Before I go on, full disclosure requires me to note that the General is the son of a long line of Mormons. One of my great, great grandfathers was Wilford Woodruff, the Church's fourth prophet. Another was Daniel Burbank, the Prophet Joseph's bodyguard and one of Brigham's Destroying Angels.
I should also explain the basic beliefs Mormons have about Indians, or as they call them, Lamanites. According to Mormonism's most holy book, The Book of Mormon, Lamanites are actually Jews. They are the descendents of two brothers, Laman and Lemual, who, along with their family, came to America from Jerusalem many years ago. The brothers were rebellious boys who failed to follow the instructions of their younger brother Nephi, a prophet of the Lord. For this, their children were cursed:
1 Nephi 12:23 And it came to pass that I beheld, after they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.
Today's Mormons love the Lamanites despite the curse. After all, they're not only Lamanites, they're also Jews, God's chosen people. Because of this, Mormons believe that it is their duty to bring the Lamanite's back into Jesus's arms. Once that happens, the Book of Mormon says--or at least it said until 1981--that they'll become a "white and delightsome" people, once again.
2 Nephi 30:6 And then shall they rejoice; for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white [changed to "pure" in 1981] and delightsome people.
Spencer W. Kimball, who served as the Church's prophet during much of my youth, said that he saw the change happening in the 1960's. He gave much of the credit for this to the Indian Placement Program:
I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today.... The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos, five were darker but equally delightsome The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.
At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl--sixteen--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....These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated.
Until the program ended in 1996, children chosen for placement program were taken off the reservation and put into Mormon homes many miles away so that they could attend white schools and learn the gospel of Jesus. A number of these "placement students" were sent to my home town, Tremonton, Utah, and I knew a couple of them quite well.
In the NPR report, a former placement foster mother, Sharon Mirbrook (phonetic spelling), told a story about her placement student that brought back memories of my old friend Clyde. Here's what she had to say:
To put it bluntly, Dory didn't even seem to like his culture...to be an Indian. When we'd have the Order of the Arrow boys come over and do the dances, the Indian dances, and stuff like that, he'd go into the other room.
Clyde didn't like the Order of the Arrow guys either. I thought it was because he didn't like scouting, but now I know that it was because he was ashamed to be a Lamanite. Who could blame him? After all, God cursed him for it by giving him dark skin and making him "loathsome," "filthy," and "full of idleness and all manner of abominations."
Mrs. Mirbrook also told a story that reminded me of another placement student I knew, Emerson. It had to do with the problem of placement kids dating the local white girls. Mrs. Mirbrook tried to prevent that from happening by discussing the issue with her placement student:
We so much wanted Dory to keep his culture strong. We did not want to take that away from him. In fact when he started dating we said, the Indian girls you need to start dating them. You need to keep your lines pure and clean. You know...uhh..the Navajo line pure, you know."
I guess Emerson didn't get that kind of guidance. He asked one of the local white girls out. That made all the white guys in school very angry. Bob decided he'd teach Emerson a lesson, so he hit him while he wasn't looking, knocking him to the floor. Emerson got back up and gave Bob a thorough beating.
That didn't go over well with Kurt, the biggest, meanest guy in the school. He challenged Emerson to meet him in the parking lot before school started the following day--that night was out because of football practice.
The next morning, Emerson and an audience of hundreds were waiting when Kurt got off the bus. Walking toward Emerson, Kurt pulled a chain out from under his jacket. One end of the chain was attached to a piece of wood that served as a handle, the other had a number of bent forks hooked to it. It was a weapon for murder.
Kurt started swing the chain, and Emerson reacted by pulling out a pocket knife. Teachers arrived before a blow was struck and ordered the pair to drop their weapons. Both complied and were taken to the principal's office. Emerson was put on the first bus back to Arizona and Kurt was back in school the next day. Placement kids stopped asking white girls out after that.
Too bad Emerson had to leave so quickly. He missed out on all of the good things the placement program had to offer.
Note: Sometime this week, I'll introduce you to Tom Trails, the greatest placement student of them all.