How Mormons Assimilated Native Children

Students who embraced the Mormon faith and succeeded academically often felt out of place on their reservations or among traditional Native practices

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about the Indian Student Placement Program, a foster-care and education program for Native youths administered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between 1947 and 2000.

Veronica Wallace pressed her face against the bus window and stared into the darkness.

At 13, Wallace was en route from her home in Shawnee, Oklahoma, to Lakewood, Colorado, to live with a family she’d never met. The bus cut across the darkened countryside during the wee hours of the August morning as its passengers slept, talked quietly, listened to Motown music or cried, Wallace says.

“It was a very lonely, very sad trip. It was 2 or 3 in the morning, and I had no idea where I was going.”

It was 1970 and Wallace, who is Sac & Fox, had agreed to spend the next nine months in the Indian Student Placement Program. Run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the program matched Native youths with white Mormon host families who took care of them during the school year and returned them to their reservations for the summer.

“The day of the Lamanites is nigh,” he said. “For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised.”

Courtesy LDS Church History Collection. Elder Spencer W. Kimball, President George Albert Smith, Elder Anthony W. Ivins standing) and Elder Matthew Cowley meeting with group of Lamanites and others soon after the three brethren were called to serve on the Church Indian Affairs Committee.

Living in Two Worlds

The Indian Student Placement Program was not designed to fully assimilate Native children into the white culture, Boxer said. Rather, its goal was to take Native children and turn them into “agents of change.”

“They were supposed to go to school, go to college, but they were also supposed to go home to their reservations and help uplift and convert people,” she said. “One of the tenets of Mormonism requires its members, non-Indians, to save Indian people. One solution would be to convert Indian children who would also aid in the process from within their own communities.”

But that logic was flawed, Embry said. Students who embraced the Mormon faith and succeeded academically often felt out of place on their reservations or among traditional Native practices. Such was the case for Wallace, who left the program and her foster family in Colorado after ninth grade.

“Over the summer, I went back to my life,” she says. “I went to powwows, hung out with my family. It was more difficult because we dealt with alcoholism and poverty, but it was home and I realized I wanted to be there.”

Wallace subsequently fell away from the church and was inactive for 15 years. Now 57 and again an active member of the church, she said her biggest regret is not completing the program.

“That’s where I got my foundation—in life and in the church. The church was everything to me and I left it because it was too hard.”

The story was originally posted on Jan 11, 2016.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *