Miss Indian BYU and Material Culture

By September 26, 2013

This installment in the JI’s material culture month comes from Farina King of the Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House clan) of the Diné (Navajo). She is a second-year graduate student in the U.S. History Ph.D program at Arizona State University. She received her M.A. in African History from the University of Wisconsin and a B.A. from Brigham Young University with a double major in History and French Studies. King has written and presented about indigenous Mormon experiences in the twentieth century, drawing from interviews that she conducted for the LDS Native American Oral History Project at BYU. Her doctoral research traces the changes in Navajo educational experiences through the twentieth century. She was the last Miss Indian BYU crowned in 2006. King is also a dedicated wife and mother to two toddlers. A version of the following will appear in a special issue on Miss Indian pageants, forthcoming in the  Journal of the West .

The Tribe of Many Feathers (TMF), the BYU Native American student organization, hosted the Miss Indian BYU pageant for twenty-three consecutive years until 1990. TMF restarted the pageant in 2001. I was the last crowned Miss Indian BYU in 2006, since the TMF Council cancelled the pageant again in 2007. I had the opportunity to interview several former Miss Indian BYUs about their experiences as title-holders and pageant contestants including Vickie Sanders Bird and Jordan Zendejas who I feature in this blog post. The Miss Indian BYU Pageant and its winners’ memories reveal the ways that Native American LDS youth engaged and transformed material culture in the effort to represent BYU Indian students.

2006 Pageant. Farina is on the left.

Dr. Janice White Clemmer, a Wasco-Shawnee-Delaware and the first “American Indian woman in the United States to earn two masters degrees and two doctoral degrees,” worked with the BYU Native American Studies and Multicultural programs when TMF invited her to judge for Miss Indian BYU pageants during the 1980s. [1] According to her, the pageant “[celebrated] young American Indian womanhood.” [2] She elaborated on the criteria that the judges used to evaluate Miss Indian BYU contestants: “How does she look in her regalia? How does she carry herself? How fluent is she about her tribal knowledge? [Miss Indian BYU has] LDS standards and demonstrates best of both worlds, of all worlds . . . someone who represented her tribe, other tribes, school, and gospel.” [3] The Miss Indian BYU Pageant typically consisted of the following parts: presentation of traditional regalia, traditional talent, modern talent, and question and answer. The ability to wear and describe traditional clothing demonstrated knowledge of the contestant’s tribe and people. For example, I remember wearing a biil (Navajo rug dress), moccasins, and a squash blossom necklace for the first part of the pageant in 2006. I explained that the squash blossom once belonged to shinálí ‘asdzáníígíí (my grandmother). Shibízhí (my aunt) had made the necklace for her using the sand-casting technique. I wore the moccasins of a Yébíchai (Yei Bi Chei ceremonial) dancer. The clothing represented our people and cultures, and so the judges wanted to see how we (as contestants) would understand and convey the connections between how we appeared and what we emblematized–indigenous identity in a LDS school context.

Vickie Bird, Miss Indian BYU, 1972

As Miss Indian BYU in 1972, Vickie Bird Sanders (Mandan-Hidatsa) enjoyed meeting with different groups to share her culture and serve as an ambassador. She recalls, “When I was chosen, I felt like it was a very special calling to be able to represent the population of all of the Native Americans and represent BYU. I did a lot of speaking. I was going to Boy Scout clubs, going to schools, going to women’s clubs, and performing for General Authorities.” [4] During one of her visits to an elementary school, she frightened a little girl who closed her eyes tightly to avoid looking at her traditional regalia. Sanders explained to the girl that the rabbit fur hanging on her long hair was not alive, and then the girl became excited to touch the fur and hugged her. She remembered, “That’s when I realized that I wanted to keep doing that, I wanted to keep going to the elementary schools, meeting with the little children and having them give me hugs and wanting to touch my rabbit skin.” [5] Sanders later became a schoolteacher and continued to present at some public schools. In her presentations, she first appears to the children in “everyday modern” clothing and then changes into her traditional dress in front of them while describing the cultural meaning of each clothing piece. She prepares her presentations this way to show and complicate the meanings of “a real live Indian.” [6]

