Why Several Native Americans Are Suing the Mormon Church

Participants in the Church-sponsored Indian Student Placement Program have filed at least three sexual-abuse lawsuits.

People arrive at the Salt Lake temple to attend the biannual general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters)

Native Americans who were part of a little-known Mormon program from 1947 to the mid-1990s share much of the same story. Year after year, missionaries or other members of the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints approached these families and invited their children into Mormon foster homes. As part of the Mormon Indian Student Placement Program, Native American children would live with Mormon families during the school year, an experience designed to “provide educational, spiritual, social, and cultural opportunities in non-Indian community life,” according to the Church. Typically, the Mormon foster families were white and financially stable. Native American children who weren’t already Mormon were baptized. And some of them now claim they were sexually abused.

“They knew there were things going on. They just turned around and closed their eyes to it,” said BN, a former participant of the program who has filed a sexual-abuse lawsuit against the LDS Church, and who remains anonymous in court documents, in an interview. So far, three sexual-abuse lawsuits involving four past participants have been filed in Navajo Nation District Court. No criminal charges have been brought against the defendants, who are also anonymous in all pleadings. The alleged victims include a brother and sister who were both in the program. The brother, referred to in court documents as RJ, claims in the lawsuit that he was not only sexually abused, but physically and emotionally abused, and forcibly had “his mouth washed out with soap whenever he spoke Navajo to the other placement children in the home,” according to court documents. A fourth lawsuit is pending, according to their lawyer, Craig Vernon.

The LDS Church maintains that the “plaintiffs’ allegations are just that—allegations,” according to David Jordan, its lawyer. While many of the perpetrators named in the suits are dead, “I can tell you that the surviving family members of the alleged abusers with whom we have been able to speak do not believe the allegations,” Jordan claimed. “I also want to emphasize that the Church would have had absolutely no motive to send a child back into an abusive environment if a report of improper conduct had been made by any of the plaintiffs.” The Church has not answered the allegations other than to challenge the jurisdiction of Navajo court, and has asked a federal judge to prevent the cases from going forward in tribal court.

The LDS Church teaches that Native Americans are descendants of the Lamanites, a group of people who, according to the Book of Mormon, left Israel in 600 B.C. and settled in the Americas. In the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites are predominately a wicked people, cursed by God with a “skin of blackness” as punishment for turning against him. Although the Lamanites briefly “walk in truth and uprightness,” they destroyed their generally more righteous rivals, known as the Nephites, after Jesus Christ visited the Americas. The rehabilitation of the Lamanites is a sign of the second coming of Christ.

The LDS Church believed it was responsible for guiding Native Americans toward a more righteous path, which meant there were stiff requirements to participate in the program. Rather than focus on improving conditions on the reservation, the LDS Church asked that Native American children abandon their surroundings and assimilate to the way its white members lived. Some Church leaders interpreted the Book of Mormon literally and expected that Native American children’s skin would turn lighter as they grew closer to God. Although the program was started with good intentions, its heavy demands and allegedly lax oversight may have left some of the participants vulnerable—including, plaintiffs say, to sexual abuse.

These lawsuits fit into a larger pattern of sexual-abuse allegations against religious institutions. Like the victims of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, for example—whose perpetrators were largely Church officials and clergy who claimed sexual-abuse victims all over the world—Native American victims claim Mormon leaders can and should have done more to prevent the abuse. Roughly 50,000 children participated in the Mormon Indian Student Placement Program, according to Matthew Garrett, a professor at Bakersfield College.

Beyond damages, the alleged Native American victims are seeking a written apology, help for other participants of the program who were abused, and changes to the LDS Church’s sex-abuse policy. The alleged victims claim the Church still does more to protect its leaders than its children: The Church instructs those who learn about sexual abuse to call a Mormon help line instead of immediately alerting the police or other outside authorities. Eric Hawkins, a Church spokesperson, said the help line exists because “reporting requirements vary from state to state, and the purpose of the conversation is to help ensure that it does occur in the right way—the way that cares for the victim and stops the abuse.” For example, in some cases “there may be questions about providing a safe place for the victim to live following reporting,” Hawkins said.

A 16-year-old Native American girl named Helen John was the inspiration for the Indian Student Placement Program, said Garrett. John and her family were farm laborers in Richfield, Utah. In 1947, according to Church tradition, John asked to stay with a local Mormon family so that she could receive a better education. The program grew informally from there and became an official Church-sponsored program in 1954.

