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Mormon Navajo Youth at the Intermountain Indian Boarding School

By: Farina King - October 11, 2013

John C. Begay recalled the day when his branch president, Don C. Hunsaker, pulled him out of his class at the Intermountain Indian Boarding School to invite him to attend the Latter-day Saint Indian Seminary program. His mother had enrolled him in seminary, but Begay followed his peers to the Catholic and Nazarene activities until Hunsaker found him. He then started to attend the seminary class of a respected LDS leader and local of Brigham City, Elder Boyd K. Packer. Begay claims, “‘That’s where I was converted to the LDS Church. My mother had secretly signed me up for Seminary which became my favorite class….’” [1].

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In the 1950s, John C. Begay traveled hundreds of miles from his home on the Navajo reservation to attain an institutional education. Intermountain had opened specifically for Navajo students beginning in 1950. Federal officials increasingly directed their attention to what they considered “The Navajo Problem” after World War II, which included the proportionately low rates of student enrollment and matriculation [2]. The U.S. government intensified efforts to educate Diné (Navajo) youth, pressuring Navajos such as Begay to receive their education off the reservation. The LDS Church as well as the federal government had a particular interest in Navajo Education [3]. Church authorities, for example, realized that most Mormons could not communicate and relate well with Navajos who they sought to convert. To several Church leaders and missionaries, the acculturation of the youth to mainstream American society was their greatest hope for the conversion of Navajos to the Church [4]. In Brigham City, Utah, several school employees and staff were Mormons and a predominantly LDS community surrounded the school. The Church could launch programs such as the Indian Seminary without much difficulty, which attracted and converted Navajos like Begay to the Church.

In the early 1950s (sometime between 1949 and 1954), a local Brigham City newspaper announced the arrival of Apostle Spencer W. Kimball to attend the baptism of 29 Navajo students from Intermountain [5]. Of the 600 students that arrived at the school opening, only 6 students were LDS. The Church established an Indian branch for the school within five years, as the membership grew. By the late 1960s, about 200 Navajo students regularly attended the branch (when the school population reached 2,200 students) [6]. The branch met in the Indian chapel that was constructed and designed specifically for the Navajo youth with attention to the utmost details including Navajo rugs as interior decoration [7]. During the late 1960s, the branch meeting often included the reading and approval of new certificates of membership, as more of the student body at Intermountain became associated with the Church [8].

The Mormon presence at Intermountain also touched the students’ families. Ms. Ida Deem, who served as the Young Women’s President in the Indian branch, kept several notes that she received from students’ families during 1953. Mary Wilson from Tohatchi, New Mexico wrote to Ms. Deem on behalf of her sister, Helen. She explained how the family enjoyed the Christmas card that Ms. Deem sent to Helen. She also described how Helen was struggling at her new school in Albuquerque after she transferred there from Intermountain. Mary closed her letter expressing her gratitude for Ms. Deem’s thoughtfulness, adding “because we are all family of Helen are member of LDS Church and baptize too last two year ago so we just like the Mormon people they’re friendly to us” [9]. When a Navajo student converted to the LDS faith at Intermountain, he or she sometimes exposed their close relatives to the Church. Helen and Mary’s family developed positive feelings towards Mormons partially due to Helen’s time in Brigham and her involvement with the Indian branch there.

A mother of students at Intermountain, Bertha Harvey of Ft. Defiance, wrote to Ms. Deem:

We are now appreciated that you send us a nice Easter Card and appreciated that you are love our nice girls. ‘Thank you very much’ sisters. We are now very desirous to see our girls…. We wishes we could see you and know [you]. I hope we will do some of these days sister and I am glad that my girls are learning many things in the school…. Squeeze my little Rose and tell her hello and tell her cat is bigger now….” [10].

Church leaders such as Ms. Deem tried to reach out to the youth and their families (through letter writing for instance) to provide support and encouragement to the LDS members who attended Intermountain. Certain families like those of Bertha Harvey and the Wilsons were receptive, and the LDS faith continued to affect their families on the reservation after being a part of their children’s lives at school.

