Indian Student Placement Services program

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What was the Indian Student Placement Services program?

Introduction to Question

Many have become concerned with the past existence of a program designed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for Indian placement. It is known as the Indian Student Placement Services Program.

In this article, we introduce what it was and address some common concerns/criticisms that have arisen in recent years because of it.

Response to Question

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, "Native Americans"

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992) relates the following information about the program. The entry was written in 1992, four years before the program was officially disbanded in 1996. Thus the entry, while it treats the program as still existing, is partially incorrect:

The Indian Student Placement Services (ISPS) seeks to improve the educational attainment of Native American children by placing member Indian children with LDS families during the school year. Foster families, selected because of their emotional, financial, and spiritual stability, pay all expenses of the Indian child, who lives with a foster family during the nine-month school year and spends the summer on the reservation with his or her natural family. Generally, the children enter the program at a fairly young age and return year after year to the same foster family until they graduate from high school.

From a small beginning in 1954, the program peaked in 1970 with an enrollment of nearly 5,000 students. The development of more adequate schools on reservations has since then reduced the need for the program and the number of participants has declined. In 1990, about 500 students participated. More than 70,000 Native American youngsters have participated in ISPS, and evaluations have shown that participation significantly increased their educational attainment.

In the 1950s, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then an apostle, encouraged Brigham Young University to take an active interest in Native American education and to help solve economic and social problems. Scholarships were established, and a program to help Indian students adjust to university life was inaugurated. During the 1970s more than 500 Indian students, representing seventy-one tribes, were enrolled each year. But enrollment has declined, so a new program for Indian students is being developed that will increase the recruiting of Native American students to BYU and raise the percentage who receive a college degree. The Native American Educational Outreach Program at BYU presents educational seminars to tribal leaders and Indian youth across North America. It also offers scholarships. American Indian Services, another outreach program originally affiliated with BYU, provides adult education and technical and financial assistance to Indian communities. In 1989, American Indian Services was transferred from BYU to the Lehi Foundation, which continues this activity.

In 1975, George P. Lee, a full-blooded Navajo and an early ISPS participant, was appointed as a General Authority. He was the first Indian to achieve this status and served faithfully for more than ten years. Elder Lee became convinced that the Church was neglecting its mission to the Lamanites, and when he voiced strong disapproval of Church leaders, he was excommunicated in 1989.[1]

Was the Program an Attempt at Turning Native Americans "White and Delightsome"?

Kevin Barney, a Latter-day Saint apologist, wrote the following in response to a criticism of the ISPS given by critics Thomas W. Murphy and Simon Southerton. The criticism of Murphy and Southerton practically mirrors the concerns/criticisms of other critics today.[2]

Murphy comes down extremely hard on the Church’s Indian Student Placement Program. He writes: "The Placement Program, deemed cultural genocide by critics, removed over 70,000 Native American children from their homes from 1954-96 and placed them with urban white Mormon families in systematic efforts to turn Indians ‘white and delightsome.'" The shrillness of this statement is irresponsible and reflects a lack of scholarly balance and detachment. The Placement Program grew out of informal arrangements between Utah beet farmers and children of Navajo migrant pickers in the 1940s. Eventually it became a formal program, whereby Native American children were housed with Mormon families during the school year so that they could attend school; they returned to live with their families during the summers. The goals of the Program were both educative and acculturative. Now, perhaps trying to help Native American children gain the tools to succeed in the dominant anglo culture was not an appropriate or worthy goal. Certainly there is plenty of room for responsible criticism of the aims, administration and effects of the Program. But to evoke images of the Holocaust or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia with the incredibly hyperbolic "cultural genocide" is in my judgment an irresponsible way to go about it. To the contrary, many Native Americans have been upset that the Church has terminated or greatly scaled back both the Placement Program and other programs intended to serve Native American interests. So the Church is damned if it tries to help, and damned if it does not. To say that the children were "removed" in the passive voice ominously suggests to the uninformed reader that this was somehow done against their parents’ wishes. This is simply not true. For the reader interested in a more balanced anthropological consideration of the Placement Program, I recommend the studies indicated in the accompanying note.[3]

Barney recommends the following resources in order to get a balanced treatment of the ISPS:


  1. Bruce A. Chadwick and Thomas Garrow, "Native Americans," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 6 vols. (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1992; 2007), 3:984–85.
  2. See Thomas W. Murphy and Simon G. Southerton, "Genetic Research a ‘Galileo Event’ for Mormons," Anthropology News 44, no. 2 (February 2003): 20.
  3. Kevin L. Barney, "A Brief Review of Murphy and Southerton’s ‘A Galileo Event’," FAIR, accessed July 25, 2022,