In my research of Navajo educational history, I have come across several student case files that include “religion” as a major category in individual profiles. Growing up with Navajo family and friends, I remember references to how they had to choose their “religion” at boarding school during the 1950s.
They usually had a designated time during the middle of the week to engage in religious extracurricular activities such as scripture study, and they also had time set aside to participate in religious worship on Sunday. When they registered for school, they had to fill out the section specifying their “religion.” The parents oftentimes declared their children’s religion, but school officials would chose one for the child if that part was left blank. They could only declare a Christian denomination as their religious affiliation. These limited options of religions often included The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Navajo students such as my father did not really see himself as Christian until he became converted to Mormonism during his college years. Yet, he still felt pressured to declare his religious affiliation and attend the weekly meetings in boarding school during the mid-twentieth century. He recalls how his older sister changed his religion to “Mormon” for him one day in sixth grade so that he could go with the LDS missionaries and a group of boys to the movie theatre in Gallup, New Mexico. After the movie, the missionaries baptized him and some other boys, but that was all he ever heard of them. He stopped attending LDS activities in boarding school.
My grandmother went to the Albuquerque Indian Boarding School in the 1930s. In her student file, held in the Denver National Archives, there was a short profile of her: “Johanna Haskeltsie—Much the same sort of girl her sister, Christine is—but younger and not so well developed in character. Only 9-3. Navajo—goes to Presbyterian church.” The unnamed school administrator surveyed my grandmother as a student in only a couple sentences, emphasizing her “character” and “church.” Her sister (Christine) was a devout Christian throughout her life, but my grandmother did not regularly participate in churches. She lived according to Navajo ancestral teachings for most of her life. The school official’s comparison of my grandmother to her sister also then implies the religious and moral qualities of students—that is how they were judged in a non-denominational school.
In one of the Albuquerque Indian School student files, stored in the Denver National Archives, I came across a Navajo boy who identified as “Mormon” in the 1950s. His file included a small permission slip to confirm that his parents supported his activities in the LDS Church (as the accompanying image demonstrates). Schools would require parental permission in most cases for students to affiliate with certain religions. Some parents arranged for their children to participate in church and religious classes. In other cases, children simply went to the religious groups that offered more gifts and perks such as parties. My father told me that his schools never enforced the parental preferences of their children’s religious practice. He was free to attend any of the Christian churches on Sunday. Like other Navajo students, he knew which churches offered the most candy during Christmas or other specific times of the year.
Yet, to what degree was Christian indoctrination compulsory in American Indian education of the late twentieth century? How did Native American students’ participation in such programs affect them? All the student files of the Albuquerque Indian School that I reviewed included some mention of their religious affiliation. The separation of state and church, then, were not as clear especially for Native Americans who did not even have the option in many cases to practice their ways of life and spirituality into the late twentieth century.