Religious Affiliation Requirement in Indian Boarding Schools

By December 29, 2014

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.Permission

Article filed under Memory Race


  1. Thanks for another update on your research. Here are a few leads you might want to pursue.

    The first Mormon chapel in Albuquerque, before the Haines chapel was built in the 1950s, was likely located downtown, not far from the Albuquerque Indian School on 12th Street.

    Perhaps the 25,000 Native Americans who enlisted in World War II brought back to the reservations their tradition of selecting religious affiliations, since the military probably forced each of them to pick and attend a specific denomination.

    If the Indian Seminary program was equally open to LDS and non-LDS students, maybe enrolling in those required weekday Sunday School classes made selecting “Mormon” less of an identity and more of an elective or club.

    Could the Dan Henio you found at AIS in the 1950s be the same Dan Henio who graduated from there in 1968, but who is apparently not mentioned on the religious activities page of the Sandpainter yearbook that year?

    Even if most of the teachers and staff at Intermountain India Boarding School were not LDS, have you checked the religious affiliation of the BIA officials who oversaw the school, especially since the BIA had a tradition of recruiting male, Anglo BYU graduates (at least before Indian preference changed employment practices)?

    Perhaps LDS church leaders established seminaries near Indian boarding schools, alongside other Christian faiths, because they realized the U.S. Supreme Court was moving toward an coexistence of government and religion in schools, as long as the schools’ stance toward religions was neutral and there was not “excessive entanglement.”

    You raise a good point about how Christian indoctrination might have been compulsory in American Indian education a half century ago, but the BIA must have admired the selective mission schools on the Navajo reservation and how their Christian emphasis managed to turn out some of the best graduates.

    I think your question about the impact of Christian programs and LDS Indian seminary at the time on students is probably the most important.

    I have wondered if the relative lack of LDS Navajo adults at Intermountain reinforced an impression among students that experiencing Mormonism was something they did as children at the feet of white adults. Maybe they never really felt like the church needed them or imagined Navajo adults could run the church someday.

    Perhaps the one place where that perception was first turned on its head was at BYU in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I hope you can track the Intermountain students who attended during that period, and find out if it was experiences such as Indian seminary or Indian placement that put them on a path to attending the school.

    Comment by sterflu — December 30, 2014 @ 1:27 am

  2. Thanks for all the insights, sterflu. I do not know much about Mormon activities in the Albuquerque region (specifically the Indian seminary there). I was mainly impressed to see the permission slip for Henio to receive “training” from the LDS Church.

    I think the connections need to be drawn out between military service and Indian boarding school experiences (including questions of religious practice or religious affiliation at school). However, schools seemed to already require American Indians (at least in the Southwest where I have been studying) to declare a religious affiliation before WWII.

    I agree that, for some American Indians, declaring a religious affiliation at school (such as Mormon) was viewed as selecting a club.

    I am not sure if Henio graduated from AIS, since there were records that he left AIS not long after being there in the 1950s to return to a school closer to his home community. I also could not find much evidence about whether this student remained involved with the LDS Church.

    You pose a number of important studies and directions of research regarding the Intermountain Boarding School to understand connections between Indian education, the federal government, American Indian student experience, and the LDS Church. I have not studied sources on Intermountain exhaustingly at this point, but I have come across oral histories from employees (relating to the Brigham City community) and student alumni. I have met and interviewed a few students who went to Intermountain briefly, but they did not complete their education there. I am interested in how Navajo youth had an eclectic array of educational experiences, as they changed school systems several times before completing (while some never graduated).

    Comment by Farina — December 30, 2014 @ 7:25 pm


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