June 20, 2020
Please sign and support this petition, BYU’s Committee on Race and Inequality Needs a Native American Representative, which serves to remind Brigham Young University (BYU) and its Academic Vice President C. Shane Reese that it is overdue to listen to and value Native American and Indigenous voices at BYU and throughout the country, particularly in higher education. BYU and residents in the area are dwelling in a space shaped by the lives, deaths, and removal of Native Americans and the occupation of their ancestral lands—specifically Utes of what is now considered the region of Provo and Utah County. A newly appointed BYU committee, directed to address issues of race and inequality, needs a representative who understands the unique challenges that Native American BYU students and community face at their university. They need someone who is recognized and respected by their tribal nation and diverse Native American and Indigenous communities for their knowledge and leadership.
We need to acknowledge that BYU exists in the traditional homelands of Noochee (the word for “the people” in Ute) and of Indigenous peoples who have stewarded the land throughout generations. Utah is home to eight different tribal nations, and the Utah Valley is the ancestral homeland of several diverse peoples, including the Timpanogos, Ute, Newe (Shoshone), Goshute, and Paiute people, and we seek to pay respect to their elders and ancestors—Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) and Goshute in particular.
From 1846 to 1868, Brigham Young led Mormon and predominantly white settlers from Nauvoo, Illinois, the Eastern United States, and Northern Europe to what became the state of Utah. As I have been reading Thomas Alexander’s book, Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith, my stomach twists and turns as I notice the references of these lands as “wilderness” and how Young claimed that the “Indians gave the land” to him and Mormon European-American settlers.
I am reminded of the mysterious photograph of Brigham Young with a woman, wife or daughter, sitting next to him with her face rubbed out. Was she his forgotten Native American wife? (See Holzapfel and Schwartz’s “A Mysterious Image: Brigham Young with an Unknown Wife” and the 2012 “Exclusive: Brigham Young’s secret wife?”).
I have been learning from the work of Jenny Pulsipher and others about how Young and Mormon mission leaders encouraged intermarriage between Mormon missionaries and Native American women as a strategy to get Native Americans to “cede land” in regions that are now considered northern Utah and eastern Idaho (Pulsipher presented “‘To identify our interests with theirs’: The Fort Supply Mission and Indian-White Intermarriage” at the Mormon History Association in Salt Lake City, 2019).
The etched-out face of the woman besides Young reminds me of all the efforts to erase the complicated and fraught past of Mormon conquest and settlement in the Indigenous homelands. I notice, in the “Intermountain Stories” project for example, how the narrative of the “The Provo River Battle” of 1850, by relying on European-American/Mormon sources only, frames Timpanogos Utes as thieves and how the violence that massacred and forcibly removed these Indigenous peoples from their homelands started because of “a minor theft” on the part of the Timpanogos! The real “theft” and dispossession is inseparable from the Mormon colonialization of Ute and Indigenous homelands. As Jared Farmer argued over 10 years ago in On Zion’s Mount, “paradoxically, the Mormons created their homeland at the expense of the local Indians.” These “Indians” have a name that they called themselves, and they continue to exist. We cannot move past history while we continue to live with its wounds and without healing. The voices, perspectives, public memories, and narratives that we perpetuate can either block or promote such healing. Sadly, there have been far more blockages to healing.
Why do I care so much about BYU? In some ways, I exist because of the university. My parents met there. My father did not dance in Lamanite Generation when he was a BYU student, but he wanted his children to know and respect the song “Go, My Son” and its message written by Arlene Nofchissey Williams (Diné) and Carnes Burson (Ute). My parents taught us “Go, My Son” instead of “The Cougar Song” unlike most other BYU alumni. They met at BYU and dated only a little after my father remembers attending a “Lamanite ward” (church congregation) where they told the students to only date people of the same race or fellow Native Americans. Before I learned a word in Diné bizaad, the language of my Diné ancestors, I could sing and make the hand signs of “Go, My Son.” My siblings and I were born into a “Lamanite” world and connected to past and ongoing dynamics of what have been called “Mormon Indian relations” that the song embodies. As an eighteen-year-old, my decision to then attend BYU relieved my parents, and I followed in my father’s footsteps by joining the Tribe of Many Feathers, one of (if not the) longest-running student organizations at BYU founded for Native American students.
