Church History
Indian Student Placement Program

Indian Student Placement Program

During the second half of the 20th century, approximately fifty thousand Native American children participated in the Indian Student Placement Program (ISPP), an initiative sponsored by the Church in which Church members hosted Latter-day Saint Indian students during the school year.1 For Native participants, the program offered educational and spiritual opportunities in addition to what was then available on reservations. The program enabled host families, who were predominantly white Latter-day Saints, to fellowship and assist American Indians, whom they understood at the time to be descendants of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon.

The ISPP was founded in the wake of World War II, which brought many American Indians into contact with the dominant culture and convinced many Native leaders and parents of the value of Euro-American education. In 1946, an estimated two-thirds of the Navajo (Diné) population—from which a significant percentage of ISPP participants came—had received no formal education. Federal Indian schools were underfunded and were often geographically inaccessible to Native children. Parents and tribal officials during the postwar era, looking for ways to alleviate poverty in their communities, were therefore open to new educational opportunities for the rising generation.2 In 1947, Helen John, a teenage Navajo laborer in Richfield, Utah, requested and received permission to stay with a local Latter-day Saint family and attend school.3 John’s experience served as a template for other Indian youths who were informally placed with Latter-day Saint families over the next few years. In contrast to federal Indian boarding schools, where Native children stayed in sometimes impersonal school facilities, the emerging Latter-day Saint approach was an “outing program,” in which Native children lived with host families, attended local schools, and were embedded in the surrounding community.4

Apostle Spencer W. Kimball became the leading proponent of the Church’s 20th-century efforts to proselytize Native peoples and provide educational assistance.5 Under his direction, the ISPP became an official Church program in 1954. Missionaries and local Church leaders encouraged Native youths to participate, while local priesthood leaders recruited host families. The ISPP operated under the Relief Society’s licensed social services department. Case workers ensured that Native applicants were at least eight years old, in good health, able to participate in school, and baptized members of the Church. Case workers also ascertained that host families met legal requirements to be foster parents and, working with local priesthood leaders, confirmed that they were Church members in good standing.6 Although many of the initial participants were Navajo children and were placed in Utah homes, as the program expanded in the 1960s, Native American students from many tribal nations throughout the United States and Canada were placed in Latter-day Saint homes throughout the North American West.7 Aside from attending school, participants often engaged in extracurricular, church, and other social activities intended to enrich their experience in the program. To support the ISPP, the Church operated the Indian Seminary Program for religious instruction.8

The ISPP produced mixed results. According to a 1981 study, many participants thrived, graduating high school and attending college at higher rates than Natives who did not participate in the program, given the poor educational alternatives. Many ISPP graduates studied at Brigham Young University, which operated one of the largest Native American education programs in the United States in the 1970s. Following graduation, many participants maintained a high degree of commitment to the Church, participating in their congregation, paying tithing, adhering to the Word of Wisdom, and marrying in the temple.9 Other participants, however, found adapting to the ISPP’s racial and integrationist assumptions difficult. Although the program encouraged participants to maintain regular contact with their families and to return home during the summers, many found the program’s privileging of Western values separated them from their Native family and culture.10

ISPP annual enrollment peaked at five thousand participants in 1970, after which a combination of factors led to a slow but steady decline. Externally, indigenous activists began criticizing the ISPP as a tool of assimilation. Internally, the Church began to streamline and standardize its programs, which included curtailing and reducing the ISPP. This led to some internal dissent.11 Eventually legal and financial constraints made continuation of the program unfeasible. These constraints and the many school improvements on reservations led Church leaders to conclude that the program should be discontinued. The ISPP’s final participant graduated from high school in 2000.

Related Topics: Native Americans, Lamanite Identity, Spencer W. Kimball

  1. Gaps in the ISPP’s historical records make determining the precise number of participants impossible. Clarence R. Bishop, a longtime case worker and later director of the program, estimated in 2002 that fifty thousand students had participated in the program; see Dale L. Shumway and Margene Shumway, eds., The Blossoming: Dramatic Accounts of the Lives of Native Americans in the Foster Care Program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (2002), x; Matthew Garrett, Making Lamanites: Mormons, Native Americans, and the Indian Student Placement Program, 1947–2000 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2016), 251, note 1.

  2. Donald L. Fixico, The Urban Indian Experience in America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000); Farina King, The Earth Memory Compass: Diné Landscapes and Education in the Twentieth Century (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018), 93–110; Hildegard Thompson, The Navajos’ Long Walk for Education: A History of Navajo Education (Tsaile, Navajo Nation, Arizona: Navajo Community College Press, 1975), 74, 78–79.

  3. Helen J. Hall, interview by J. Neil Birch, Oct. 10, 1978, J. Neil Birch Indian Placement Program Oral History Transcripts, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; Thelma S. Buchanan, interview by William G. Hartley, Oct. 12, 1976, 3–12, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; Golden R. Buchanan, Oral Histories, 1974–1975, vol. 2, 3–8, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  4. Clarence R. Bishop, “Indian Placement: A History of the Indian Student Placement Program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (master’s thesis, University of Utah, 1967), 29–41. On the earlier models of “outing programs,” see David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928, 2nd ed. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020), 174–83.

  5. Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 288–95. For more on the Church’s previous proselytizing efforts among Native Americans, see Topics: American Indians, Indian Slavery and Indentured Servitude, Lamanite Identity.

  6. Bishop, “Indian Placement,” 42–75; Garrett, Making Lamanites, 58–90, 93.

  7. Garrett, Making Lamanites, 83–84; Jessie L. Embry, “Indian Placement Program Host Families: A Mission to the Lamanites,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 40, no. 2 (Spring 2014), 235–76.

  8. Garrett, Making Lamanites, 85–86, 91–127; Scott C. Esplin, “‘You Can Make Your Own Bright Future, Tom Trails’: Evaluating the Impact of the LDS Indian Seminary Program,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 42, no. 4 (Oct. 2016), 172–207.

  9. The 1981 study found that 82 percent of students who participated in the ISPP for at least one year graduated from high school, a rate over 20 percentage points higher than their peers. Two-thirds of ISPP participants left the program for various reasons before graduation. Bruce A. Chadwick and Stan L. Albrecht, “Mormons and Indians: Beliefs, Policies, Programs, and Practices,” in Marie Cornwall and others, eds., Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 295–309; Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Perceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 82–92.

  10. Elise Boxer, “‘The Lamanites Shall Blossom as the Rose’: The Indian Student Placement Program, Mormon Whiteness, and Indigenous Identity,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 41, no. 4 (Oct. 2015), 132–76; Garrett, Making Lamanites, 169–234; Carolyn Rittenhouse, “Sacred Journey: Restoring My Plains Indians Tipi,” in Jaqueline Fear-Segal and Susan D. Rose, eds., Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Indigenous Histories, Memories, and Reclamations (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 258–73.

  11. Garrett, Making Lamanites, 169–234. Navajo George P. Lee, a prominent ISPP graduate who obtained a doctorate in education from BYU and who served as a mission president and member of the Seventy, was excommunicated in 1989 in part due to his outspoken criticisms of the ISPP’s decline. See “Elder George Patrick Lee of the First Quorum of the Seventy,” Ensign, Nov. 1975, 136–37.