Native American students share their experience at BYU

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Brigham Young University exists on the homeland of the Noochee (the word for “the people” in Ute.) Utah is home to eight different tribal nations. However, less than 1% of students who attend BYU are American Indian.  

BYU graduate Britney Sam belongs to the Navajo tribe and has grown up in Provo her whole life. Sam said that Powwow, a Native American social gathering where they dance, sing and honor the traditions of their ancestors, was her way of connecting to her culture. 

BYU senior Erika Yellowhair shares what a powwow is and why it’s important to Native American culture. (Hailey Deeds)

Similarly, BYU junior Naabaahii Tsosie grew up dancing as a way to respect his Native American culture, such as through fancy and grass dance. 

“It helped me a lot to connect to my culture. At the beginning, it was doing what my parents and brothers wanted me to do, which was dance. But after dancing for a while, it became a spiritual thing for me,” Tsosie said. 

Tsosie said Native American dance is “very spiritual, very connected to God and very interwoven with religion.” He said that once he started dancing for himself it became that. He stopped dancing on teams or for money and danced for himself. 

Many Native Americans at BYU became members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through the Indian Placement program, where Native American youth were brought to live with members of the Church. According to Radiowest, this program lasted from 1947 to 2000. It’s estimated that 50,000 native children were placed in this program. 

“It’s a great program for starting the Church on the reservation and to share the gospel, but in regards to culture practices, a lot of people who are in the placement program who live in Utah or a lot of people who were in the placement program who live in Utah don’t have that connection to their culture anymore,” Yellowhair said.

Sam said growing up off the reservation you don’t really get that educated about things. She said that no one up here knows anything about Native Americans and their culture. 

BYU senior Erika Yellowhair’s grandma and dad did the program. Yellowhair grew up on the Navajo reservation as a member of the Church.

Yellowhair said many of the ceremonies conflict in certain ways, because in the ceremonies they pray to a different God. However, the beauty of the ceremonies help her connect with her own personal faith. 

“It’s really a balancing act where everyone decides what they do for their own,” Yellowhair said. “I don’t mind participating in the ceremonies because it means something different to me. I’m not praying to some random God. I’m praying to my God.” 

Another example of this is the coming of age ceremony, which is a three to four week ceremony girls go through. Yellowhair said every morning before the sunrise, the girls run and then each day they run a little farther. Once they come back, they cook, clean, grind corn and make a large cake underneath the ground. 

“A lot of people have modified that where they’ll do all the work. But that night that they’re supposed to do the prayer and ceremonies,” Yellowhair said. “They’ll do a priesthood blessing or a prayer for them. Just small, little modifications.” 

Yellowhair said the more she learns about her culture, the more she learns about her Heavenly Father. Yellowhair said that the Navajo culture correlates a lot with the teachings of the Church because the philosophies and stories are very similar. 

Along with balancing religion and culture, some Native Americans find it hard to be a minority at a primarily Caucasian university with over 80.7 percent of students being white. Tsosie said he has experienced the struggles of being the only Native American in a classroom. He said that if they ever talk about Native Americans in the classroom, eyes immediately turn to him. 

Sam said going from a minority to an even bigger minority was a difficult adjustment. She found her place once she joined Tribe of Many Feathers, the Native American club on campus. 

“It was nice to feel more validated because those Native American students were feeling the same as I was,” Sam said. 

Sam said joining Tribe of Many Feathers is when she really started learning about her culture.  

“Once I got to TMF, I learned what it’s actually like growing up on the reservation. They have their own inside jokes, their things that they talk about,” Sam said. “So learning more about that and being involved taught me I belonged somewhere. It felt like home.”

BYU junior Kyle Eltsosie grew up on the Navajo reservation in Page, Arizona. Eltsosie said some people compare the reservation to a third world country, but he said it depends on what part of the reservation you’re on. There are some small towns and larger towns.

“Page is one of the bigger well known ones. It has a high school, a grocery store, an actual grocery store, and has a lot more fast food options,” Eltosise said. “It was very touristy so tourism is very big on certain parts of the reservation.”

Eltsosie said many Native Americans live in government housing and homesteads where they have their own piece of land. He said he hopes to go back after he is done pursuing a chemical engineering degree and to find a job that deals with water treatment. However, finding a job is challenging as they are limited. 

According to the American Indian Graduate Center, only 14.5% of Native Americans earn a bachelor’s degree. Experts say this is largely due to poverty. Sam said this is also largely due to the adjustment to the differences students have to make coming off the reservation. 

Michalyn Steele, associate dean for the BYU Law School, is from the Seneca Nation and the Cattaraugus Reservation.  

Steele used to be on the BYU Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging for a year. Steele said the purpose of the committee is to “assess how students from different backgrounds and communities feel if they belong, do they feel they’re welcoming and are they thriving.”

“There are only a small handful of indigenous, Native American or American Indian students at BYU. That can be isolating,” Steele said.

Steele said she doesn’t think there are enough Native American students applying to BYU. She said there are some obstacles that need to be thought about more carefully for Native American students.

“It’s difficult once you apply to be admitted to BYU and to be able to have the support and purpose and sense of belonging in order to succeed and come out of BYU with a degree,” Steele said.

A large resource for multicultural students applying to BYU is SOAR, which helps these students create strong applications. Steele said the Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging are hoping to create more resources like SOAR for multicultural students admitted.

Although at times it’s hard, Sam encourages Native American students to keep going and recommends getting involved, whether that be Tribe of Many Feathers or a Navajo language class. She said the Native American graduation rate pushes her to graduate.

“I have to persevere. I have to work hard, because our graduation rate is not super high. I have to set an example,” Sam said. “I have to be that leader for the younger generation. I have to be that example to set for them, so we can further educate ourselves.”

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