The experiences and situation of each Navajo student at Intermountain before it became an intertribal school in the 1970s differed. Intermountain was a federal boarding school, which upheld secular standards. Several employees were Mormon, but most employees and students belonged to other dominions. Intermountain hired many Native American employees from throughout the country, including Navajos. Most of the Native American employees were not LDS except for a few. An oral history of a former Hopi employee, Thomas Polacca, sheds light on the aspects of Brigham City and Intermountain that encouraged active membership in the Church for Native Americans. In Brigham City, Polacca was active in the Church and the Indian Ward. Polacca claims that returning to the reservation was one of the leading factors of his eventual inactivity in the Church [11]. John C. Begay also became inactive for some time in the Church after returning home to the reservation. The Indian Ward was large and organized many social activities to reinforce the Mormon community there such as the Boys’ Scouts, basketball tournaments, parties, dances, and volleyball games [12].

Some Navajos embraced the LDS faith such as John Begay who never forgot what he learned in seminary including the importance of marriage and knowledge of the Book of Mormon. Begay mentioned another young Navajo man, Bahe Billie, who assisted with the Indian branch and served as a role model to LDS students [13]. Other Navajos had more generalized or negative memories of the Church as boarding school youth. Damon James attended Intermountain in the late 1960s, and he explained how he and his friends often went to the church meetings that were more convenient and appealing to them at the time. James called Brigham a “Mormon town,” and he remembered how the LDS Prophet asked the locals to be “tolerate” of the Indians. James still felt that the people in the community treated them by “seeing color” as they were taught in their generation. James was baptized into the LDS Church, but he described how religion did not pertain to his life in adolescence. He pursued other interests as a schoolboy, and he could only recall the Christmas celebrations and gifts that the Church provided instead of the teachings [14].DSCN0607

Whether the Church positively altered the lives of Navajo students at Intermountain such as Begay or not, the community and church programs surrounding the school in Brigham exposed the students to the Church and its culture and mission. In the Sandpainter (the school yearbook) of 1970, the first page presents the following poem next to an image of Window Rock (a symbol of the Navajo Nation): “Go Child. Treasure the memories Of Navajo strength… Dream of tomorrow… Reach—Go. Only education will renew Navajo strength.” The poem resembled the words of a song written by two LDS Native Americans at Brigham Young University the previous year (1969), Arlene Nofchissey Williams and Carnes Burson. Their song, “Go, My Son,” includes the lines: “Go, my son, go and climb the ladder…. From on the ladder of an education, you can see to help your Indian Nation. Then, reach, my son, and lift your people up with you.” This song symbolizes the mission of the Church among Native Americans: to educate Indians so that they can serve and uplift their people in both temporal and spiritual ways. Intermountain became a part of that LDS vision by surrounding Navajos with a predominantly white Mormon community and culture and, according to that perspective, preparing them to more readily understand and accept the LDS gospel and lifestyle. The Indian Seminary was able to expand and work efficiently in Brigham next to Intermountain, and the Indian branch provided a LDS Navajo network and community for some youth. Several students started their families at Intermountain, where they met their spouses such as those whose weddings were announced in the local paper [15]. Intermountain served as a door to the LDS Church, which opened to some Navajo students and their families a new livelihood but also what others believed to be eternal salvation.

