestors within this narrative, but then quoted 1 Nephi 15:14 to describe how his immediate family had been awakened to their true Lamanite identities and found salvation through the same Jesus who appeared to their ancestors. Echo Hawk then addressed “the remnant of the house of Israel, the descendants of the people of the Book of Mormon,” enjoining them to read the Book of Mormon, learn its promises, follow the savior’s teachings, make and keep covenants, and follow the spirit (GC 2012).
Echo Hawk’s Lamanite identity therefore embraces both negative and positive elements of the Book of Mormon narrative, at times drawing on what some would consider a justification for–and normalization of–European colonialism to explain his people’s experience. Unlike George P. Lee, however, Echo Hawk has not publicly invoked portions of the Book of Mormon text to claim a special Lamanite identity that is superior to white members of European descent. Lee equated the church’s white leadership with the gentiles of the book, without acknowledging, in Mauss’s words, that
Mormonism had long since redefined most Euroamerican Mormons as literal Israelites, descended mainly from the tribe of Ephraim. This had become an important myth in Mormonism’s emerging racialist rank-ordering of peoples in the nineteenth and early twentieth- centuries. . . . Even with that mythology receding into the past, Lee’s colleagues in the church leadership were not prepared to relinquish their own [status]. . . . It was a form of displacement, theologically if not ecclesiastically, that Lee was trying to achieve through a collective use of the Lamanite identity for himself and his fellow Indian Mormons. His excommunication was simply the LDS leadership’s assertion, perhaps an inevitable one, of its power to control the operational significance or uses of the Lamanite identity and theology set forth in the Book of Mormon (All Abraham’s Children, 134).
Echo Hawk, speaking over twenty years after Lee’s excommunication, emphasized that promises of the Book of Mormon were universal. Citing Omni 1:26, he argued that by coming unto Christ and purifying hearts, “we will all be instruments in fulfilling the mighty promises of the Book of Mormon” (GC 2012). It should be remembered that the contexts surrounding Lee and Echo Hawk are substantially different. Echo Hawk became a general authority in his sixties, after a long life of commitment to the church without any strong ties to the church’s earlier programs. Lee, on the other hand, was just 32 when called as a Seventy in 1975, and was heavily invested in those programs. Lee carried the weight of being a product and representative of the “Day of the Lamanite” just as it was waning, a burden that Echo Hawk does not bear.
In conclusion, Echo Hawk best fits on Mauss’s scale as someone who tries to balance both his Pawnee and his Lamanite identities, although if he leans more toward one, it is the latter. While he affirms aspects of traditional Pawnee culture, he frequently interprets his Indianness through a Lamanite lens. It remains unclear whether Echo Hawk will inspire a new generation of Mormon Natives, for whom the ISPP and other programs are distant memories, to embrace a Lamanite identity, much as Spencer W. Kimball did for him as a youth, but his full-throated endorsement of his own experience growing up as a Mormon Lamanite suggests that we will need to reassess our understandings of the lingering legacies of the twentieth century’s “Day of the Lamanite.”
“Idaho Attorney General is Living Example of the ‘American Dream,” LDS Church News, August 3, 1991.
Larry EchoHawk, “Achieving and Preserving the Promise of America,” May 23, 1995, BYU forum.
Larry EchoHawk, “An Unexpected Gift,” August 7, 2007, BYU speech.
“Elder Larry Echo Hawk: ‘Lifting People’ a Lifelong Choice,” LDS Church News, April 14, 2012.
Larry Echo Hawk, “Come Unto Me, Ye House of Israel,” October 2012 General Conference.
Armand Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).