LDS American Indians in Their Tribal Communities

By November 6, 2013

Here is a guest post from Megan Falater who is researching the interactions between nineteenth-century Mormon ecclesiastical authority and doctrine related to the family for her dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also a longtime lurker of Juvenile Instructor. For this post, she revisits an undergraduate project on the LDS Indian Student Placement Program.

In 1971, Victor Selam complained in Diné Baa-Hani, an underground newspaper published in the Navajo Nation, that Brigham Young University limited American Indians? expression of their identities. Selam recounted a conversation he held with a member of the University Standards Office prior to his dismissal from the school:

I reminded the ?Man? that in Mormon prophecy the Indian people would ?rise up and blossom as a rose in the latter days.? I said that I fully agreed with the prophecy and that it also exists among the Indian people, only in different words in a different language. But how can this rose ?blossom? if it doesn’t push and pull itself up? How will Indians rise up if they sit back, quote prophecy, and do nothing like some people at B.Y.U.? And furthermore, what of those Indians who cease to exist as Indians-who want to be white people and act accordingly and forsake their own people?[1]

Dine Baa-Hani - Salcido with Selam - Tree

?Apple Tree? by Salcido in the Dine Baa-Hani

Selam, of Warm Springs-Yakima-Nez Perce heritage, did not explicitly identify himself as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though he demonstrated familiarity with Doctrine & Covenants 49:24.[2] He wrote that he was dismissed primarily for failing to comply with BYU?s grooming standards for men?s hair. Identifying his hair as  ?a symbol to me of Indianness,? Selam had begun growing it out and refused to cut it. He also criticized American Indian classmates at BYU who complied with the rule, arguing that ?any Indian who would [cut his hair] is an Apple Indian?red on the outside and white on the inside!?[3]

Selam described many of his fellow American Indian classmates, who may have numbered over 500 students at that time, as ?apples,? a hurtful label that challenged their membership in their tribal or intertribal communities.[4] How common was such a comment? Did American Indians who complied with BYU?s grooming standards, or who otherwise abided by the standards of the LDS church, hear similar racialized criticism from other sources?

Indeed, contemporary evidence indicates that American Indians within the LDS church?s educational system faced racialized criticism from some fellow American Indians in the 1960s and 1970s. Though such treatment was part of a broad spectrum of interactions between LDS and non-LDS American Indians, Selam?s label points to the diversity of opinion regarding what it meant to live as an American Indian in the second half of the twentieth century, and demonstrates the complexities of living as an LDS American Indian within tribal communities on reservations or in urban settings during these decades. Although LDS American Indians? interactions with their fellow Saints also merit attention, Selam?s article reminds us that LDS American Indians were, and are, members of tribal communities as well.

The ?apple? insult draws our attention to the diversity of ideologies within American Indian communities in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Diné Baa-Hani, which Selam praised as a ?very sincere and angry paper,? was published by youth from the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Arizona beginning in 1969.[5] The term appeared in numerous issues of the paper, including in articles, interviews, occasional ?Apple of the Month? awards, editorial cartoons, and letters to the editor. The majority of its articles tackled other topics, however, including education, acculturative pressure at educational institutions, protection of and access to land, economic justice, and political sovereignty. Articles in the newspaper also supported the Red Power movement, namely the political mobilization of American Indians from the 1960s and 1970s on behalf of their tribal communities and the development of a pan-Indian or intertribal identity. When the editors and contributors of this newspaper encountered American Indians who did not share their political ideology, or who behaved in ways that defied their definitions of Indianness (to use Selam?s wording), they criticized these differences with labels that tied community membership to particular ways of living and thinking.[6]

Students at BYU were not the only Latter-day Saints to receive criticism for their behavior. Indeed, some participants of the Indian Student Placement Program, which the LDS church offered from the late 1940s to the mid-1990s, likewise grappled with criticism from tribal community members for conforming to the standards of the church. The placement program placed American Indian students with off-reservation LDS families, with whom the students lived throughout the school year in order to gain educational opportunities and greater exposure to the LDS church. (Membership in the church was required for participation.) Though certainly not the only mid-twentieth-century program to remove children from their reservations, the placement program created physical and, for some, cultural distance between students and their tribal communities.[7]

Such distance left placement students, like the BYU students described by Selam, vulnerable to criticism when they returned to their tribal communities between placement years or after they left the program. Yvonne Martin Bigman recalled that, when she returned to the Navajo reservation after her first year of placement in the early 1960s, her brothers mocked her, noting, ??She?s turned into a white man.?? Antoinette Dee, who grew up in Arizona and was a placement student in the 1960s and 1970s, likewise explained to Jim Dandy that some American Indians described her as an ?apple,? though she noted that these individuals ?didn?t fully understand what placement was. I learned to accept these kinds of criticism and they were few in number.? Similarly, George P. Lee, who graduated from the placement program in the early 1960s and served as a General Authority of the LDS Church from 1975 to his excommunication in 1989, confirmed that placement students received such insults when they spent their summers on their reservations. He reported that, while young, he himself faced criticism from his Navajo family for following LDS standards and attending LDS church services.[8]