Sanders also explained that Janie Thompson, the director of Lamanite Generation (a BYU student performance group), designated

TMF Ladies and Float

her as a “spokesperson” because of her title. “I always had a part in the show where I could express thoughts about BYU and where we were at that time wherever we were performing,” she added. [7] Phillip Smith (Navajo), a member of TMF during her reign, remembered seeing Sanders speak publicly to students. She impressed the BYU community with her personal story of reprimanding some relatives for wearing BYU icons and clothing in disrespectful atmospheres such as bars and clubs where alcohol was distributed. After witnessing the bereft of her people and family due to alcoholism, Sanders beseeched students to reject alcohol completely. [8]

During her service as Miss Indian BYU, AIM activists especially criticized Sanders and told her, “[You’re] Apple Indians, you’re red on the outside but white on the inside and you’re not really an Indian.” Sanders remembered, “So many of them took pride in ‘why don’t you wear something that identifies you as native? Why don’t you wear a feather in your hair’” She responded, “That to me is not what needs to set me apart from who I am. I don’t need to grow my hair long or wear it in braids or wear a feather or wear my Indian dress to show people that I’m proud of who I am.” [9]

In the twenty-first century, Miss Indian BYU still sought to shape popular images and material culture of American Indians. Miss Indian BYU 2004-2005, Jordan Zendejas (Omaha), visited public schools in her formal mainstream attire to relate better to children. Zendejas recounted,

My year, my focus was on education and the youth, and so I would educate them about Native American people and how we are different tribes and how were different then and how we are now. I like to emphasize the now part, because some people believe I wear my regalia every day to school, so I even wore a pant suit one time and they were like that is not what you wear, and I was like “yeah it is” that was my main issue to many schools. [10]

Adult supervisors at some schools complained that she did not wear feathers in her hair, hold a tomahawk, or portray other such stereotypical images of Indians. She explained, “There would be people who think, ‘You’re not Indian enough. You don’t look Indian enough. Do you take being Indian seriously’” She continued, “I remember this one class, I walked in there and to my horror all the students were wearing fake leather and fringe and putting on war paint and feathers in their hair . . . [one] mom was like you don’t look Indian. “Neither does your son, but you dressed him up.” I didn’t say that, but in my head I wanted to.” She added, “I wasn’t necessarily wearing my regalia every time that I went to schools just to show them how we were just normal people now, we don’t wear regalia all the time.  . . . I had my own agenda set out, and I guess the teachers had in their mind their agenda of what they wanted me to do, so when I didn’t do it they would get mad.” [11] Zendejas used such encounters to teach people that she was a contemporary Native American and not a relic of the American past and fantasy of “the frontier.” Zendejas attended BYU Law School, aspiring to follow her father’s footsteps as a lawyer. Refusing to appear in traditional regalia for her presentations, Zendejas wanted to show that American Indians were a changing and developing population like peoples throughout the world.

Like the little girl who was afraid of Vickie Sanders’s rabbit fur in her hair, Zendejas confronted misconceptions about American Indians through her attire and presentation. Zendejas, similar to Miss Indian BYUs decades ago, was determined to dismantle prejudices and worked to alter material images of Native Americans and LDS indigenous people in particular.


[1] Janice White Clemmer, “Native American Studies: A Utah Perspective,” Wicazo Sa Review 2, no. 2 (Autumn 1986): 18.

[2] Janice White Clemmer, interview by author, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 26, 2007, recording in personal possession of author.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Victoria Bird Sanders, interview by Farina King, Provo, Utah, March 27, 2008, transcript, LDS Native American Oral History Collection, Brigham Young University Harold B. Lee Library, Provo, Utah.

[5] Vickie Bird Sanders, interview by author, Provo, Utah, 24 March 2007, recording in personal possession of author.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sanders, interview, 2008.

[8] Phillip Smith, interview by author, Monument Valley, Utah, August 10, 2013.

[9] Sanders, interview, 2008.

[10] Jordan Zendejas, interview by author, Provo, Utah, March 24, 2007, recording in personal possession of author.