  1. Dale and Margene Shumway, eds., The Blossoming II: Dramatic accounts in the lives of Native Americans (Dale and Margene Shumway, 2007), 18.
  2. See The Navajo Indian Problem, an Inquiry Sponsored by the Phelps-Stokes Fund (New York: Phelps-Stokes Fund, 1939).
  3. The Church had attempted to build on-reservation boarding schools as early as 1947. See Council Resolutions, 1922-51-book, J.M. Steward Attest, General Superintendent Navajo Service, Subject Matter-Mormon Church Schools- Permission to Build, etc.- Page- November 1947, Meeting: 64 (Appendix-Item 11); Discussed 66-68; Action-Tabled-November 5, 1947. When the Bushnell Military Hospital facilities of Brigham City were converted to the Intermountain Indian School, President George Albert Smith soon became involved. Smith attended several community meetings and opening events for the school in Brigham. He held a meeting for local Mormons in the Brigham City Tabernacle, where he encouraged them to welcome the Navajo students and support the efforts of the school. See Box Elder News, Brigham City Public Library.
  4. Spencer W. Kimball wrote in a personal letter to one of his delegates that the American Indians would not fully understand and embrace the gospel until they were removed from deterrent influences of their traditions and upbringing. Letter from Spencer W. Kimball, LDS Church Library.
  5. “29 Indian Youth Baptized,” Ida Pauline Olsen Deem, Intermountain Indian School Files, MS 19981, Folder 3, LDS Church Library.
  6. “Brief History,” General Minutes, Intermountain School Indian Branch, South Box Elder Stake, microfilm, LR 4108 11, LDS Church Library.
  7. Ibid. A key part to the LDS program and community of Intermountain was the Indian chapel that opened in 1956. President McKay dedicated the chapel on January 8, 1956. He set apart the chapel as “a house of worship, a house of learning, and a house of recreation.” Church officials advocated the compatibility of the school and church, which shared a mission to “refine” the Indian—the school in a more temporal sense, and the church in a spiritual sense. See Ida Pauline Olsen Deem, Intermountain Indian School Files, MS 19981, Folder 3, LDS Church Library.
  8. General Minutes.
  9. Letter to Sister Ida Deem from Mary Wilson, December 24, 1953, Two Gray Hills, Tohatchi, New Mexico, Intermountain Indian School Files, Ida Pauline Olsen Deem, MS 19981, Folder 1, LDS Church Library.
  10. Letter to Sister Ida Deem from Bertha Harvey, April 15, 1953, Ft. Defiance, AZ, Intermountain Indian School Files, Ida Pauline Olsen Deem, MS 19981, Folder 1, LDS Church Library.
  11. Thomas Polacca, interview by Matthew Heiss, 1992, LDS Church Library.
  12. Jesse Holliday, interview by author, June 25, 2013, Monument Valley, Utah. Holliday went to Intermountain between 1958 and 1959 as an eleven-year-old. He remembers participating in Boy Scouts every week and going on camp outs with the group. He had “100% attendance” to church sacrament meetings every Sunday, although he claims that he went mainly for food. He later went on the Placement Program, served a LDS mission, and went to BYU.
  13. Shumway, The Blossoming II.
  14. Damon James (former student during the late 1960s), oral history interview, January 21, 2012, Brigham City Museum of Art and History.
  15. Ms. Deem had received a letter from a former student, Rose, informing her about the student’s engagement to be married in the temple “for time and all eternity.” See Letter from Rose to “‘Mom’ Deem,” March 3, 1953, Provo, Utah, Intermountain Indian School Files, Ida Pauline Olsen Deem, MS 19981, Folder 1, LDS Church Library. Ms. Deem also kept wedding announcements of former students who met at Intermountain. One couple, Irene A. Clah and Abraham Ashihi, were married at the Indian chapel of Intermountain in 1958. See “Wedding invitation of Irene A. Clah and Abraham Ashihi scheduled for 8 February 1958,” Intermountain Indian School Files.


10 Comments

  1. For all the good the Intermountain School provided and the LDS Church efforts, it wasn’t a great success in some ways. For example being from Gallup which is in the middle of Indian country, I saw lots of problems for returning students. The lack of jobs, disfounctional families, alcoholism, pressure to embrace traditional (native) values, etc. The LDS Church is a patriarchal organization but the Dine’ are a matriarchal society, that tended to be an issue with returning LDS students where that fathers had a weaker role in the family. The local LDS Branches were smaller and didn’t provide all the support functions that the school branch provided or the Wards the kids attened under the Placement Program. But I do know and have meet several students who did well and used the experience as a springboard to a better life and have given back to their communities. Then we could talk about the role the US Government’s place in all this but that is a topic for another day.

    Comment by Mex — October 11, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

  2. This is great, Farina. I’ve heard several people talk about the old Indian school in Brigham City, so it’s nice to read about it here. Do you get a sense whether Mormon-inspired curriculum differed from non-LDS approaches?