The children who participated in the Mormon foster program were often poor with few educational opportunities. Although the LDS Church reached out to dozens of Indian tribes, most participants’ families lived within the Navajo Nation, a region that stretches into parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. At the time, many of the boarding schools run by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and schools on Indian reservations had little to offer, according to scholars and former members of the program. As in John’s case, the Native American families who signed up for the program frequently said they had their kids’ education in mind, as did many of the Mormon foster families who were willing to temporarily adopt the children.

Once the program began, “there were all sorts of really questionable tactics used” to bring in participants, said Garrett, who wrote Making Lamanites: Mormons, Native Americans, and the Indian Student Placement Program, 1947-2000. He said there are conflicting accounts about whether it was even John’s idea or desire to live with a Mormon family. Because some missionaries were eager to grow Church membership through the program, Garrett said, they sometimes failed to be completely transparent with the children they were recruiting: Occasionally missionaries acted as if the children were simply embarking on some kind of field trip.

Spencer W. Kimball, a former president and apostle of the Church, was one of the first proponents of the Indian Student Placement Program. Kimball believed the program fit into the Church’s overall mandate to help Native Americans. “The Lord bless the Lamanite people. They are a great people. They are intelligent, and I repeat my theme song: The difference between them and us is opportunity,” Kimball said in 1953 at the Church’s general conference. Kimball seemed to take the Book of Mormon literally, believing that, as the children in the program grew closer to God, the curse associated with a “skin of blackness” would slowly disappear. Speaking at the Church’s general conference in 1960, Kimball explained:

The children in the home-placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans [traditional Navajo dwellings] on the reservation. At one meeting a father and mother and their 16-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl—16—sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents—on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather. There was the doctor in a Utah city who for two years had an Indian boy in his home who stated that he was some shades lighter than the younger brother just coming into the program from the reservation. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness.

Today, many people would consider these views racist: They suggest that lighter skin is a sign of righteousness. But Clarence Bishop, the director of the program from 1964 to 1968 and executive director from 1968 to 1973, argued that the program was never meant to undermine Native American culture. He said he and others were aware of concerns about the program and sensitive to the indigenous way of life. “We did everything we could to help them in their Indian identity and still have the benefit and knowledge of living in a good home and going to a public school,” Bishop said. “No Indian student was ever kept in a home where they were not happy.”

In addition to the claims of damage done by sexual abuse, the lawsuits involving the Indian Student Placement Program assert that the culture of the Navajo Nation was “irreparably harmed” by the LDS Church’s “continuous and systematic assimilation efforts.” Although the last student in the Indian Student Placement Program graduated in 2000, plaintiffs are asking the Church to do all it can to enhance and restore Navajo culture and create a taskforce for that purpose.The plaintiffs’ lawyer said many Mormons continue to mislead Native Americans about their origins.

Arguably, Mormons often looked at Native Americans in the same way the rest of the world does. “Mormon people are not unique in how they see Native people,” said Elise Boxer, a history professor at the University of South Dakota. Many believe “assimilation is key to their racial uplift as a people.” Boxer said some Native Americans who convert to Mormonism even embrace the Lamanite story.

And there’s no question that many program participants viewed their experiences positively. When Cal Nez—now a 58-year-old resident of Sandy, Utah—was a child, he was raised by his Navajo grandmother. During that time, Nez was placed with two different Mormon foster families, and while his initial experience was not entirely positive, he said, living with his second foster family was “absolutely the most magnificent experience.” Nez excelled in school, and in high school was voted both student of the year and most popular. He also said the Lamanite story found in the Book of Mormon made him feel better about himself. “Of all the religions, the only religion that really gave me an identity of where I come from was the LDS Church. And it was so powerful,” Nez said. Nez credits the Indian Student Placement Program with his continued success today as a graphic designer and a small-business owner.

In 1976, the Association of Administrators of the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children—a non-government group that monitors foster placements across state lines— sent surveys to 50 Native American families who had participated in the program. The results were mostly positive: 93 percent believed their children would receive a better education as a result of the program, and 70 percent said they felt their children's foster family helped them understand and identify with their Indian heritage. In 2014, Jessie Embry, a former history professor now retired from Brigham Young University, conducted an oral-history project that focused on the foster parents in the program. “I found that the host families in the Placement Program articulated a genuine love for the Indian people and a desire to help them,” she wrote, after receiving responses from nearly 200 foster families. Many of the foster families, Embry said in a recent interview, “felt the Book of Mormon gave them an assignment to be able to help the Native Americans.”

