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The Indian Placement Program with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

This post is longer than usual due to the sensitive nature of what is being discussed. Thank you to all who take the time to read it, and thank you to those who follow the links sourced at the bottom and listen to the stories. (A number of quotes are in bold. These were things I personally felt important to highlight.)

Part 1 – What was the Indian Placement Program?

The Indian Placement Program was put in place by the Mormon church to educate Native Americans. This education was not only academic, but also to educate Native Americans specifically about Mormon beliefs. Children ranged in age from 8 to 18. Baptism was required for entry into the program, and many agreed to baptism not understanding the religious and cultural aspect of what was to come. Once baptized children were placed in the homes of white Mormon families for the duration of the school year. They then returned to their own families on the reservation during the summers.

From the onset the Indian Placement Program was controversial. Those who supported it pointed to success stories, those who were against it pointed out the fact that it was an effort in colonization of the Native Americans.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints officially stated the following reasons for it: “The objective of the Indian Student Placement Program has always been to provide Lamanite children with educational, spiritual, social, and cultural opportunities that would contribute to their leadership development.” (1)

Part 2 – Summarized History of the Indian Placement Program

In 1934 Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act. Part of this act allowed religions onto the reservations. Before this act access to reservations was limited. Once this passed the Mormon church was allowed onto the Navajo reservations, though not all Navajo were accepting of this. 

In 1947 George Albert Smith made a proposal to the government to meet the educational needs of the Navajo. His proposal was to put boarding schools on the reservations that would double as Mormon churches. This proposal did not move forward.

During this time a volunteer effort, or unofficial Indian Placement Program, was in effect. Slowly this volunteer effort of taking Native American children into Mormon homes grew within the Mormon communities.

In 1949 Spencer W. Kimball wrote a report and said, “For the past year of more we have been doing some experimentation in the outing field with the Indians.” He added, “We have brought… a number of young Indians and placed them in various homes… These young people have come directly from the reservation into the cultured homes of our members.”

Miles Jensen helped organize the unofficial placement program under the direction of Spencer W. Kimball. Jensen said, “Since not all of the students were Mormon the foster parents were most considerate of the children, taking time to teach them of the church and our culture…”

By 1953 there were sixty-eight students in the unofficial placement program.

Golden Buchanan, also working under the direction of Spencer W. Kimball on the unofficial Indian placement program, wrote a letter to the first presidency. Buchanan writes, “The Indian people are ready. They are looking to us for leadership as they have never looked before… I feel strongly that the Church cannot neglect it’s responsibilities further. Today the children are pliable and can be molded.” (2)

In 1954, the Indian Placement Program became official.

In 2000 the last student in the Indian Placement Program graduated. During the official years an estimated 50,000 students participated.

Part 3 – Experiences within the Indian Placement Program

A man by the name of Mark Hubbell was baptized and entered the program at age nine. He had a more positive experience and made a video recording discussing this. He provides some great insight into the kindness of his foster family, and the cultural struggles of living in a white world. He says, “I learned to embrace who I am as a Native American who just happened to learn to live in a white world. We all do to a certain extent.” I will provide a link at the bottom for those who want to view his story. (3)

A collection of stories was recorded which shares both positive and negative experiences of some of the people who participated in the Indian Placement Program. Again, I will include a link at the end of this article for those who wish to hear the stories. Here are some quotes from that recording.

~ “There was also constant conflict with the beliefs. Just the whole concept of the church… learning to understand that.
~Another individual talks about not being true to her culture, and not being honest with the Mormon culture. Because the children were told by those in charge of the Indian Placement Program not to participate in traditional ceremonies when they were with their families on the reservation for the summer. She also says she was told, “Go to church. Don’t go to any ceremonies like squaw dances. Don’t have any ceremonies.” When she would return to her Mormon foster families in the fall she was again questioned and had to lie about it, denying participating in cultural traditions. Those who did participate in cultural traditions with their families were at risk of being kicked out of the education program.
~Another man says, “What is culture, and when is it good and when is it bad? And what’s sacred about it?” (4)

Part 4 – Education in Academics topped with Cultural Abuse

The children in the Indian Placement Program experienced complete cultural abuse. The promise that children in the program had to make – that they would not participate in cultural traditions – was based on Mormon beliefs. How children viewed their family, heritage, and even their own skin, Mormonism played a part in all of it. The Book of Mormon says that it is a history of the ancestors of “American Indians”. This is written in the introduction of the Book of Mormon. The “American Indian” ancestors are called Lamanites. The Lamanites were once white skinned, delightsome, and faithful followers of Jesus Christ. But the Book of Mormon teaches that the “American Indian” ancestors turned away from Christ and were marked with dark skin as a sign that they had turned evil. Not only were “American Indian” ancestors marked with dark skin, but the Book of Mormon teaches, “they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness…”