    Comment by David G. — October 11, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

  3. Thanks, Mex, for sharing the insights about the struggles of the students. I am tracing a small group who learned about the LDS faith at Intermountain and continued to be involved with the Church later in life. There is much more to be said about the ways that LDS Church curriculum and government curriculum compared, as David indicates with his question, and more interviews are being done with former students and employees. Oral history archives of Intermountain are growing, and I hope to examine more the Navajo experience at Intermountain (those who became involved with the LDS Church and those who did not).

    I see more similarities in the Mormon-inspired curriculum with non-LDS curriculum. The main difference being drawn out is how religion and spirituality were addressed (or really not addressed) in secular curriculum. I have yet to explore other denominational curriculum. This is certainly a preliminary piece and works in progress as it relates to larger discussions of Navajo educational experiences.

    Comment by Farina — October 11, 2013 @ 6:24 pm

  4. Thanks for this, Farina! This is a fascinating subject I know little about. I am very interested in the comments by the student Damon James who said that religion did not really matter in his adolescence. This is a question I regularly deal with in my own research amongst young (all mostly of European descent) women who were born Mormon. Some seem very interested and express their religiosity often while others mention attending church and MIA here and there. I wonder how this difference matters for the students you write about in their status as converts, how they were converted, and other aspects of their background prior to coming to the school. Interesting things to think about!

    Comment by NatalieR — October 11, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

  5. A great write-up. Thanks, Farina.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — October 13, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

  6. Natalie, many Navajos who went to boarding school discuss how they had to “pick a religion” at school to go to in terms similar to picking a club or an extracurricular activity. Federal boarding schools like Intermountain, though technically secular government institutions, encouraged/pressured Navajos to affiliate with Christian denominations by allocating time and allowing various faith groups access to the students (for recruiting and meetings, etc.) Navajo students often had to report their religion to the schools, and so some felt their affiliation with Christian faiths as artificial, recreational, and/or as another assignment at school. Several of my interviewees spoke of how they were exposed to the LDS Church through boarding school and even baptized, but they were not really converted until much later in life. My own father was baptized as a schoolboy and forgot about his baptism, so he was surprised when he decided to convert to the Church as an adult that he had already been baptized.

    Comment by Farina — October 14, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

  7. I read your article and it brought to me some observations that I was not aware of or paid much attention to. I lived on the Intermountain campus and observed boarding school activities from a perspective as one of the employees families that lived on this campus. I lived on this campus from 1956 to 1974. My parents worked in the dorms and they cared for the students attending this school. For any student attending this school opportunities were available to attend all or any of the religious activities unless those religious leaders did not allow for them to attend. Activities were always occuring year round and my parents wanted to make sure each student was involved in activities so they would not get in trouble. As I matured in age, I noticed Intermountain was becoming less stringent with students attendance to religious activities and their participation was encouraged but not as regulated. To my knowledge, no tribal religious activities were performed and scheduled by this school but I could be wrong. Individual tribal customs were exposed to me by planned activities by tribal dance groups involving students and school employees. For students attending this boarding school, I observed them selecting activities based on personal preference(s). Everyone today has to select their religion based on personal beliefs, family traditions, values, etc. Students attending Intermountain Indian school were still developing as Adults and their choices were usually influenced by teachers, friends, family, etc. When I lived at Intermountain I attended a Protestant church but now have been converted and been baptized into the LDS Church. Again, my comments here are as a person who lived on this campus.

    Comment by Willie Begay — October 18, 2013 @ 11:30 am

  8. Thanks, Willie Begay, for sharing your thoughts and personal insights. I hope to continue learning about Intermountain and the larger community there. The school has an illuminating history considering Navajo educational history and how Intermountain was the largest Indian boarding school in the country. It opened originally just for Navajos after WWII when most Indian boarding schools were closed and U.S. educators claimed to move away from assimilationist policies. I would love to communicate with you more about your experiences at Intermountain. Please send me an email! Thank you

    Comment by Farina King — October 18, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

  9. Farina King, I would like to communicate further on Intermountain Indian School. I searched this blog site but not able to figure out how to send you an email for further discussions. Perspectives of communities can be influenced by age for you are only seeing those influences directly affecting you at given time periods in your life.

    Comment by Willie Begay — October 18, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

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