This discussion offers an admittedly limited and incomplete view of interactions between LDS American Indians and their tribal communities. Selam?s characterization of BYU students and similar criticism of other LDS American Indians gesture toward the complexity of LDS American Indians? membership in multiple communities. Tribal community members observed and critiqued identity choices and behavior. At the advent of the Red Power movement, such criticism compared LDS American Indians to particular political notions of Indianness. As JI contributor Amanda Hendrix-Komoto observed in her discussion of American Indian Movement protests in Salt Lake City in 1973 and 1974, American Indian activism and its effects on evolving notions of identity are indeed relevant to, and linked with, LDS history.


[1] Victor Selam, “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” Diné Baa-Hani 3, no. 3 (October 19, 1971), 10. Published in New Mexico and Arizona as ?A Navaho Newspaper Published for the Navaho Nation,? the title Diné Baa-Hani translates to ?News of the People.? See Diné Baa-Hani 3, no. 3 (October 19, 1971): 1; ?About Dine? Baa-hani = News of the people. (Crownpoint, N.M. 1969-1972),? Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, <>.

[2] The Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Containing Revelations Given to Joseph Smith, the Prophet with Some Additions by His Successors in the Presidency of the Church (1921; Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1977), 49:24.

[3] Selam, ?Don?t Sit,? 8, 8.

[4] Clarence R. Bishop, a former director of the LDS Indian Student Placement Program, observed that ?BYU registered up to 150 Indian students a year? in the second half of the twentieth century. Clarence R. Bishop, ?An Introduction to the Indian Student Placement Program,? in The Blossoming: Dramatic Accounts in the Lives of Native Americans, ed. by Dale Shumway and Margene Shumway (2002), 3.

[5] Victor Selam, letter to the editor, Diné Baa-Hani 3, no. 3 (October 19, 1971): 7.

[6] For two recent analyses of 1960s- and 1970s-era activism, see Charles Wilkinson, Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005); and Bradley G. Shreve, Red Power Rising: The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011).

[7] For the Indian Student Placement Program, see Martin D. Topper, “‘Mormon Placement’: The Effects of Missionary Foster Families on Navajo Adolescents,” Ethos 7, no. 2 (Summer 1979): 142-160; Tona J. Hangen, ?A Place to Call Home: Studying the Indian Placement Program,? Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 30, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 53-69; and Bishop, ?An Introduction,? 1-7.

[8] Yvonne Martin Bigman and Ed Bigman, ?The Family Connection,? in Shumway and Shumway, The Blossoming, 138; Antoinette (Tonie) Dee, interviewed by Jim M. Dandy, LDS Native American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; George P. Lee, Silent Courage, an Indian Story: The Autobiography of George P. Lee, a Navajo (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1987), 223, 226.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Miscellaneous Race


  1. I really appreciated this piece, Megan, since I have come to focus specifically on LDS Native American relations with their families and non-LDS Natives in my studies. How have LDS Native Americans related to others in their tribal and intertribal communities? In conversations about Mormon-Indian relations, many have only discussed white Mormon relationships and power dynamics with Native Americans overlooking other developments between LDS Natives, other Natives, and non-whites (such as Pacific Islanders, Latin Americans, and African Americans).

    I also wondered if BYU would still enforce the grooming standards on Native Americans who wanted to grow their hair out, since the university now has certain exceptions to the standards where people can get “beard cards” and maintain particular grooming styles/appearances based on religious beliefs and health reasons (though this information is not easily accessible on their website: I knew people (Muslims and a guy with health reasons) at BYU with the “beard card” (the student ID with the profile image of the person with a beard). Men are generally not allowed to have beards at BYU according to grooming standards, but they can wear a beard if they have the “beard card.” Would the religious belief exception apply to growing one’s hair out? I am interested in these changes over time and their implications.

    Comment by Farina — November 6, 2013 @ 10:35 am

  2. I am pretty sure that Sikhs are able to maintain their long hair. I seem to remember a few Sikhs on campus, but I never questioned them regarding their status in the Honor Code office.

    I am interested in the Indian phenomenon where many Native Americans often question the authenticity of the Indian identity of fellow Native Americans. It is strange to me that many Native Americans feel that they have to prove their nativeness in order to be accepted by fellow Native Americans. What does this say about Native American History?

