This post comes from BCC Guest mmiles.
I was sixteen when Mr. Zeeman assigned our journalism class to interview another student. “Lisa” was in the class with me, and I could interview her while we waited our turn in typing class. Lisa was “on placement.” She was from an Indian reservation and was assigned to live with a foster family for the school year. She had been a participant for a few years already. “We all wanted to go,” she said, “but we had to join the church.”
“You had to?” She looked down and then to the side. We both talked a little quieter, shifting in our red metal chairs.
“I joined to come. I didn’t want to join.” The electronic typewriters drowned out her words. Whether or not it was ever official church policy to only allow baptized members to participate in the Indian Placement Program is unclear. At the very least it was the perception of Native Americans and the standard practice of some Mormon proselytizing missionaries. Some Native Americans claim the US government policy was that children first become members. It is possible that in order to appease critics, government officials adopted the policy, reasoning that if children were already Mormon, cultural purists could not complain that being in white homes caused a change in religion.
My friend “Jenny’s” mother tells of living under the cliché of alcohol induced violence by her father. The sweaty hands of her mother and sister would grasp her own as they fled to the fields behind their house. They fell on their knees and prayed under the brilliant Arizona sun that someone would lift them out of this place, carrying them away from the endless hell in which they groveled. She was sure as a little girl decades ago that the Placement Program was an answer to their prayers. She is still sure today as she speaks freely about her life on the Gila River Reservation.
The Indian Placement Program makes us as Mormons uncomfortable. We don’t like the truth that we took children away from their homes to assimilate them into wider (Mormon) culture. But we also don’t like the reality that it may have been the best way to help, that the problems on reservations we tried to help children escape were very real. The most uncomfortable truth may be that despite our efforts, misguided or not, some of the most egregious social ills very much still exist on reservations several decades later. As Mormons, this is disappointing if we are waiting for a glorious rise of native peoples to take their place as a chosen people of God. This idea is hardest for Native American Mormons who continue to feel the pressure to prove their worthiness to a largely white body of the church.
Mormon Native Americans feel forced to walk a fine line. As ‘Lamanites’, or as ‘Children of Father Lehi’, they have been characterized as special–with special promised blessings, even chosen to fulfill prophecies. As such, active members are hesitant to recount traumatic memories of being torn from their parents while very young. They are hesitant to tell stories about terrible homesickness, mistreatment by foster families, or feeling lost in a white world. They don’t want to be seen as disloyal to the church that pulled them up and out of sometimes worse situations. They don’t want to lose promised blessings.
On the other hand, feelings of loyalty to tribal members often keep Native American members from expressing the severity of the hardships that are often part of reservation life. Social problems of poverty like alcoholism, teen pregnancy, child and spousal abuse, poor healthcare and lack of educational opportunities are treated like tribal secrets, locked away in closets. Expressing too much gratitude to the IPP betrays native cultural identities and can cause friction between even brothers and sisters who participated in the placement program, but had starkly different experiences.
It is under this dichotomy that much research has been done to examine outcomes of the IPP. Ultimately researchers have looked to answer the question: Did the church’s Indian Placement Program do more harm or good? Looking for definitive answers by qualifying and quantifying the human experience discounts both the legitimate pain and authentic joy placement students experienced. It places them into one of two categories: A. Had a bad experience—poor outcome or B. Had a good experience—good outcome. This kind of research leaves no room for ambiguity and nuance. In this way former students in the program are backed into a corner–not given the chance to interpret their own experiences, and essentially asked not to reconcile them.
In 1991 historian Tona Hangen traveled to the Navajo reservation in Arizona to collect oral histories of those who participated in the program. She writes, “I ended my study painfully aware of the ambiguities: the depth of bitterness and of gratitude participants harbored…Upon deeper consideration, however, I realized that the lack of cohesiveness is the thing to be learned from aggregating individual accounts…”
Native Americans are culturally natural storytellers. They tell stories as a way to frame and reframe the happenings in their lives. Allowing foster children of the IPP to tell their stories–the good, the bad, the holy and unholy without judgment and hypothesis would allow them to heal in their communities and families, and hopefully within the church. It would validate not only their humanity, but our own, recognizing the complexity of human relationships. It is the responsibility of researchers to sometimes simply tell the story, or let the story be told.
 A brief history of the program can be found here. http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/daily/education/indian_eom.htm
 For more see here.
 Dialogue. Hangen, Tona. A Place to Call Home: Studying the Indian Placement Program. March 1997. Pg 16.