This year a missionary said the following to me, “The Lamanites became the Native Americans who were in the Americas when Columbus came and settled the land. That’s why there was no religion established in the land when Columbus came, because the Lamanites didn’t believe in Christ.” You can find the conversation I had with the missionaries in the blog archives here: Archives

The Mormon view is that Lamanites are not only identified by their darkened skin, but also by their lack of Christianity. The Native American cultural traditions, dances, songs, and way of life are treated as signs that their ancestors had turned away from God. To teach children these things about their own people… To take those young people out of their homes to “educate them” out of their beliefs and culture, and include teachings that shamed them of their true heritage… The ignorance and self righteousness are so blatant it is astounding. It is hard to put into words how this makes me feel. It happened to me and I wasn’t even in the Indian Placement Program. These children… I just can’t find the words.

It is time to remove the term “American Indians” completely from the introduction of the Book of Mormon. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has had a number of studies done and found that they have no idea who or where the “Lamanites” are. When does this become Pious Fraud? It is time the church stops claiming a Native American narrative that is not it’s own.

Removing “American Indians” from the introduction would be a good place to start as an apology for mistakes made. The people who have wrongly been labeled need to heal. Teach young missionaries who don’t know any better BEFORE they leave the Missionary Training Center that no culture should be labeled as Lamanite. See the page List of Lamanites to see the many cultures that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints labels as Lamanites. 

I can attest personally that being raised with an unhealthy and untrue narrative was extremely damaging to my life. This affects generations. Speaking directly to those who govern The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints  I say, “Stories have power, and these stories are not yours. Stop trying to tell them. These are real cultures with a beautiful heritage that you are messing with. Stop.”

Part 5 – Sexual Abuse within the Indian Placement Program

What is a child’s innocence worth to people?” he asked. “Not all the money in the world will replace my innocence.” RJ, one of the plaintiffs from the Navajo case for sexually abused children in the Indian Placement Program

Recently MormonLeaks published a leaked document called, “Special Investigations and Projects”. This document is originally from Kirton McConkie – the law firm which represents The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In it a Native American is discussed – who as a child was in the Indian Placement Program. Bellow is the information written by the Kirton McConkie Lawfirm.

  • 26 Sep 2012
    “…(name blocked), former Indian Placement student, claims he was physically and sexually abused by the father and older brother in the home where he was placed. He has threatened legal action against the Church and given a demand letter to Branch President…(name blocked)”
  • In response to this claim, dated 10/31 /1 2: “While this claim is clearly barred, ….(name blocked) has demanded $8.3 million. We plan to tell him if he is interested in a reasonable sum, in the $10,000 range, to pay for some counseling. Then we can talk. We have confirmed with… (name blocked) that this is the course he recommends. If he is interested, we resolve this. If he is not, we will invite him to retain a lawyer and file a claim. He claims that there are lawyers in touch with him, which we do not doubt. Concerns? (5)

Between 2016 and 2018 there were thirteen cases filed against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints by those who participated in the Indian Placement Program. At this time The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has settled in twelve of those cases. The thirteenth case is still active. Here is a basic summarized history:

March 2016 – News Conference at Keeler Law Office in Gallup, New Mexico.
“We want justice, and we want other kids not to be abused,” MM said during the news conference.

MM is one of two siblings who had been abused as children in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints – Indian Place Program are seeking monetary damages against the church as well as seeking to change church policy regarding the reporting of abuse allegations.

By June 2016 two more Navajo people filed lawsuits against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints over abuse which happened in the Indian Placement Program. One was in 6th grade when she was raped by her foster father in River Heights, Utah. Then in 7th grade she was raped at a church facility during a medical exam. The medical examiner had been hired to do examine children in the church Indian Placement Program. In her senior year she was raped by her foster brother.

The other individual reported being sexually molested in 7th grade and also described being beaten physically. In 2016 an attorney working for the church by the name of David J. Jordon said that the church would – “suffer irreparable harm if forced to litigate.” He also spoke of the children and that they entered the program – “voluntarily with the agreement of their families.”

January 2017
5th Navajo individual sues The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for abuse while in the Indian Placement Program. She was abused by her foster father from 9th grade to 11th grade. She made several requests to the church caseworker to move homes, but he denied her. She finally contacted her family to come get her, and once home the caseworker tried to convince her to return to her foster home. She did not return to the church Indian Placement Program.

In the months that followed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints fought to keep the case of out the Navajo courts stating jurisdiction issues, but the Navajo Courts had valid arguments against this and retained jurisdiction.

Window Rock District Judge Carol Perry has denied a motion by attorneys for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seeking to dismiss five sex abuse lawsuits filed by Navajo plaintiffs.