    Comment by Brian — November 6, 2013 @ 11:00 am

  3. This is fascinating, thanks Megan. Like Farina, I’m intrigued by the fact that BYU expelled Selam for growing his hair out and wonder if there are other examples of that Also, the issue of Native hair-length does raise interesting questions about the Honor Code, Mormon views of “hippies,” and Indians. But as you suggest, this cuts both ways, as activists targeted those Indians who chose to conform to “clean cut” grooming standards and sought to marginalize them as “apples.” Do you plan to publish any of your research?

    Comment by David G. — November 6, 2013 @ 11:21 am

  4. This is really interesting, Megan. I recently went through the LDS church newspaper for Hawai’i. One of the things that I found interesting was the constant juxtaposition of the images of students in the Polynesian Cultural Center with articles about feminism, modesty, etc. There was no comment acknowledging that possible conflicts might exist between the two. I have heard, though not confirmed, that BYU and Mormon culture accepts Polynesian men who tattoo their bodies. I would be fascinating to compare discussions of tattooing with those surrounding hair in Indian culture. I wonder if tattoos were always accepted in Mormon culture as part of Polynesian culture, and if so, when that started. It also makes me wonder, like the commenters above, what the reaction would be/is now to long hair on Indian students.

    Comment by Amanda — November 6, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

  5. At least in the 2000s, Sikhs were not granted an exemption from the honor code at BYU. You can read about it on James Goldberg’s blog:

    Comment by sar — November 6, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

  6. Megan: all I have to say is wow. I usually have 2-3 pages of critique, out of all of the articles thus far yours is far superior. I am quite impressed with your research and to reach out to the often over looked works items like Din4 Baa Han?4 is inspiring when considering your work on Natives and the ISPP. When most write about the ISPP, many tend to repeat the same topics, thank you for taking a different look into the subject.

    The dress and groom standard is still in place and enforced at BYU for students who are LDS and Non-LDS. (a quick easy search showing BYU?s recent rules on hair grooming) I remember being pulled aside by my dorm advisor who was concerned about the length of my hair at BYU. The only reason people are given a Beard Card at BYU is for medical reasons and have doctors send a letter to BYU. For men to have long hair they have to have a medical reason to be excused from the rule.

    Brian: Natives are just like any other group of people, they have their social classes. But I think a lot of the issues of having to prove one?s indianness stems from the blood quantum laws introduced through the Indian Reorganization Act of 1834 and the resurgence of the Indian power movement during the 1970s. In the past Navajos have been quite inclusive as seen with the Navajo clan system which mixed with the Paiute, Chiricahua Apache, Mohave, Mexican, Mescalero Apache, Comanche, Ute, and a variety of Pueblo Indians such as the Hopi, Zia, Jemez, Zuni, and Santa Ana (just to name a few).

    But this is going toward the Vine Deloria, Jr. argument of one?s self-identification of Indianness. Natives are always under the microscope. Does the U.S. government consider you to be a Native? If so, does your tribal government consider you a Native? If so, does the Native community (or Native peers) consider you to be a Native? Because, most know that the non-Native community just follows the One-Drop rule went identifying Natives. Look at BYU, legally they are not allowed to ask students who is a Native or not, but many self-identify themselves as being Native and check the box on their application. But are these self-identifying Natives enrolled in a federally recognized tribe? Or are they part of the Outta-Luck and Wannabe tribes? This doesn?t stop BYU or any other school in publishing an X amount of Natives at school to show how diverse they are. But back to the issue of self-identifying Natives having to prove their Indianness to their Native peers, this is not an Indian issue; it?s dealt with any peer group, including Mormonism.

    But I think that is what part of this article is about, traditionally, Native men who had long hair was part of their tribal social status among their peers (there are also traditional and Native religious reasons for having long hair too). What does that say when a Native chops off his hair to be part of a racial euro-American educational experience by attending BYU (or phase two of the ISPP) and it was the ISPP which incorporated some of Captain Richard Henry Pratts? Carlisle Indian School philosophy, ?kill in the Indian, save the man.?

    The term ?apple? is still in use today for the same reasons, but some have also soiled the good name of a Hostess? product and use the word ?Twinkie? to refer to those who self-identifies with a Native Tribe but have little or no social link to their tribe or have little Native blood.

    One thing that might be of interest is a BYU thesis by Howard Rainer (Taos Pueblo and LDS), ?An Analysis of Attitudes Navajo Community Leaders have Towards a Religion Sponsored Program Based Upon Membership of that Faith and amount of Information Attained,? (1976).

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — November 6, 2013 @ 3:10 pm

  7. This is blogging at its finest. Thanks, Megan.

    Comment by Ben P — November 6, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

  8. Corey:

    You give very good insight, even though I do not agree with you regarding the Honor Code. BYU may or may not post that they give religious exceptions, but they do. I took a Political Islam course from a man with a beard, and I knew other Muslims who maintained a beard card.

