Guest Post: Barbara Jones Brown, The ?Indian Student Placement Program?

By December 3, 2013

Note: This post continues our series on Mormonism and indigenous histories. Barbara Jones Brown is a talented historian who serves on the board of the Mormon History Association with me. She is a wonderful historian who displays compassion towards her historical subjects and to those people she meets as part of everyday life. She has worked extensively on the Mountain Meadows Massacre and on twentieth-century Mormon Indian history. She received a bachelor’s degree in English and journalism at Brigham Young University in Provo and a master’s degree in history from the University of Utah. We are delighted to have her post with us today.

For nearly half a century beginning in 1947, the LDS Church ran a foster program called the Indian Student Placement Program. At the Church?s encouragement and with parental permission, the program removed Latter-day Saint Native American children from their homes on reservations or reserves in the United States and Canada. These children were placed with white LDS families for ten months of each school year and returned to live with their own families for two months every summer. The program?s goals were to provide better educational opportunities for the children while immersing them in white and Mormon culture. [1]

A 1978 Church pamphlet about the placement program opens with a 1941 quotation from historian Kenneth Scott La Tourette:  ?[Native Americans are] a race in process of being engulfed in an irresistible flood of peoples of utterly different culture. Dislocated from their accustomed seats, transplanted again and again, . . . at times demoralized by an excess of well intentioned but ill directed paternalistic kindness, it is a wonder that the Indians [have] survived.?

Ironically, beginning with the next paragraph, in a tone of ?well intentioned? and ?paternalistic kindness,? the pamphlet goes on to explain how the Indian Student Placement Program benefits Latter-day Saint Indian children by dislocating them from their accustomed homes, transplanting them into white LDS families, and engulfing them in an ?utterly different culture.?[2]

The program was largely the brainchild of Spencer W. Kimball. Growing up in the early twentieth century in the southeastern Arizona town of Thatcher, Kimball frequently interacted with local American Indians. He developed a compassion for indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and an understanding of their history of exploitation, destruction, and loss at the hands of European expansionists. The white man, he taught, ?took near everything takeable?the lands, the water, the mountains, the rivers, the buffalo and the fish, and the homeland and security,? while indigenous peoples ?received near nothing of that which had been theirs from the first?limited reservations, mostly lands considered to be ?bad lands?.?[3]

Yet Kimball?s thought also reflected other ideologies of his time and religion, including social Darwinism, paternalism, and progressivism. Referring to indigenous peoples with a Book of Mormon term, Kimball professed that ?the Lamanites? had forgotten their Christian God, ?lost their written language and culture, and degenerated until they were no match for the wily and subtle Europeans.? Now, he said, ?We have a debt to pay . . . and we shall never have liquidated that debt until we shall have done all in our power to rebuild the Indian and give him back the opportunities that are possible for us to give him.? Kimball metaphorically compared Indians to an engineless glider plane. ?The glider would remain on the ground until it rotted unless some power lifted it,? he said. ?Th[is] sail plane is the Indian. The tow line is the Indian Program and the gospel of Christ. We are the power plane and must do the lifting.?[4]

Kimball was appointed chair of the Church?s Indian Committee when he became an LDS apostle in 1943. The Indian Committee implemented the Indian seminary program, Brigham Young University?s Indian education and services programs, and the Indian Student Placement Program. After beginning the placement program in Utah, Arizona, and Idaho, the Indian Committee expanded the program to Western Canada through my grandfather, J. Talmage Jones.[5]

A native of Thatcher, Arizona, and a longtime friend of Kimball?s, Jones was set apart by Kimball as president of the Western Canadian Mission in 1964. Shortly after grandpa?s arrival in the mission?s headquarters in Calgary, Kimball directed him to start missionary work among Alberta and Saskatchewan?s approximate 45,000 Indians, mostly Blackfoot and Cree in Alberta and Sioux in Saskatchewan. Jones?s writings also reflect the paternalistic racism and progressivism that existed in American and Mormon thought. ?Our Church has a program of teaching the Indian to do his own work and emphasizing his dignity,? he wrote in early 1965. ?In the States our work is effective with the young Indian and it is with this group we will spend most of our efforts? in Canada. ?Our church program encourages . . . integrating them into public schools, church and every other phase of our life. One only needs to spend a couple of hours on the reserves to see why it is necessary to move the children from their native environment. Just as in the U.S. the morality of the Indian is deplorable from Christian standards. Alcoholism is also a curse and between the two it is possible to persuade only a few to study the gospel.?[6]

Behind the placement program was the administrators? belief that Indian children had to be removed from their homes to improve the quality of their lives, along with the assumption that life for these children would be better if they lived with white LDS families. A major indicator of the underlying racism is the fact that Church leadership did not encourage the removal from their homes of children of other backgrounds in North America whose families similarly struggled with problems like alcoholism, poverty, lack of educational opportunity, or difficulty in navigating a different, dominant culture.

