From Very Good to Tragic: What the Mormons Did for Native Children
Editor’s note: This is the final in a three-part series about the Indian Student Placement Program, a foster-care and education program for Native youths administered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between 1947 and 2000.
Bennett Jackson clutched a five-dollar bill in one hand and a tortilla stuffed with Spam and potatoes in the other.
At 8, he was the youngest passenger on a bus from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Encinitas, California. The money was the last of his mother’s savings.
“That’s how I knew things were bad,” says Jackson, now 42. “My mom gave me her last five dollars when she said goodbye.”
Jackson, Hualapai and Hopi, grew up in the impoverished town of Peach Springs, Arizona, with three brothers and a single mother. He was 8 when Mormon missionaries knocked on the door.
“My mom usually chased off anyone who came to the door, especially missionaries,” he says. “Not this time. She let them in. We never knew how bad my mom struggled until that day when she broke down and asked for help.”
Help came in the way of the Indian Student Placement Program, a foster care program operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that placed Native children with white Mormon families during the school year. Conceived in 1947, the program attracted 40,000 students during the half-century it was in operation.
Jackson met the age requirement to go on the program, but he was not a member of the church. Six weeks after meeting the missionaries, he was baptized and put on a bus to California. On the other end of that seven-hour bus ride, Jackson met the man he would call his dad.
“We treated each other like family, right from the start,” Jackson says. “To this day, I still think of him as my dad.”
But Jackson was at a disadvantage. Because his mother sent him on the program for economic reasons, he lacked the religious conviction necessary to succeed in this Mormon program. Although it often helped Native children break out of poverty and gave them unprecedented access to high-quality education, its secondary purpose was to bring America’s indigenous population into the Mormon Church.
“Here was one of the problems,” says James Allen, a former historian for the Mormon Church. “A lot of children were baptized just to go to school. Hundreds of them were members of the church, but they were only on the records because they went on the program.”
Jackson graduated from high school in California and his foster dad paid his tuition at a local junior college. Halfway through his second year, heavily involved in drinking, drugs and partying, Jackson left school and the church, and returned to the Hopi Reservation. He spent the next 10 years in and out of jail for drinking, fighting and domestic violence, and all three of his brothers met violent deaths.
Through it all, he maintained contact with his foster dad. “I was in rehab when my dad sent me a copy of the Book of Mormon,” he says. “That was the first time I read it.”
Cal Nez, who runs a Facebook page for former placement students, says success in the program depended on individual motives. Nez, Navajo, went on the program at age 14, graduated from high school in Utah and married a Mormon woman. He now has a son serving a full-time mission for the church.
“There are all these pieces to the program,” Nez says. “There’s education, future, progress, opportunity. There’s religion and spirituality. What are all the motivations? Why are students deciding to go and why are parents sending them?”
Nez believes the program was born from good intentions. Native people were floundering in the mid-20thcentury as the federal government targeted them with wide-reaching assimilation and termination policies.
On the Navajo Nation, where people were still recovering from the Long Walk, the federal government imposed a livestock reduction program in the 1930s, exterminating 80 percent of sheep, goats, cattle and wild horses. The result was economic devastation, and the Indian Student Placement Program came as an answer to prayer, Nez says.
“I think so many people saw this as a way out of poverty. I don’t know how I could send my own child away to be cared for by someone else for nine months. That tells me that it comes down to economic reasons.”
Some students signed up for the program solely for its educational opportunities. Others enrolled out of curiosity, as an alternative to boarding schools, to travel or for what Nez called “an all-expense-paid trip off the reservation.” Perhaps the smallest proportion of placement students signed up for spiritual reasons, Nez says. Of the 25 youths from his home community who went on the program, only Nez is still active in the church.
“What does this say about our motivations?” he says. “Some of the people I’ve spoken with say they hate the church, that the program didn’t deliver what it promised. But I have to ask why they went. We need to look back and find out why we walked those steps. Did we have earthly intentions or spiritual intentions?”
With so many people involved, the program was bound to have unpredictable—and unintended—consequences, says Jessie Embry, a professor at Brigham Young University who studied the program. “We have a range of experiences, from the very good to the very tragic. Some students were so close to their foster families they were put in their wills. Host families traveled to the reservations for weddings and births. But others reported abuse or neglect and stayed for only a short time.”
Negative experiences often came from a lack of stability, Embry says. Placement students experienced the internal workings of regular families, which were far from perfect. “Foster parents might experience marital problems. Financial strains might mean a student has to leave. There were personality clashes, cultural differences, misunderstandings, differences in communication, differences in personal property, differences in morals or timing. All kinds of differences.”
Although the program was set up for students to stay with the same families for the duration of their education, often that was not the case, Embry says. Many students were shuffled from house to house, sometimes changing schools in the middle of the year.
That was the case for Nez, who ended up homeless before his senior year of high school. An honor student, artist and athlete, Nez spent the summer sleeping in the back of a truck while he waited to be assigned a new host family.
The woman who finally opened her home to Nez still calls him her son.
“Today I look back, as a 57-year-old man, and I realize I never left those beautiful mountains I prayed so hard for when I was 14 years old,” Nez says. “That’s the reason I [was in] the placement program: to feel the dynamics of having a mother and father and siblings, and to be part of a church that gives me recognition of who I am.”
Mormon and Indian
The church defines success in the placement program as a student who completed an education and maintained a lifelong commitment to the faith, says Elise Boxer, a professor of history and Native American Studies at the University of South Dakota.
“The literature focuses on those who remained active and practicing members of their faith,” she says. “The church measures its success based on how many Indian people are saved.”
Despite its good intentions, Boxer says, the program had a lot of negative results. At the top of that list is the church’s practice of “asserting authority over Native people.
“Ultimately, it had a negative effect on Native children because you have to look at the way they make sense of their identity. A lot of these former students still have trouble finding a place within their own tribal and Mormon communities. I think all members want to make sense of their place within the Mormon Church, and for Native people, that can mean not putting their Native identity at the forefront.”
In fact, students remaining in the church often gave up their Native cultures, which Mormon Apostle Spencer W. Kimball called “superstitions.” Kimball, who later served as president of the Mormon Church, was the mastermind behind the program. In a church-wide speech in April 1953, the year before the program was officially organized, Kimball spelled out his idea of success among the Lamanites.
“The question is asked nearly every day when the Indian program is mentioned,” he said in a speech. “Will they stay with the church? Will they retain their faith? Or will they go back ‘to the blanket?’ And I want to tell you that few will return to the blanket when they have had their opportunities in education and the gospel.”
Nez has a more tempered view of success. Originally attracted to the church because of its teachings about Lamanites and the promises for Native people, Nez says the church gospel is only part of his identity. “I’m Navajo and I’m Mormon. I don’t think it’s either/or. I still believe in Navajo traditional ways and I still go to ceremonies, but I also love the Mormon church and I love the gospel. For me, the two are tied very close together.”