How Mormons Assimilated Native Children
Students who embraced the Mormon faith and succeeded academically often felt out of place on their reservations or among traditional Native practices
Editor’s note: This is the second 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.
Veronica Wallace pressed her face against the bus window and stared into the darkness.
At 13, Wallace was en route from her home in Shawnee, Oklahoma, to Lakewood, Colorado, to live with a family she’d never met. The bus cut across the darkened countryside during the wee hours of the August morning as its passengers slept, talked quietly, listened to Motown music or cried, Wallace says.
“It was a very lonely, very sad trip. It was 2 or 3 in the morning, and I had no idea where I was going.”
It was 1970 and Wallace, who is Sac & Fox, had agreed to spend the next nine months in the Indian Student Placement Program. Run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the program matched Native youths with white Mormon host families who took care of them during the school year and returned them to their reservations for the summer.
For the half-century the program was in operation (from 1947 to 2000), an estimated 40,000 Native youths from 60 tribes left their homes in favor of a better education and a brighter future. But the program had a secondary goal: bringing Indian students in contact with the morals and cultural practices of the Mormon Church.
Wallace, who was baptized as a Mormon at age 8, was accustomed to the principles of the church, which is known for its high moral standards and emphasis on the family. When her host parents welcomed the “little Indian girl” into their home, Wallace readily adopted this second family.
Cultural and religious clashes were inevitable, however, Wallace says. Her birth parents divorced when she was young and a grandmother raised her, introduced her to the church and encouraged her to go on the placement program. During a visit to Colorado, Wallace’s birth mother sat in the host family’s house and smoked a cigarette.
“That was bad,” Wallace says. “Her lifestyle was not keeping with the standards, and so I knew I had to choose.”
Wallace’s choice, though difficult, was common for placement students. The program, founded on principles of assimilation, forced some students to choose between birth parents and foster families, and between Native tradition and the church’s “higher law.” And the stakes were high: students who failed to meet the church’s standards were sent home.
The Business of Saving Souls
At its start in 1947, the Indian Student Placement Program saw church leaders fussing about how to meet the needs of one Navajo student. Yet by the end of its first decade, the program was beginning to look more like an industry.
Full-time missionaries and paid recruiters visited Indian reservations looking for students. Parents, seeing the economic and educational benefits of the program, sometimes enrolled all their qualifying children. In the fall, students arrived by the busload at reception centers in Utah and surrounding states, where they received food, medical exams, baths, shampoos and disinfectants before going home with foster families.
Problems arose with logistics and the sheer number of students and families involved, said Jessie Embry, a research professor at the church-owned Brigham Young University.
“There were rules about what students were supposed to be,” she said. “They were supposed to be academically up with their class, physically fit and emotionally stable.”
Above all, once the program was officially recognized, students were required to be at least 8 years old—the age of accountability—and be baptized into the Mormon Church. But if ritual was the only thing that stood between a youth and opportunity, baptism was easy enough to accomplish, Embry said.
“There are some examples of people getting baptized just to go on placement,” she said. “Host families would joke that children came with wet hair, that they were baptized just before getting on the bus. There are other stories about children not even knowing they were being baptized. The missionaries said, ‘Come with me and I’ll buy you a hamburger,’ and then they were baptized.”
Other problems arose as the program grew. At its height, more than 5,000 students were on the program, which had expanded to Arizona, Canada, California, Colorado, Idaho, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota and Georgia. Administration became difficult and the number of participants put social and financial strains on the church.
Caseworkers, the program’s only paid employees, were charged with making regular visits to all foster families and helping to iron out everything from familial disputes to cultural clashes. But the program had too many students and too little oversight, Embry said.
In the 1966-67 school year, there were 1,569 students on the program and only 19 caseworkers. That was 85 students for every professional, Embry said. The following year, 46 caseworkers supervised 3,123 students—or 67 students per worker.
“The program was set up so the caseworker had a presence in every student’s life,” she said. “Some students were on the program for years and never saw one.”
Kinks in the program led to breakdowns in communication, in oversight and, ultimately, in the welfare of students and foster families, said James Allen, a former historian for the Mormon Church. Individual students’ success depended on many factors, including their own preparation, the stability of foster families, support from birth families and individual interpretations of the program.