At its height in the 1970s, the Indian Student Placement Program reached an annual enrollment in North America of some 5,000 students before it gradually declined and finally ended in 1996. ?The experiment tried to acculturate and assimilate Native American children through white family contexts,? wrote researcher Lynette Riggs. ?They were to learn from white parent role models and implement these understandings when the time came for them to form their own families. When the students left the program, many found ways to integrate and combine some white customs and values with their own Native American points of reference.? Most, however, did not remain affiliated with the LDS Church.[7]

Recently I met a man of the Siksika (Blackfoot) Nation who grew up participating in the placement program in Alberta as a result of my grandfather?s efforts. When I asked for his perspective, he answered that ?the program was a success for some people, and a failure for others. It was good for me in some ways, but failed me in others.? While the placement program freed him from the alcoholism and poverty in his home, he was exposed to alcohol abuse again through one of the teenaged sons of his foster family. While my acquaintance and most of his siblings gained a good education and broke out of a cycle of poverty, they lost their familial closeness with each other because they did not grow up in the same household. While my friend became a leader in the Siksika and LDS communities, he had a difficult time learning how to form strong relationships with those closest to him?his wife and his children. Now that he is a parent himself, he feels anguish knowing his parents did not have the opportunity to raise their own children.[8]

I know historians aren?t supposed to ask ?what if,? but perhaps because of my familial tie to the Indian Student Placement Program, I can?t help but wonder. What might have been if Church leadership, rather than removing Indian children from their homes over a period of half a century, had instead encouraged similar investment in providing social services, increasing educational opportunity, and sharing gospel principles while these children grew up in their own homes?

[1] Lynette A. Riggs, ?The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Indian Student Placement Service: A History? (2008). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations, Paper 92. Accessed at http://digitalcommons.usu.etd/92.

[2] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ?Indian Student Placement Service,? pamphlet, 1978, LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[3] Riggs, 79; Elder Spencer W. Kimball, ?The Lamanite and the Gospel,? BYU Education Week General Assembly Address, June 13, 1969, 4-5, LDS Church History Library.

[4] Kimball, ?The Lamanite and the Gospel,? 7-8.

[5] Riggs, 79.

[6] J. Talmage Jones to Friends, March 20, 1965, original in author?s possession.

[7] Riggs, 32.

[8] Field notes of phone interview, June 2012, in author?s possession.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks Barbara and Amanda.

    This has been a very impressive series. Thank you David G. and JI.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — December 3, 2013 @ 11:26 am

  2. Thanks, Barbara. This is a fascinating combination of a personal essay with scholarly analysis. The ISPP is an interesting example of a program designed to fix perceived problems, yet in the process of fixing, it created or exacerbated other difficulties.

    Comment by David G. — December 3, 2013 @ 1:35 pm

  3. “… and with parental permission.” Any indications whether participation was truly voluntary or whether there was some degree of coercion for Native American LDS families to participate? To the extent it was voluntary, and to the extent commentators think the program had negative effects on the kids who participated and their families, why doesn’t anyone feel that Native American parents should share some or all of the responsibility? Generally when harm comes to children, parents (all parents, regardless of race) are held accountable.

    Comment by Dave — December 3, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

  4. As both an amateur historian, and also as a host family during the placement program’s declining years (1992-1993), I’ve often wondered at the same “What if” questions. I’ve not come to any real conclusions. Our student was indeed mired in poverty, living with her mother, and two unmarried sisters with children, and not much opportunity. One older sister had become a nurse working in Phoenix, and an older brother had also found a good job off the reservation. Staying on the reservation meant connection with family and culture, but a limited future in terms of education and job opportunities.

    The short story is that we found it to be a challenging year, punctuated by the death of her estranged father, and a few other cultural difficulties that both our family and our student struggled with. It ended when a job change took us from Utah to Seattle. We remain facebook friends and exchange Christmas cards, but nothing beyond that.

    Having also seen one close up one of the infamous boarding schools for Native American children, we also saw the extremes of paternalism and cultural assimilation practiced on an industrial scale. In retrospect, the placement program sought to do, out of the best intentions, what the boarding schools failed at, but at lower cost and with a hope that being in LDS homes would always be a positive.

    I would agree that it is interesting to speculate on what differences might have been accomplished trying to deal with these issues on the reservation, instead of leaving these kids without mooring and rudderless in a society that was as foreign to them as their culture was to us.

