Between 1954 and 2000, tens of thousands of Native American children went to live with Mormon families during the school year. For some, it was a chance to overcome the stresses of reservation life. For others, it was a repudiation of their identity. For everyone, it was a life-changing experience.
The first thing to say about our story on the Indian Student Placement Program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is that a single radio piece, no matter how carefully crafted, can only begin to introduce listeners to the depth and complexity of a program that spanned nearly 50 years, 60 tribes and the western half of the United States. While the piece mentions foster homes in Utah, in later years Placement spread as far as Alaska and Canada.
And so we decided early on that this piece would focus primarily on the emotional experiences of the children. It was a decision that was understood by foster families and program caseworkers I met along the way.
“As it should be,” they would say.
And still, there are volumes more to say about the specific point in history in which the program arose, and about the intersection between that history and the unique theology of the LDS Church. There are volumes more to say about life on the reservations and the decisions of birth parents, some of whom had themselves been separated from their families and forced to attend government boarding schools that were often distant, often harsh. There is much more to know about the motivations and experiences of the foster families, who took in children with no financial support from the Church.
Finally, there is so much more to say about the varied experiences of the children themselves. The Navajo child who inspired Placement was the daughter of migrant laborers who picked sugar beets for a white Mormon family in Richfield, Utah. In the late 1940s, Helen John begged that family to let her pitch a tent for the winter so she could stay and go to school. How different her experience must have been from that of Mary Nelson, the last to graduate from the program in 2000, a sweet girl in platform shoes who is half white, speaks little Navajo and whose own father went on Placement.
Consider the difference between going to a foster family in Southern Arizona, near the Mexican border, and going to a small town in Utah where yours is the only brown face. Consider being bused to Southern California, smelling the salt air and feeling the shock of the first sight of the sea. Consider the difference between growing up with one foster family versus growing up with five or six, as some students did, seldom knowing why the previous family didn’t want them back. As Placement’s former director Clarence Bishop once told me, everything that could happen on a program like this did.
As I met and talked with foster families, they would often ask me questions. Did I think, on balance, that the program had helped? How did the former students, now adults, feel about their experience? I heard the same sorts of questions from Navajo participants. Once, as I finished a conversation with a former student, she told me to interview her brother about his time in Placement and then report back to her. Both were adults, living back on the Navajo Reservation, but they had never talked about it. Their experiences were undoubtedly as individual as the families they traveled between. And even individual experiences could contain sharp contradictions. A handful of former students told me they had been physically or sexually abused in their foster homes, but were still grateful to have found the Gospel. A greater number spoke of abuse in their natural families, and of mothers who used Placement to protect them.
Education and religion were the foundation stones of Placement. While some foster families may have volunteered solely out of a sense of charity or obedience to the Church, many shared a special sense of responsibility to the Indians, believed to be a remnant of the House of Israel. The Book of Mormon speaks of the time when the scriptures will pass from the Jew to the Gentile and back to the House of Israel. Its pages describe a day when those from Gentile nations will become nursing fathers and mothers, carrying this remnant, the Lamanites, in their arms and upon their shoulders. LDS Doctrine and Covenants says that, “before the great day of the Lord shall come…the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose,” a phrase that became a theme of the Placement era.
For those in the Church committed to the cause of the Lamanite, the program was part of an effort to uplift a fallen people, to give them opportunity and to help restore them to the knowledge of their true God and Redeemer. It was knowledge, Mormons believe, the Lamanites once had but lost along the way. And it was knowledge that had to be reclaimed in order to prepare them for their great future in the Kingdom.
Some Placement students came to fully embrace the LDS theology. Some simply put it aside. Others struggled for decades to understand what to believe. Still others now regard the Mormon teachings as a kind of brainwashing, a wiping away of what was there before. And that touches a much deeper wound, still felt in many Native communities: the legacy of colonization and genocide, of boarding schools and mission schools, of widespread adoption and foster care. What’s at stake in this legacy is the power to determine one’s own identity. For some, Placement gave them that power. For others, it took it away.
– Kate Davidson
This story was edited by Deborah George. Thanks to the Navajo educator and artist Pauline Begay for use of her song “Cradleboard Lullaby” in the piece. Her award-winning work is available from Cool Runnings Music.
Thanks also to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for providing archival material for this piece.
And many thanks to the Placement students and families who shared their stories and let me into their lives this year, little by little. That experience, for me, is the richest part of the project.