Saints and Indians
Produced by Kate Davidson
Placement in Utah, 1956. Foster
sisters greet each other for a second year.
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 seventeen-minute
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
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.
R. Bishop, former director of the Indian
Student Placement Service, holds a photo
of his wife, sons and foster daughter.
For many, family bonds formed through Placement
lasted decades. “It’s a relationship
of people,” he says.
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.
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
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.
A Placement family in Southern California, circa 1970.
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.
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.
A longer version of “Saints and Indians” was produced for broadcast on Arizona Public Radio. This project was supported by the Arizona Humanities Council.
The LDS Church has posted a collection
of articles in response to assertions that DNA
evidence casts doubt on the Book of Mormon. For scholarly
work on changing notions of race within the Church,
see Mormon sociologist Armand Mauss’s
For a look at Placement from a Navajo student’s perspective,
see Dory Peters’ book Winds
Kay Cox’s "Without
Reservation"(out of print) chronicles the author's years as a foster
mother to fourteen Placement students.
And in The
Blossoming, former caseworker
Dale Shumway has compiled
tales of Placement successes from an LDS perspective.
Relatively little has been published by former Placement students who
are not active in the LDS Church. There are many stories yet to be told,
by the people who actually experienced them.