Shízhé’é, my father, is enrolled as “full-blood” Navajo, and my mother is white American of English descent. I have a Navajo Blood Certificate with a census number, which marks me as legally “half” Navajo. My father was raised on the reservation in a traditional Diné family, and he later converted and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) while attending BYU between 1968 and 1969. I later learned from my Diné elders and teachings how to introduce myself in Diné bizaad by shik’é, our kinship and clans: Shí éí Bilagáanaa nishłí̹ dóó Kinyaa’áanii báshíshchíín. Bilagáanaa dashicheii dóó Tsinaajinii dashinálí. This means that my maternal line is Anglo-American, and I am born for the Towering House People Clan and the Black-Streaked Woods People Clan of the Diné. The clans constitute foundations of Diné identity and kinship through teachings of reciprocity and family responsibilities as well as ties to homelands. Navajos understand their relationships with one another and those around them by the clan system, which demarcates their origins. When I introduce myself in Diné bizaad, fellow Navajos know that my paternal family comes from the eastern region or South when adhering to the Diné map of the Four Sacred Mountains and Directions of Diné Bikéyah (Navajo land). We descend from one of the original Diné clans with a key obligation to lead.
This personal background inspired me to explore the histories of Native Americans at BYU, including the stories and experiences of my father and reflections on my own experiences there. I have pursued understanding what it means to be Latter-day Saint/Mormon and Native American, and specifically Latter-day Saint and Diné in my case, by seeking diverse perspectives and histories (including oral histories and stories) of Latter-day Saint Native Americans. The work of this new BYU committee and what happens at BYU to this day are a part of my continuous journey because of my personal and familial ties there.
From my experiences and insights, BYU Native students do not just walk between “two worlds” as most scholars might portray their experiences. They and many different Native Americans walk through many worlds, which overlap, correlate, and conflict. A BYU Yavapai alumnus, Maurice Crandall, articulated this idea of navigating multiple worlds to me in 2016 that I have since pondered. Gina Colvin, a Māori lecturer at the University of Canterbury, also emphasizes understanding “compound worldviews” when examining Indigenous Mormon experiences. She spoke at the 2017 Mormon Studies Conference, “Multicultural Mormonism: Religious Cohesion in a New Era of Diversity” (March 30, 2017 at Utah Valley University, Orem, Utah). Her keynote address was titled, “There’s No Such Thing as ‘A’ Gospel Culture.” Various scholars and public intellectuals have been contributing such tremendous, ground-breaking work that I respect.
I am also reading Northwestern Band of Shoshone Chairman Darren Parry’s book The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History, in which I find various paths of healing and reconciliation especially through lessons when we “listen with our hearts” to Indigenous peoples such as Shoshones. Parry identifies these “lessons”:
Lessons of interconnectedness of all living things and the fact that our very existence is dependent on the world we seem to be destroying. We are not a thing of the past. We are not extinct. Our languages are still strong, ceremonies that we have been conducting since the beginning of time are still being held. Our governments are still surviving, and most importantly, we continue to exist as distinct groups in the midst of the most powerful country in the world. But we long to be heard and recognized. We have a culture and history that our troubled world needs that will instill values and ideals that speak to the heart and soul (pp. 98-99).
Parry descends from survivors of the Bear River Massacre and now seeks support to open “The Boa Ogoi Cultural & Interpretive Center to educate and enlighten visitors about the history of the Northwestern Shoshone Band,” including the history of the Bear River Massacre that was arguably the single largest mass killing of Native Americans.
I remember back at BYU during my undergrad days when a friend told me that he would support me if I decided to raise my voice about the various troubling affairs and issues happening at BYU with Native Americans. It is more than 10 years later, but I remember that and I am now willing to speak about these concerns and issues because I still see them. I did not speak then because of fear. I was just trying to get by like many Native American students do who struggle through the challenges of college and young adult life along with everyone but also with added impacts of socio-economic disadvantages, disparities, perpetuated racist systems and structures, and pressures to “uplift” our peoples.
But now, I am trying to build coalitions with underrepresented and marginalized students and alumni affiliated with BYU. BYU is taking some initiatives, and I hope that they do things right and in the best ways possible. When I found out that there is no Native American representative on the new committee organized to address race and inequality, I have decided that it is time to speak up and do the best I can to support this committee and these efforts to make a difference. If you have any contacts and ideas with BYU affiliates and alumni from diverse backgrounds and current students, please let me know. I also launched this petition that I ask you to sign and share with your networks if you are willing. This petition is part of efforts to build coalitions and bring diverse peoples of all walks of life together in mutual respect and better understanding of our interconnectedness, emphasizing abilities to navigate and bridge various communities.
If you are not affiliated with BYU or have affiliations with other institutions of higher learning and education especially, please consider what you can do to support and encourage healing and equality whenever you are. I am trying to do that with the various communities, organizations, and institutions that I am connected to. It is a long road and journey, but every step matters. Hózhǫ́ó naasháa doo. Walk in Beauty. In every step.