“This Court’s decision to assert jurisdiction is made in the best interest of Navajo children because in our culture children are viewed as the future, ensuring the existence and survival of the Navajo people in perpetuity,” the ruling states. “Furthermore, it is the duty of this Court to protect the Navajo Nation’s sovereignty including customary laws and our sacred land.”

“While the alleged sexual abusers or those who allegedly failed to report instances of abuse may have never visited the Navajo Nation, this Court asserts jurisdiction because they have voluntarily participated in the program by accepting Navajo children into their Utah homes – thus acting as agents and parties to the contract.”

(Sources for the two years of dated information above – much of what I have recorded above was quoted from research and articles done by Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola, an Independent correspondent for the Gallup Independent.)(6)

In September 2018 I personally wanted to verify a quote I had read – I contacted Craig Vernon, one of the lawyers who represented the plaintiffs. Vernon’s quote is the following, “I understand that the current policy is set forth in 2010 Handbook 2: Administering the Church, Section 13.6.18, which provides that ‘[i]f a leader becomes aware of physical, sexual or emotional abuse of someone during a church activity, he or she should contact the bishop immediately.’ Instructions for bishops are provided in Handbook 1:17.3.2, which states, ‘[i]n the United States and Canada, the Church has established a help line to assist stake presidents and bishops in cases of abuse. . .  When calling the help line, leaders will be able to consult with professional counselors and legal specialists who can help answer questions and formulate steps to take. . . Leaders can obtain information about local reporting requirements through the help line. Where reporting is required by law, the leader encourages the member to secure qualified legal advice. To avoid implicating the Church in legal matters to which it is not a party, church leaders should avoid testifying in civil or criminal cases or other proceedings involving abuse.’ Handbook 1, State Presidents and Bishops 2010, Section 17.3.2.” (7)

Part 6 – Abuse throughout The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

Abuse can only thrive within secrecy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is an institution, not some living breathing thing. It is bad people who abuse, and bad people who ignore it or hide it. There is this quote that I have appreciated for awhile now, because it helped me with perspective about individuals vs institutions. “The guys that use religion are manipulating not just the children, but they are using what can be a very positive thing to a lot of people in a very very nefarious way.” Matt Long (8)

This is less about an institution, and more about those who govern it.

If an abuser is protected within any institution or group, abuse will only continue. Successful abuse within any institution comes down to one thing – the people who govern it. I have many questions, and no answers. The reality is that as an institution The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has a problem. Please go to the website for Protect LDS Children and read the stories: Protect LDS Children. Go to the document from MormonLeaks and read what was said about how abusers are handled: Mormon Leaks.

THIS IS NOT SILENCE – THIS IS SECRECY. On March 26, 2018 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints issued a statement about handling abuse. It was a powerful and hopeful statement if I am honest. The reality though is that these are words – only actions will show how those that govern this institution feel about abuse. Not just the first presidency, but leaders at the MTC, and BYU, and down to stake presidents, bishops, and counselors in local wards. By their works you shall know them.

Part 7 – Final Thoughts

For many months now I have been thinking about comments made by one of my favorite authors, her name is Chimamanada Ngozi Adichie. She gave a powerful talk many years ago about the power of stories and says the following, “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again – and that is what they become.” She goes on to say, “It is impossible to talk about… without talking about power. How they (stories) are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” She explains, “The consequence of the single story is this – it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different, rather than how we are similar.” – “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to disposes and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” (9)

As she ended I was moved by the words, “…but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Indigenous people are reclaiming their truth and healing their culture for future generations. Let their stories be heard, honored, and passed on to the children. 

Ayóó’áýó’ní niha’álchíní

Love For Our Children – Navajo

1- Indian Placement: The Three Most Common Questions, LDS website, Ensign July 1976, Web. 13 September, 2018.

2- Embry, Jessie L. “Indian Placement Program Host Families: A Mission to the Lamanites.” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 40, no. 2, 2014, pp. 235–276. Web 14 September, 2018

3- Hubbell, Mark. “My Story with the LDS Indian Placement Program”. 9 November, 2016. YouTube. Web 13 September, 2018. Link: Video Link

4- Shapemaker08. “Mormon Placement Program”. 21 April, 2008. YouTube. Web 13 September, 2018. Link:Recording

5- Mormon Leaks. Special Investigations and Projects – Kirton McConkie. Mormon Leaks Website. 11 September, 2018. Web. 13 September, 2018.

6- Hardin-Burrola, Elizabeth. Articles ranging from 2016 to 2018 with the Gallup Independent. (This source will be updated with names and dates of articles.)

7- Vernon, Craig. Personal Communication. 11 September, 2018.

8- Long, Matt. Mormon Stories With John Dehlin. Episode 618-619. 2 February, 2016. Web. 8 September, 2018.

9- Chimamanada Ngozi Adichie. The Danger of A Single Story. July 2009. Web 13 September, 2018.

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