Editor’s note: This is the first 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.
At age 14, Cal Nez was at a crossroads.
Behind him was a past marked by tragedy. In front of him was an uncertain future on the country’s largest American Indian reservation.
Nez, born in 1958 in the small Navajo community of Tocito, New Mexico, was a teen on the cusp of an early adulthood. Mistreated as an infant, he was raised by his paternal grandparents, who had little material wealth but showered him with gifts of culture and tradition.
By the time he was 8, Nez had already survived his parents’ neglect and the abuses of boarding school. Then came an unthinkable trauma: the day before Nez turned 9, his father, in a drunken rage, murdered his mother.
With their father in prison, Nez’s three younger siblings moved in with their grandparents. Although finally united, the children added a financial burden to an already struggling household. Five years later, faced with the reality that she could not provide for her son’s children, Nez’s grandmother approached him with a suggestion.
“She told me she wanted to give me a fighting chance in life,” Nez says. “She told me she had nothing to offer me in her home or lifestyle and that I had a destiny I needed to explore.”
It was the early 1970s, and Nez’s situation was far from unique on the Navajo Nation. But he had a choice not available to everyone: As a baptized member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormons) he could sign up for the Indian Student Placement Program, a program administered by the church that placed Native students in white Mormon homes during the school year.
For Nez, the choice was easy. He enrolled in the program and boarded a bus for Utah. “I didn’t hesitate,” he says. “I had prayed about the program and I was 1,000 percent positive that I was doing what I was supposed to do.”
Nez was one of an estimated 40,000 Native children and teens who participated in the program, which spanned half a century (from 1947 to 2000), and drew youths from 60 tribes across the western United States and Canada. Designed to give them “educational, spiritual, social and cultural opportunities in non-Indian community life,” the program deposited children into Mormon families where they forged new identities, often hundreds of miles from home.
Now 57, Nez looks back on his experiences with the wisdom that comes with time. Although the program officially ended when the last student graduated in 2000, three generations of students—along with their children and grandchildren—still wrangle with the program’s lasting cultural, familial and psychological costs. Their stories are complex, full of heartbreak and triumph and, in many cases, still unresolved.
“We’re all still asking ourselves the same questions,” Nez says. “How did the experience define us as human beings? Did the program fulfill its intent? Was it worth it?”
Helen John, Navajo, was the daughter of migrant workers who picked beets one summer for a Mormon family in Richfield, Utah. In 1947, the 16-year-old John begged that family to let her stay for the winter and go to school. Her plea was the beginning of the Indian Student Placement Program.
The program operated unofficially—and illegally—for its first seven years, recruiting children as young as 5 and not requiring them to be members of the Mormon Church. In 1954, with 68 students, it was declared an official program overseen by the Utah-based church’s Relief Society, a women’s auxiliary organization. Accredited by Utah and surrounding states that accepted students, the program operated much like foster care, says Jessie Embry, a research professor at the church-owned Brigham Young University.
“It fell into an interesting crack,” Embry says of the program. “The goal was to provide an education, but it was a full-time placement in the home during the school year with no compensation for host families.”
The program grew rapidly, supporting more than 5,000 students during its peak years. But it proved controversial almost from its start. Critics attacked it, claiming the church was using the program as a missionary tool to assimilate Native children into white Mormon society.
Yet supporters lauded it as a groundbreaking answer to the centuries-old “Indian problem.” The Mormon Church introduced the program amid a variety of efforts by the federal government to “Americanize” Natives, including the General Allotment Act of 1887 and the failed attempts at termination in the 1950s.
Throughout the 19th century, white Americans justified removing Native children from their homes—forcibly if necessary—for the purpose of educating and civilizing them, said James Allen, who formerly worked as an official historian for the Mormon Church. The Indian Student Placement Program came as thousands of Native children already were being removed from their homes to attend boarding schools, where they were stripped of their languages and cultures—and even their jewelry, clothing and traditionally long hair.
Although similar in its delivery—students who went on the placement program endured long bus rides, sometimes humiliating medical exams and strict rules for the duration of the program—the Mormon Church’s solution was arguably kinder, Allen said. It was based on a religious commitment to “the idea that Native Americans were a choice people whom they had an obligation to help.”