    Secondly, I don’t think I was clear. I understand protecting blood quantum. For example, I understand that tribes would want to protect themselves from people like Johnny Depp, who claim to have some Indian blood somewhere, but have a hard time proving it and have no real connection with the tribe, but what I have a hard time grappling with is the protection of Indianness within people of the same or similar blood quantum.

    My experience, having lived in an Indian community, is that some Native Americans, especially Navajos, are very protective of their Indianness, and that many Navajos, more so than those of other communities, feel pressure to prove their Indianness.

    Comment by Brian — November 6, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

  9. Thank you all for your warm welcome.

    David, I don?t have any concrete plans to publish this project, though this is a long-term goal.

    I am familiar with the beard card, but was not aware of cultural exceptions that may be made in some cases with regard to beards, long hair on men, and tattoos at BYU and related campuses. Selam noted in his article that he overheard ?the Man? at the Standards Office say that long hair ?must be the new thing among the Indians.? I wonder when and how such cultural exceptions came to be made?

    Corey Smallcanyon makes an excellent point in noting that many communities, and not only American Indian ones, demonstrate some kind of boundary maintenance. (What makes someone a real Mormon, for example?) I think that the motivations behind boundary maintenance surely vary among communities, as Brian notes, and I wonder whether thinking about potential motivations behind the creation and maintenance of boundaries might be helpful. Do people worry more about boundaries when they perceive their community to be under stress or attack? When they perceive potential competition from other communities for people?s allegiance?

    (And, Corey, thank you for your recommendation to read Howard Rainer?s thesis. I am not familiar with it.)

    Comment by Megan F. — November 6, 2013 @ 6:39 pm

  10. Megan, this is a marvelous piece. I look forward to reading the full scope of your research when it is published!

    Comment by J Stuart — November 7, 2013 @ 8:33 am

  11. Somethings I thought about as a Navajo going to BYU:

    1. I didn’t go on the LDS placement program. I grew up on the Navajo reservation and went to church there. Almost every Sunday we were told to not involve ourselves in Navajo ceremonies. We were told we couldn’t even attend them. “You cannot go to [insert Navajo ceremony] on Saturday night and expect to take the sacrament on Sunday.” We were told this by Navajo branch presidents, and by non-Indian Stake High Councilmen.

    2. There is a difference between culture and religion. There are some things I “do” because I’m Navajo, and there are some things I “believe” because of my religion. There may be overlap between Navajo religion, Navajo culture, and the LDS religion in some areas, but the “purpose” distinguishes the gray areas. What I think a lot of people do not realize is that there is a difference between Navajo culture and Navajo religion.

    3. While at BYU I could have played the Navajo religion card (probably like the beard card) and said that it was my religious tenet that required my hair to be long. Of course none of my friends would believe me, and because I have an LDS church record on file, I probably wouldn’t get my endorsement renewed to attend the following semester.

    4. I think a lot of Native students feel like they have to deny Indian “culture” by accepting the non-Indian “religion.” This causes some to question themselves and others. I think you can have a Navajo culture base and a non-Indian religion. You’d probably understand the culture better if you also practice the Indian religion, but that’s just the way it is.

    5. I think there is a strong pull at BYU to express your Indian-ness because, like every where else, “Indian” is the last thing on any one’s radar. No one ever guess someone is “Indian.” And after high school you’re trying to find your “identity.” When no one recognizes who you are, you feel like they don’t care, so you find ways to let them know who you are. That’s why you’ll see so many minority students on college campuses wear something that indicates their culture: Polynesian girls where flowers in their hair or the guys wear carved bones around their necks; and, Indians wear arrowheads, turquoise necklaces, chokers, or beaded earrings, etc.

    I was never called an “apple.” At least not to my face. Maybe because my dad was Caucasian, people just kind of accepted that I’m going to have some “white” characteristics. In hindsight I’m glad I went to BYU because I met my wife there. Any way, I’m just rambling. But it still happens. People are consistently judging the “-ness” of others, whether its “mormon-ness” or “Indian-ness.” It happens between old people and young people, both on and off the reservation.

    Comment by Dusty Jansen — November 7, 2013 @ 11:46 am

  12. Brian: so I contacted an old friend who is an Assistant Dean of Students and University Chaplain at BYU. One of his sole responsibilities is to assist non-LDS students at BYU, and part of that is assisting with these non-LDS students’ Ecclesiastical Endorsements (Honor Code agreements). I asked him about (1) non-LDS BYU students and long head hair and (2) non-LDS students and facial hair. His response was: “I am not aware of any hair exception for anyone. There are no special grooming rules for non members,” and it was reiterated that the BYU Honor Code was agreed upon by all students attending, and each student promises on their “honor” to follow such rules. He concluded that students with “Medical only, no religious exceptions,” can have beards. Hopefully this helps…

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — November 8, 2013 @ 2:38 am


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