Two weeks ago I caught a few minutes of a story on NPR about the Church’s Indian Placement Program. I happened to tune in as a former Placement student told of her positive experience in the program: with primary children singing “I Am a Child of God” in the background, she described how the loving environment of her foster home and the gospel principles she learned changed her life. “How nice,” I thought, and went back to preparing Sunday dinner.
I was surprised and distressed, then, to hear read on the air the following week a listener’s very negative response. The letter read, “We listened in growing horror [to the report on the Indian Placement Program.] What if blond-haired, blue-eyed children who’d been raised in the Mormon tradition had been spirited away by night, by bus, to be schooled in the Navajo way? Would those children have been taught that everything they already believed was evil, and that they were inherently sinful by their birth into a godless culture?” The unfairness of the criticism was breathtaking, and it prompted me to find the original story online to see what could have elicited this reponse. As it turns out, the perturbed listener could not have been listening very closely to the story, which provides at least a rudimentary explanation for why Native American peoples are of special interest to Mormons, not because of their “inherently sinful” nature or “godless culture” but precisely because of their divine nature and prophesied cultural potential. Furthermore, the story makes it clear that Native American children were not “spirited away,” but were placed in foster homes at the request of their natural parents, who often preferred the Program to the boarding school alternative.
I don’t know much about the Indian Placement Program, and I don’t intend to mount a defense of its effectiveness. My rudimentary research (here, here, and here) shows that it functioned between 1954 and 1996, matching Native American children with LDS families, mostly in the Western US, where they lived and studied as part of the family during the school year; the program appears to have been an early and formative component of what is today LDS Social Services, and was in many ways the spiritual child of President Kimball; its stated purpose appears to have shifted over the years, from a frank socialization effort to a multicultural-educational experience. I was struck by what seemed to me a slightly disingenuous silence on the issue of proselyting in the Church-friendly materials I read: the program seems to me–and to most observers and participants–to have been transparently designed to provide LDS instruction at least as much as quality public education, but this objective seems to have disappeared from Church descriptions of the program, perhaps as that effort has come to be seen as politically incorrect.
Many Indian children undoubtedly benefited greatly, both spiritually and educationally, by the experience. But it’s hard to know whether the program was a success overall–even difficult to know what criteria would constitute “success”–even though the program has been the subject of numerous theses and dissertations, and even one government study: its effects were certainly as varied as its participants, and its results, spiritual and cultural, mixed. But there’s a larger lesson to be learned here, perhaps: the NPR story and the irate response made clear to me the danger of judging religious behavior without contextualizing the behavior in belief. I am guilty of this myself: it’s shockingly easy to be shocked by the (supposed) rudeness of Evangelicals, or the oppressiveness of Catholics, or the wishy-washiness of Unitarians. It’s much more difficult to do the intellectual and emotional work of understanding those postures in their context of belief–but that effort is absolutely necessary for righteous judgment of self and other.