Mormons and Indians: the Lamanite Connection
It’s impossible to understand the Indian Student Placement Program, its intentions and its limitations without getting to know Spencer W. Kimball, a powerful church leader, a modern-day prophet and the mastermind behind the program.
Kimball, raised in southeastern Arizona, was called as an apostle—or one of the top leaders—of the Mormon Church in 1943. Then-president George Albert Smith gave Kimball a special assignment to “watch after the Indians in all the world.”
Kimball, who served as chairman of the church’s Committee on Indian Relationships, took the assignment seriously. In 1946, he and other church leaders toured the Navajo Nation and saw firsthand its devastating economic conditions. When he learned of Helen John’s request the following year to remain in Utah and attend school, Kimball wholeheartedly embraced it, believing that Mormons were destined to help Native Americans claim their rightful place in history.
“The difference between them and us is opportunity,” Kimball frequently said.
Kimball’s commitment to the Native Americans stemmed from the Mormon belief that America’s indigenous people actually fled from Israel in the year 600 B.C. After settling in an unspecified location in the Americas, the people split up into two groups: the Nephites, a righteous and civilized people; and the Lamanites, an “idle, savage and bloodthirsty” people who, after hardening their hearts, were cursed by God with a “skin of blackness” and thus became “loathsome.”
The Mormon Church, founded in upstate New York in 1830, believes it has a sacred obligation to convert and redeem the Lamanites, restoring their promised blessings to them. The placement program was not just about secular education; it was also a way to instill in students the religious principles of the church.
“You are chosen people,” Kimball told the Lamanites in 1975. “You have a brilliant future. You might possess all the wealth of this earth, but you would be nothing compared to what you can be in this church.”
Kimball’s enthusiasm resonated with Mormons in Utah and surrounding states. They signed up to host Indian students in their homes, sometimes making great sacrifices to help restore the Lamanites to their position as God’s “chosen people.”
The church sent missionaries and caseworkers to Indian reservations to recruit students. In local church meetings, leaders asked for volunteer host families.
Students flourished academically and spiritually, and many went on to study at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where, in 1971, a performance group called the Lamanite Generation was formed. The group, made up of Native singers and dancers performed a song about the “ladder of education.”
Based on a statement by Navajo Chief Manuelito who, following the liberation of the Navajo from Fort Sumner, urged his people to get an education to fight injustice, “Go My Son” was performed all over the world and helped shape popular views of Natives in the Mormon church. A new group, Living Legends, eventually replaced Lamanite Generation, but the song is still performed.
“Go, my son, go and climb the ladder,” the song says. “Go, my son, go and earn your feather. Go, my son, make your people proud of you.”
The program’s positive momentum helped it weather the criticism, including a federal investigation in 1977 launched to study accusations that the church was using its influence to push children into joining the program. The government ultimately rejected the accusations, finding that the program was largely positive and that it enjoyed enthusiastic support from Native parents and white foster parents.
But the program would not last forever. Kimball, who was named president of the Mormon Church in 1973, died in 1985 and succeeding church leaders did not place the same emphasis on Native Americans. Changes to federal Indian policy, like the introduction of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, also dampened the program, though it took another 20 years to officially phase it out.
Mary Nelson, who is half white and half Navajo, is widely believed to be the last student to enter the program. She graduated from high school in 2000.
A Lasting Legacy
Nearly 70 years after the Indian Student Placement Program began, questions still linger, says Nez, who runs a Facebook group for former students. Viewed through a modern lens, the program is not the resounding success early proponents predicted.
The results of the program are as varied as the people involved, Nez said. While some students excelled in the program and graduated at the top of their class, others left early and returned to their reservations. Some embraced the white culture, shunning Native traditions, while others left the program embittered, determined to reconnect with their Native roots.
The church measured success by students’ continued commitment to the faith and their ability to succeed in the modern world. Yet even these students faced inevitable questions at the end of the program, Nez says.
“In a lot of ways, the program defined us. It gave us the opportunity to see a different light, a different lifestyle. But where did we go from there? What are the stories we tell about the program, and what are the stories we tell ourselves?”