“There were numerous stresses and strains, usually connected with the problem of crossing cultural barriers,” Allen said. “Some foster families gave up in just a few months, others after the first year. Some never fully understood their foster children.”
But problems were bigger than disagreements or cultural clashes in individual homes, said Elise Boxer, a professor of history and Native American Studies at the University of South Dakota. An enrolled citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, Boxer also is an active member of the Mormon Church. She completed her dissertation on the Mormon concepts of whiteness and indigenous identity.
“From the Mormon perspective, the program is seen as a success, as something that provided cultural, educational and economic opportunity the students wouldn’t have otherwise,” Boxer said. “But if you start looking at the language, it’s problematic. Mormon homes became a tool to aid in the assimilation of Indian children.”
A System of Racism
Originally called the Lamanite Student Placement Program, the project was riddled with ethical and philosophical problems, Boxer said. The term “Lamanite,” used for America’s indigenous people, carries with it a “religiously racialized identity,” she said.
“American Indian people as Lamanites are a promised people, but also a fallen people,” Boxer said. “The traditions of their forefathers, or the traditions they hold onto today are perversions or half-truths. So their conversion to Mormonism, to the ‘true gospel,’ is going to play a part in the civilization of Indians.”
The Book of Mormon, viewed as sacred text by church members, promises that Lamanites, who were cursed with dark skin, will become “white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome.” That promise, Boxer said, leads to a damaging cognitive dissonance, especially for Native youth.
“They are physically different from white Mormons, but they buy into the promise and internalize that identity,” she said. “The program is suddenly about privileging their Mormon identity at the expense of their indigenous identity.”
Rules distributed to students mandated they put aside their Native traditions in favor of Mormon customs. A 1973 student guide published by the church instructs them to “try to learn the accepted ways of behavior in the society in which you live. Be anxious to accept those ways of the church which will help you fit into the modern society of today.”
The guide prohibits students from speaking in their Native languages “when there is someone present who does not understand.” Students also are instructed to “show interest in the experiences of others,” be cheerful and friendly and “achieve and not fail.” Even at home during the summer, students were prohibited from practicing their Native religions or ceremonies. Failure to follow the rules could have resulted in expulsion from the program.
“Remember, the people with whom you associate at home, at church, at school or wherever you will be may judge all Indian people according to what you do and say,” the guide states.
Foster families were selected on the basis of strong marital relationships, high moral standards, activity in the church, financial circumstances and a desire to help “a Lamanite child gain an education.” Families were promised Native children “free from communicable diseases” and “comparatively free from serious emotional disturbances,” states a 1965 guide for foster parents.
The program also came with a prophetic promise. In a 1960 speech to the church, Mormon Apostle Spencer W. Kimball remarked on the “progress of the Indian people” in the Indian Student Placement Program. Students’ skin, he said, was growing “as light as Anglos.” Children living in foster homes were “several shades lighter” than their dark fathers and mothers.
“The day of the Lamanites is nigh,” he said. “For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised.”
Courtesy LDS Church History Collection
Elder Spencer W. Kimball, President George Albert Smith, Elder Anthony W. Ivins standing) and Elder Matthew Cowley meeting with group of Lamanites and others soon after the three brethren were called to serve on the Church Indian Affairs Committee.
Living in Two Worlds
The Indian Student Placement Program was not designed to fully assimilate Native children into the white culture, Boxer said. Rather, its goal was to take Native children and turn them into “agents of change.”
“They were supposed to go to school, go to college, but they were also supposed to go home to their reservations and help uplift and convert people,” she said. “One of the tenets of Mormonism requires its members, non-Indians, to save Indian people. One solution would be to convert Indian children who would also aid in the process from within their own communities.”
But that logic was flawed, Embry said. Students who embraced the Mormon faith and succeeded academically often felt out of place on their reservations or among traditional Native practices. Such was the case for Wallace, who left the program and her foster family in Colorado after ninth grade.
“Over the summer, I went back to my life,” she says. “I went to powwows, hung out with my family. It was more difficult because we dealt with alcoholism and poverty, but it was home and I realized I wanted to be there.”
Wallace subsequently fell away from the church and was inactive for 15 years. Now 57 and again an active member of the church, she said her biggest regret is not completing the program.
“That’s where I got my foundation—in life and in the church. The church was everything to me and I left it because it was too hard.”