Penthouse Retrospective

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

Mormon Roots | 40 Years Ago This Month

Beyond the issue of the legality of some placements, critics cite some serious moral issues raised by the program. Joseph Jorgensen, son of a prominent Mormon family and a professor of comparative culture at the University of California, Irvine, claims that in his experience many Mormon families have taken advantage of the program to supply free labor. “It was a form of work on demand,” says Jorgensen, who was once employed by the Ute tribe. “It’s a fine line between live — in help or the chores of the member of the family. Those kids lived right on that fine line.”

While the most blatant abuses appear to have ceased in recent years, more subtle and long-term problems still exist. Dr. Martin Topper, an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, studied a group of 25 Navaho children in the church’s placement program over a seven-year period. Topper found that the separation from family and tribe experienced by placement children resulted in “serious emotional stresses.”

The most wrenching experience, he found, occurs when the children have to return home to the reservation for summer recess. They then have to tear themselves away from the middle-class white world to which they’ve become accustomed and return to the poverty of the reservation and the realization that they will never be white but are destined to grow into Navaho adulthood and all that implies. Some students, he found, would try to change their reservation home into a typical Mormon home and to “convert or reaffirm the Mormon church membership of other household members. This activity was encouraged by the Mormon missionaries,” said Topper.

Others would fall into hysterical seizures and “severe identity conflicts.” Topper personally witnessed three such seizures in reservation homes during one summer: “The girls were highly agitated, hyperventilating, and often hallucinating …. [They] pushed themselves to the opposite side of the beds on which they were lying [and] would begin to scream and yell that they were being murderously assaulted by the ghosts of dead Navahos or that their family members were turning into ghosts, which were beckoning them into the grave. They screamed and struggled furiously when approached and then fell briefly into unconsciousness. Their insecurity was enormous, and they were expressing a great deal of anger about having to accept a major identity change.”

So traumatic was the constant, yearly identity changes forced on the 25 placement children whom Topper studied that 23 of them dropped out of the program and returned permanently to the reservation before graduation from high school. The mounting criticism about the adoption and off-reservation placement of Indian children finally resulted in the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978. The law was designed, originally, to provide for careful supervision of all placement programs. Has it changed the Mormon Placement Program? “I wish it would, but the answer is no,” says a weary and disgruntled. BIA social worker in Window Rock, who requested anonymity.

No sooner had the act been passed, he said, than. his office received a memo from M.E. Seneca, acting deputy commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, stating that the church’s powerful Washington law firm, Wilkinson, Cragun, and Barker (which Seneca once worked for), was complaining that the act was being “misinterpreted” to the L.D.S. staff people on the reservation. “The L.D. S. program,” stated the memo, “is exempt” from the act. “Please have any misinterpretation corrected.”

How did the Mormon church escape the restrictions placed on virtually every other public and private program dealing with Indian adoption and placement? Our sources in the Indian Subcommittee of the

Senate Interior Committee, which handled the legislation, claim that Wilkinson, Cragun, and Barker lobbied intensively on behalf of the church to change the initial bill, which would have put the Mormon placement program under greater government supervision. They were ably assisted in the effort by Utah Rep. Gunn McKay, brother of former church president David McKay. In fact, the language in the bill exempting the Mormon program “was adopted by the House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs at the specific request of the church…” said a letter from Robert Barker to Seneca.

According to the BIA social worker, it is now up to the Tribal Council to come up with a tribal policy that addresses the problems of the placement program. But there is serious doubt that it will ever be enacted. Says a tribal official, “Mormons are tied into what is happening in the leadership of the tribe — both the council and the bureaucracy. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the tribal council is Mormon.” While that estimate is probably exaggerated, it is incontestable that Mormons are well represented in the council, and that many of them gained their political influence through the very program they will be asked to restrict — Mormon placement.

Said a Navaho woman who works in the tribal bureaucracy, “If the Dineh [the word for Navaho, meaning “the people”] doesn’t develop a tribal policy [on placement], we won’t survive as a tribe. They will literally conquer the Indian people.”

Just as Mormon attorneys, legislators, and bureaucrats were able to rewrite the law that would have terminated the church’s program for expropriating Indian children, so did they manage to create the law that continues to terminate Indian lands. In fact, much of the history of U.S. government-Indian affairs in the Southwest over the last 50 years has, in very large measure, involved a handful of highly placed Mormon attorneys and lawmakers and the still-growing legions of Mormons in both the federal Indian bureaucracy and the tribal governments themselves. Indeed, in many cases the BIA has literally served as an extension of the church.

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

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