Penthouse Retrospective

by Jon Stewart and Peter Wiley Originally Published: June, 1981

Mormon Roots | 40 Years Ago This Month

But George was one of the lucky ones. He adjusted reasonably well, thanks in part to being an outstanding athlete. After high school he went on to Brigham Young

University, did a two-year missionary stint back on the reservation, and took a doctorate in education. Then, a few years ago, Church President Spencer Kimball, the “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” was told by God that it was time to put an Indian, specifically George Lee, into the hierarchy. Today George serves as executive administrator of 85 “stakes” — similar to dioceses — each representing from 2,000 to 6,000 Mormons.

Up to a point, Lee’s experience with the Mormon Placement Program is fairly typical. Each year since the early 1950s, hundreds and then thousands of Indian children between 8 and 18 — mostly Navaho — are bussed from reservations as far away as Canada to live for nine months with a white, middle-class Mormon family and attend a white, small-town or suburban school. The foster families, who are carefully screened by the church, are concentrated in the Salt Lake City area and in Southern California (California now has close to a million Mormons, more than Utah). The children, but not their parents, must be baptized Mormons. They are selected on the basis of academic tests and are nominated for placement on the reservations by missionaries and church leaders, and, as is often the case, by government social workers who happen to be Mormons. Those children who complete the program are encouraged to attend B.Y.U. and then to return to the reservations to take professional jobs in the tribal government and continue church “prosyliting,” the Mormon word for proselytizing.

Church officials in Salt Lake City who are in charge of the placement program refused to talk to us. George Lee, the program’s most outstanding graduate, acknowledged that there have been criticisms of the program from Indians, “like the militant groups like AIM [American Indian Movement],” but they are “misinformed.” “They criticize not just placement,” says Lee, “but they criticize the government, you know, for stealing all their land — they make a stink about every little thing.”

“One Navaho leader says that the Indians must develop a tribal policy to counter the Mormon child-placement program. If not, she said, ‘we won’t conquer the Indian people.’”

Lee contends that his own research shows that more placement kids get advanced degrees than do Indian kids in BIA or public schools, more go into the military, more get married, more attend church, and fewer end up on welfare. He also refutes the frequent criticism that Mormon placement is “cultural genocide.” “The placement program does not rob the Indian kids of their identity. In fact, it reinforces it.” Asked whether Indian kids brought up in placement homes undergo a change of skin color, as church president Kimball has claimed, Lee hesitates and then says:

“The Scriptures say, and I’ll just stick to the Scriptures, the Lord Jesus Christ himself said that the Lamanites will become white and delightsome if they live the gospel and keep the commandments. Yes… I agree with the prophet President Kimball. He’s our leader, and he receives revelations from the Lord; so I agree.” Has his own skin begun to change color? “I don’t worry about it. I’ve never looked upon myself as an Indian.”

George Lee, who has never looked upon himself as an Indian, insists that Mormon placement does not affect a child’s “lndianness.” A lot of Navaho disagree, and they cannot be dismissed as AIM militants. Claudine Arthur, a Navaho government official and mother of three in the Navaho capital of Window Rock, Ariz., flares up when the subject is broached. “It’s dangerous,” she declares. “They want children who are emotionally stable, who come from decent, good homes. Those are the children they want to take off to their homes in Utah and brainwash for their own purposes. If they really believe that home and family is good, then they must believe that it’s best for children like these to be in their own homes with their own people. They say they don’t want kids from broken homes or kids who are having trouble in school. They want the bright, intelligent kids. I find that two-faced.”

Another Navaho official, who requested anonymity for fear he might lose his job, knows the placement program recruitment methods from long experience with having to sort out the tragedies. “When you look at the L.D.S. placements on a case-by-case basis, as I have, you see that they’re all families who are just barely subsisting on a salary. It’s not uncommon for a family with eight or nine kids to have to live on one minimum-wage salary or even less. It’s basically income that determines whether a child goes on placement. It’s very hard, especially for a single parent, to make that decision.”

His own 13-year-old son, he said, came to him last year and said that he’d been talking to the Mormon missionaries. “‘They told me we’d have lots of fun. We’d play volleyball and football, and I could have my own room if I go on placement.’ ‘Dad,’ he said, ‘can I go?’”

“It’s very difficult to counter. There may have been a number of circumstances in my life when I would have said yes.”

What about the many rumors concerning Mormon “kidnappings” of Indian children? Do such kidnappings actually occur? “Kidnapping? Well, it all depends on what you mean by ‘kidnapping,’” he says. “Anyone who’s ever worked in social work knows that you can get anyone who’s in a corner to consent to anything, and lots of Indian families are very much in a corner.” Some Indian children, born to young, unwed mothers, he said, are signed over to Mormon families right after birth on the reservation’s Public Health Service Hospitals. “The Mormon doctors make the arrangements. It’s very hard to document, but I know of cases where it’s been done.”

All religions have roots in concurrent uplifting and occasionally horrific experience. The Mormon church followed Western settlers in general.