But some of the foster families Embry contacted admitted there were problems, including sexual abuse, although the foster family wasn’t always responsible for the alleged wrongdoing. One interviewee spoke about a placement student abusing one of his biological children. This person also expressed frustration with a lack of response from the Mormon caseworker and discovered that the placement student had abused other children in previous homes.

BN, one of the plaintiffs involved in the sexual-abuse lawsuits against the Church, has also alleged in her lawsuit that her Mormon caseworker did not respond to her complaints. (She requested not to be named in this story. Her name is also not included in the lawsuit, because of the sensitive nature of her claims.) In a recent interview, she said her father wanted her to be part of the program so that she could attend high school outside of the reservation and graduate from college. She joined the program in 1964 and quickly regretted it, she said. “So many times I wanted to tell my dad, ‘No,’” BN said. “I wanted to say, but I didn’t. I just kind of held everything in.”

BN’s first year in the program passed without incident. But the following year, BN lived with a different Mormon family in River Heights, Utah. There, according to the lawsuit, she was sexually abused by her foster father. She also claims that years later, while living with a different foster family, a foster brother raped her. She alleged in her lawsuit that she told her foster parents and a caseworker, who is anonymous in the suit, about what had happened, but the abuse continued. “To save face in the Church and out of anger, he just told me what happens in this house, stays in this house,” BN said, referring to her foster father. “There was nothing that was done. It just fell on deaf ears.”

One former caseworker in the program who is not involved in the suit, 85-year-old Dale L. Shumway of Orem, Utah, said in all his years of service he remembers only one student coming to him about a foster family’s inappropriate behavior. “These families were quite carefully selected,” Shumway said. “It was not a haphazard program.” Shumway said he visited foster families on a monthly basis and that students would have had ample opportunity to report any abuse to caseworkers or other Church leaders. But he also said that he and others were assigned large caseloads, sometimes tracking 80 to 90 families. Jordan, the Church’s lawyer, maintained that “participants in the Indian Student Placement Program met regularly with caseworkers and would have had the opportunity to raise any concerns they might have.”

Vernon, the lawyer representing BN and others, grew up Mormon. He said he expects there will be additional sexual-abuse lawsuits involving the Indian Student Placement Program.  BN, for example, had not previously filed suit against the Church or her alleged abusers; Vernon said she only had the courage to bring a case after someone else in the program did so first.“I think this is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. (Efforts to reach the alleged abusers and their families were unsuccessful; in the suits, they are often identified only by a first initial and town name. Lawyers for the Church refused to provide further information about the alleged abusers.)

The location where the cases are litigated will prove crucial. These lawsuits have been filed in Navajo Nation District Court in Window Rock, Arizona. But the LDS Church is fighting to have the lawsuits dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, arguing the alleged abuse took place outside the reservation. The Navajo Nation allows alleged sexual-abuse victims to bring claims up to two years from the time when the harm of their abuse is discovered, accounting for the time it can take for people to realize the nature of their injuries. Other jurisdictions have stricter statutes of limitations to ensure claims are brought in a timely manner. In Utah’s civil courts, the statute of limitations for child sex abuse was recently eliminated, but only when the case is brought against the alleged perpetrator personally. The recent change in Utah law would not benefit those in the Indian Student Placement Program because the LDS Church is named as a defendant, and many, if not all, of the perpetrators are deceased. If the lawsuits were refiled in Utah, or one of many other states with a shorter statute of limitations, they would likely be dismissed.

David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests, an organization dedicated to helping victims of sexual abuse, said it often takes years for those affected by abuse to talk about it. “The more isolated and powerlessness victims … feel, the longer it takes for them to come forward,” Clohessy said. And “even if they had the smarts to understand they were being hurt, the courage to report it, given how many whites felt about Native Americans, many would find these boys and girls not particularly credible … This particular program is a predator’s dream.”

In recent years, Mormons have begun to reassess their relationship with Native Americans. Church leaders have changed some of the language in the Book of Mormon that many find problematic, arguing that passages that seem to refer to skin color were never meant to be taken literally. For example, in 1981, a passage referring to the Lamanites as becoming “a white and a delightsome people” was changed to read “pure and delightsome.” The Church also now admits that not all Native Americans are descendants of the Israelites, or Lamanites, as described in the Book of Mormon.

However, the continued fallout from the Indian Student Placement Program indicates that some Native Americans feel the LDS Church has not done enough to correct past misconceptions about indigenous people. In fact, the LDS Church maintains that one sign of the Second Coming can be found among the descendents of the Lamanites: when Native Americans once again become a righteous people and “blossom as the rose.”