    Comment by kevinf — December 3, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

  5. Dave, your comment and questions came in while I was drafting my comment #4. I truly believe that it was voluntary, but it was also sold as a net positive for the children to their parents. In our case, it became obvious fairly quickly that all of the responsibility fell on us, including medical costs. As not a real dependent, we could not add our student to our insurance, so that was a constant worry. In addition, transportation to the reservation for anything out of the normal bus trip at the end of year was also our responsibility, and at Christmas, our students mother sent nothing to her daughter, assuming we would cover all of that. We were glad to do so, but were surprised that only her brother off the reservation thought to send her a Christmas gift. It appears that her mother was quite willing to give up her daughter if someone else would handle the costs. The ISPP official we worked with also made it clear that the financial costs were all ours, and not to expect any help from them if any extraordinary expenses came up. I don’t know if that was policy, but that was how it was explained to us.

    Comment by kevinf — December 3, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

  6. Barbara, thank you so much for this. It is powerful, partially because it invokes a history that is at once intensely painful and personal.

    Comment by Amanda — December 3, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

  7. Dave, my sense is that it really was voluntary. Native Americans I’ve talked with who participated in the program as children told me that their parents saw it as a sacrifice they were willing to make if it gave their children a better life. The person I quoted in the post, for example, told me that his mother wanted to get her children away from their alcoholic and physically abusive father. My friend also remembered many times when there was nothing in the house to eat. But it was an extremely difficult sacrifice for his mother, so much so that after allowing all of her children to participate in the program, she kept her youngest at home, so that she could raise just one to adulthood.

    Comment by Barbara Brown — December 3, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

  8. kevinf, thanks for sharing your experience as a member of a host family. My guess is that your foster sister’s mother probably couldn’t afford to send a Christmas present. My understanding is that the ISPP was a mixed bag of strong positives and strong negatives–one reason, I think, why looking at this subject is so difficult. One more insight–the person I quoted also said that he didn’t feel like he lost any of his native culture, because that culture, at least for his family, had already been obliterated when his father, as a child, was forced by the Canadian government into one of the Indian boarding schools you mentioned. My friend said he was grateful that Mormonism gave him a culture.

    Comment by Barbara Brown — December 3, 2013 @ 3:17 pm

  9. Barbara’s “what if?” should nudge us strongly. How can we provide access to education etc. in inner cities or reservations without paternalism? What sorts of guidelines must we adopt if we are to introduce people of all cultures to greater possibilities than they now see? What lines must we never cross?

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — December 3, 2013 @ 10:22 pm

  10. Barbara, This is great and very informative. You bring up some excellent questions. I remember coming across a pamphlet in the CHL (perhaps the same one?) and being struck by a list of reasons for families not to have an Indian child placed in a home. One listed concern was that parents would attempt to “obtain” an Indian child as a “gift” for their own children. I was taken aback by the assumption in this statement–mostly, that including it meant that different families probably did host an Indian child for these reasons. With the historical hindsight most of us have now, it makes sense that the program withered out. However, I am still struck by many stories about how Indian children are still being taken from reservations whether be it through CPS child removal or other means. It seems the church’s history of the placement program definitely fits in with wider histories of American attitudes toward and tenuous relationships with Indian children throughout the twentieth century.

    Also, I always wondered if the program was “advertised” to married couples that did not have children (and could not have them) of their own or was always more directed at married couples with their own children? Was the intended camaraderie between Indian children and white children an essential aspect of the success of the program? Is there any evidence of children being placed with non-white families?

    Comment by Natalie R — December 3, 2013 @ 10:58 pm

  11. Placement is always difficult for me to think and talk about. I have heard praises, tears of regret, anger, hatred, bitterness, joy, hope, disappointment and more in the voices and memories shared of Native Americans who participated in the program and LDS/non-LDS Natives who did not participate in it but were affected by families and those in their community who were and also from white Placement families/parents. I like to think “what if” in history but most importantly I try to understand the context and why things such as Placement and the experiences associated it ever happened and then what can we do now about what happened. These are difficult things to think about. Thank you for pushing us to do it. Barbara, I was impressed by your presentation at the MHA in Calgary and the participation of our commentator (who was a former Placement student). It was one of the most powerful conference sessions I had ever been to.

    Comment by Farina — December 4, 2013 @ 12:10 am

  12. Natalie, I’m not aware of any childless couples or non-white foster families, though, of course, that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. Farina, like you I’ve heard such a variety of feelings expressed and appreciate your sharing more here. I think one reason why this subject is so difficult is because the program was so clearly well-intentioned while at the same time so tragically uninformed. BTW, I was likewise impressed with your paper on the Indian schools and honored to present with you and our commentator.

    Comment by Barbara Brown — December 4, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

  13. […] Barbara Jones Brown, “The ‘Indian Student Placement Program’” […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormons and Natives Month at the JI — January 2, 2014 @ 10:21 am

  14. Didn’t the church also run an Indian Seminary program specifically aimed at outreach to Native Americans in various government-run Native American schools. So it seems there was always more going on than just the Indian Placement Program.

    Comment by John Pack Lambert — January 5, 2014 @ 8:23 pm


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