[AML] Navajo Times Article
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Poor Mary. Her mom put her in the LDS Churchs Indian Placement Program so she could have a better life, but it seems she would have been better off staying on the rez with her party-girl mother and her abusive, alcoholic father. Try as she might to be good, Marys skin never turns white and delightsome as promised in the Book of Mormon. Instead of a kinaaldá, she gets a five-minute lecture in the middle of the night. Against her better judgment, she marries the missionary who baptizes her and, trying for a son, produces nine daughters before he leaves her. Fortunately, Mary isnt real. Shes the heroine of Latter-Day Saint author Arianne Copes new novel, The Coming of Elijah, which paints a dark view of the churchs controversial effort to aid Native youngsters. But four Navajos who participated in the placement program which placed 20,000 Native American children with LDS families between 1947 and 1996 think Cope is being a little hard on the program they credit with changing their lives for the better. I didnt like the book, declared Theresa Barbone Blackbird of Pueblo Pintado, N.M., who joined the placement program in the 1970s at the age of 15. It was so sad. I loved placement. Why would a (LDS church) member write a book like this? Cope, who grew up in Spanish Fork, Utah, where the novel is set, and now lives in Cedar City, said she based the book on a number of interviews she did with both former placement students and their foster families. I found that although the program was born of good intentions, the results in most cases were mixed, she wrote in an e-mail to the Times. There were definitely some positive experiences that came from the program But there were also a lot of children who felt misplaced in the placement program. Besides, the author confessed, If the book had been merely positive, it would have been more than dull, it wouldnt have accomplished anything I want Navajos, Mormons, Navajo Mormons and everyone who reads it to take a fresh look at their perceptions of race and culture. Taking a fresh look at race and culture is one thing the placement program itself accomplished among both its participants and the families who hosted them. San Juan County, N.M. Commissioner Ervin Chavez, who was placed with three different families in Utahs Cache Valley as a teenager in the late 60s and early 70s, said the program helped him see beyond race. Growing up in Nageezi (Chapter), we didnt meet very many Anglos, he said. I thought of them as a lot different from us. But living with Anglos, I could see that they put their pants on one leg at a time like me; they got headaches like I did. To this day, when I meet someone, I honestly dont think of them as Native, Anglo, Black, Hispanic, whatever. I see them as an individual. Having been raised in a home where both parents were heavy drinkers, Chavez felt relieved to be among the teatotaling Mormons. It was nice to be in a house where there wasnt a drop of alcohol, where you didnt have to see your parents staggering around, he said. I resolved never to touch alcohol when I grew up, and to this day Ive kept that promise. Chee Smith of White Horse Lake, N.M., takes it a step further. If not for the placement program, I probably wouldnt be here talking to you, he said. His parents, also alcoholics, became violent when they drank and sometimes hit him, he said. He joined the placement program in fourth grade, mostly to get out of the house. In tiny Clarkston, Utah, he found his niche. I needed discipline at that point, and I got it, he said. His foster parents had a dairy farm, and he was expected to get up at 4 a.m. so he could milk the cows before the school bus arrived. The heavy farm work built muscles, and when he entered Sky View High School in Smithfield, Utah, he decided to go out for cross-country. I went to state three times, he said, smiling at the memory. By the time Smith graduated from Sky View, he had athletic scholarship offers from four different colleges. But his foster parents gave him what he considered a better offer. He still tears up when he talks about it. They offered to pay all my expenses if I went on a mission for the church, he said. I couldnt believe anyone would do that for me. Smith was sent on an LDS mission to Quito, Ecuador, where he learned Spanish and enjoyed meeting people from various South American tribes. He did eventually go to college, obtaining a civil engineering degree from Brigham Young University. You see me here, dressed nicely, going to church, said Smith after attending a service at the small LDS branch in Pueblo Pintado, where hes second councilor to the branch president. If not for the placement program, Id be a drug addict or in jail. I may not even be here. I really believe that. Like Smith, who successfully ran for president of his chapter after coming back to the reservation, Chavez and Marie Justice of Page, Ariz., another placement program alumna, found themselves seeking leadership roles. When I saw how people lived off the reservation, with running water and electricity, I thought, Why cant Navajos have these things? Chavez recalled. One of the first things he did after becoming Nageezi Chapter president was to run some water lines. It gave you something to strive for, agreed Justice, now president of United Mine Workers Union Local 1620 and a candidate for Navajo Nation Council in the recent election. I definitely set my sights higher because of the placement program. It wasnt all roses, of course Blackbird recalls being teased by a rough group she calls the urban farm boys in Hyrum, Utah, where she was placed. They called me squaw and wagon-burner, she recalled. I didnt even know what that meant. I just ignored them. But one day a friend overheard her being teased by an Anglo girl. She was just hurling racial slurs at me, one after another, Blackbird recalled. She wouldnt stop. My friend, another placement student, came over and beat her up. We both got in trouble, but that girl never called me names after that. Ironically, the placement kids had to endure teasing when they came back to the rez for the summer as well. I got called Goody Two-Shoes because I wouldnt smoke or drink with the other kids, Blackbird recalled. I just said Thank you. I mean, is that supposed to be an insult? Blackbird, Chavez and Smith, who all attended Sky View High, recall about a dozen placement students at the school, mostly other Navajos. They often chatted in their native language and got together for events. Justice, who was placed in a series of posh seaside communities in northern California, had a different experience, being the only Native in her school. There was plenty of brown skin, she said. I didnt get singled out or anything. Most people just thought I was Mexican. But with no Navajos to converse with, she lost her language. I had to learn it as an adult when I got back, she said. Even now, Ill be talking in Navajo, thinking Im doing pretty good, and an elder will correct me. All four former placement students interviewed for this article have stayed in contact with their foster families, but two Chavez and Justice have drifted away from the church. Justice decided to return to the Navajo traditional religion, and Chavez, when he goes to church at all, finds himself heading for the Baptists. Smith and Blackbird, who is Relief Society president in the Pueblo Pintado Branch, both stayed Mormon. But Blackbird hasnt applied for a temple recommend, the letter signed by an LDS bishop that states the holder has fulfilled all the tenets of the religion and is worthy to enter the temple. There are certain things from my tradition I want to hold onto that I think prevent me from being temple-worthy, she said. Maybe some day Ill be able to let them go, but not yet. Thats exactly the kind of thing the fictional Mary is struggling with in Elijah, Cope said. Her struggle is one we all go through, whether were Navajo, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, whatever, she said in her e-mail. We all must sift through the good and bad that has been passed down to us and endeavor to pass down only the good to our children. Cope doesnt believe Marys story is all that sad. It is ultimately redeeming, she wrote. Mary is able to embrace Navajo and Mormon cultures and pass down the best of both to her daughter.