BYU Native American students celebrate culture daily

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BYU student and Native American Elias Gold said “every month is Native American Heritage month” and “every day is Independence Day” for him.

November is Native American Heritage month, and Gold is one of hundreds of Native American BYU students enjoying their differing Native American, American and religious cultures together.

The Tribe of Many Feathers

The Tribe of Many Feathers club is a group of BYU students who come together to celebrate Native American culture, connect with those of their same heritage and help create awareness at BYU of the Native American presence and culture.

Elias Gold
The Tribe of Many Feathers club participated in the 2017 Homecoming parade on Oct. 7. The Tribe of Many Feathers is a BYUSA Service Club designed to educate students about Native American culture. The club is open to all BYU students. (LaVay Talk)

Gold is the vice president of the BYU club, and oversees the club’s social media and activities.

The Tribe of Many Feathers organizes events on campus surrounding Native American activities to help students learn about Native American culture, such as the Navajo taco and frybread sale held Nov. 1 and 2.

The club’s biggest event every year is the Pow Wow, typically held at the end of March or beginning of April in the Wilkinson Student Center.

“(The Pow Wow) is an event for everybody,” Gold said. “I feel like a lot of BYU students feel like maybe they’re not welcome at the Pow Wow. … (but) the whole point of it is for (BYU students) to go in and experience it, figure out what it’s all about, make new friends with people from different tribes, and gain a better understanding of North American indigenous tribes.”

Gold was raised by a single mother on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico. Almost all the tribes in North America have a maternal society, according to Gold.

“Women are the symbol and the epicenter of everything,” Gold said. “Navajo culture, our lineage, is based on our mother’s lineage.”

The overlap of his Native American and American culture has offered a “type of balance” for Gold. He said he enjoys learning about and integrating both cultures into his life.

BYU Native American students discuss their heritage

Shelby Benally, a BYU student pursuing a master’s degree in public health, has been involved with the Tribe of Many Feathers for nine years. Her father was in the club when he was at BYU. Then when she was a freshman, her sister was in the club and got Shelby to volunteer.

Benally grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Her father’s first language was Navajo. He came to BYU before he was a member of the LDS Church to participate in a rodeo program, according to Benally. Her dad then converted to the LDS church after taking a Book of Mormon class at BYU.

Shelby Benally
Brandon and Shelby Benally and their kids, Taylor and Eliza Benally, smile for a family photo. Shelby Benally said the gospel and her Native American culture are important to her and her family. (Shelby Benally)

“There’s not as much good influence of people who come back on the reservation with education,” Benally said.

Her father taught her family the importance of their duty to go back and help their people if they have the blessing of an education.

“A lot of the kids that do go (to) school, they’re probably the first generation to be going to college,” Benally said.

Benally said that because of conflicts between the Navajo culture and the LDS Church, there are some restrictions on what she practices from her culture. Benally said not all Native Americans are the same in how they think. For Benally, the gospel is the most important thing in her family.

Benally said she enjoys showing her culture at any opportunity she can. She also likes to educate others about Native American culture and discuss any stereotypes that may not be true.

“Every day I celebrate who I am; it’s not just the month,” Benally said.

The Tribe of Many Feathers held its annual Navajo Taco and Frybread Sale on campus the first week of November. Benally also said schools in the area reach out to the club to have some of their members talk to students about Native American Heritage Month.

Erika Yellowhair, a freshman at BYU, said she got involved with Tribe of Many Feathers to have a “taste of home” here at BYU.

Yellowhair said each Native American tribe is different. In her family’s tribe, the Navajo tribe, the clan system is maternal. Both of her parents are Navajo. Her mother is from the Many Hogans clan; her father is from the Water Flows Together clan; her grandfather is from the Bitter Water clan; and her mother’s father is from the Salt People clan.

Yellowhair is celebrating Native American Heritage Month by participating in Tribe of Many Feathers events on campus, such as the frybread sale. She is also planning on making Navajo tacos for her friends. She is also trying to speak Navajo more often by reviewing her Navajo notes and talking with her grandmother, who only speaks Navajo.

Many of the Native American students on campus will also be participating in National Rock Your Mocs day on Nov. 15. This a day where Native Americans can wear their moccasins that represent what tribe they are from. Each tribe has its own type of moccasins, according to Gold.

Amanda King, a senior studying sociology at BYU, grew up on the Navajo reservation in Fruitland, New Mexico.

Growing up on the reservation, King enjoyed seeing how the traditional side of her culture and the gospel overlapped.

“I’m a first-generation college student,” King said. “My mom didn’t get to get a college degree and my grandmother didn’t even get to go to school, so thinking about these women in my life has really pushed me to want to be better and pushed me to want to represent them really well.”

Deezhi Thinn, a sophomore at BYU from Kayenta, Arizona, joined the Tribe of Many Feathers because she wanted to be more involved when she got back from her mission.

“I’m Mormon, so we don’t participate in very traditional ceremonies,” Thinn said. “My dad would teach us both our culture and Mormonism at the same time.”

Thinn said being Navajo is a way a life. Her father taught her family that Heavenly Father gave them their culture to learn and grow.

Native Americans in history, culture

Ruben Zendejas, a senior studying Portuguese at BYU, has been a dancer for Living Legends for four years. Living Legends is a group composed of BYU students of native descent that emphasizes Native American, Polynesian and Latin American music, culture and dance.

Zendejas is currently the Native American section leader for the team. His responsibilities include leadership, choreography and running practices.

Ruben Zendejas
Ruben Zendejas and his wife, Shanoah Zendejas, pose for a picture after a Living Legends concert this year. Ruben has been dancing with Living Legends for four years. (Ruben Zendejas)

Zendejas has been dancing since he was 8 years old. He went to a Living Legends performance when his sister was a part of the team, fell in love with the dance, picked up her hoops and has been dancing ever since.

Zendejas’ grandmother is Omaha and his father is half Omaha, making Zendejas a quarter Omaha, or quarter Native American. But Zendejas said that even a quarter is “a big part” of who he is.

Zendejas said he is interested in the correct portrayal of Native American culture in the media.

“Public perception drives public policy,” Zendejas said. “So when people have these images (they think) of old westerns, or they think of mascots, or they think of these stereotypical images in their minds whenever they think of Native Americans.”

Zendejas said Native American Heritage Month is important because it helps get his culture out there and shows that the Native American culture is still living and evolving. He said there are doctors, lawyers, LDS general authorities and even hip-hop music artists who contribute to society who are Native American.

BYU history professor Jenny Pulsipher has been studying Native American history since she started learning about her Native American ancestors as a little girl.

Pulsipher said BYU students should learn about the native people from Utah Valley that live here now and who lived in Utah Valley in the past. She also said BYU students should seek to learn about the native people from their hometowns.

“The history of America is Native American history. They were here before the Europeans arrived and shaped the ways the Europeans understood and interacted with this land,” Pulsipher said. “While Native American history has sometimes been left out of textbook histories of the Americas, it is really impossible to understand American history, or our present-day world, without understanding what Native Americans did and what European immigrants to America did to them.”

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