[11] Ibid.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Gender Material Culture Race Women's History


  1. Thanks Farina. Really interesting.

    Comment by jjohnson — September 26, 2013 @ 9:15 am

  2. Thank you for this really insightful post, Farina. I was generally ignorant of these pageants, and consequently the experiences of the participants. I remember hearing a story on NPR this summer about Miss Indian America (another subject of which I was not aware), and your description of the pageant at BYU makes me think that it was more a product of the Native community. I graduated from BYU but didn’t really participate in any clubs or organizations not associated with specific classes or teams. How autonomous was (or is) the TMF from the administration?

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 26, 2013 @ 9:19 am

  3. Farina, I work on the BYU campus, but I have never heard of TMF (though I’m a bit of an isolationist). Great work. Thanks for the preview of the article.

    Comment by wvs — September 26, 2013 @ 9:36 am

  4. Fantastic stuff. I look forward to the full article.

    Comment by Ben P — September 26, 2013 @ 9:52 am

  5. This is really fascinating, Farina. Thanks. I assume the forthcoming issue of the Journal of the West deals with Miss Indian pageants more broadly–can you speak to the ways in which BYU’s pageants compare to those elsewhere?

    Comment by Christopher — September 26, 2013 @ 10:20 am

  6. This is really fascinating. It reminds me of some of what I have heard or read about land claims in the New Zealand where native communities have to their “nativeness” to lay claim to ancestral land. In many cases, this has involved “playing native” (to use Phil Deloria’s term) by wearing what people would consider native clothing. It’s interesting how certain material objects such as feathers or leather vests and moccasins have come to represent American Indians in many people’s minds.

    Comment by Amanda — September 26, 2013 @ 10:59 am

  7. your selection of pageant winners is interesting. Wondering why you tend to focus on past winners who are of mixed races (who are Anglo and part Native)? To me, it seems to read as justification as to why they should be considered Native by all people despite their mixed race(s) and despite their cultural upbringing or lack of it. it would have been more interesting to look at the struggles these people have had with dealing with biases within the Native culture at BYU. and it also brings up the never ending question of “who is an Indian?” do you go by the government standards, tribal standards, social understanding, media, or what one self identifies as being Indian?

    I see whoever wrote your bio intro highlighted the fact that to them, you are “Native,” but what about the other side? why leave the fact that you too have non-Native blood, something that one should also be proud of and gives you insight into the article you just wrote. was that a sin of omission or commission?

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — September 26, 2013 @ 11:10 am

  8. This is very fascinating. Your work really gets at the tension of dealing with dual identities especially within a religious context. It can’t help remind me of the recent reaction to the recent Miss America and discussions of her “American-ness.” Your work shows that there is more than one way to deal with combating misconceptions (coupled with expectations and assumptions), and there is STILL a lot of work to do in that area. Thanks!

    Comment by NatalieR — September 26, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

  9. Farina, this is great stuff. I remember seeing the portraits of the Miss Indian pageant winners in the Wilkinson Center (on the second floor, if I recall correctly) while I was at BYU in the early 2000s. This would have been during the second phase, when the pageant was still ongoing, yet, like others who commented above, I never saw anything about it elsewhere. I suspect that there are complex reasons for 1) the placement of the portraits in an obscure corner of campus and 2) lack of awareness of the pageant and TMF in the general (i.e., white) student body.

    To the point of the post, I think this is a fascinating window into the multiple contexts in which Indians are “expected” (to use another useful Deloria concept) to perform their Indianness–before whites, within and without Mormonism, among other Natives, and, as Mr. Smallcanyon notes, in the ambiguous places in between. And as Amanda suggests, this all plays out in power-laden situations with histories that stretch far back into the United States’ settler colonial history.

    But what I like most about the post is how you show that, in spite of the constrictions, the pageant winners found ways to fashion themselves–relying on their clothing and other forms of material culture–and help others see beyond the stereotypes and glimpse some of the complexities of modern Native life.

    Comment by David G. — September 26, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

  10. David, While SWK was still alive and pushing Nativeness at BYU, the Native programs had their own building and resources on campus. they housed the Miss indian BYU photos there, but once the Church decided to move away from Natives, and buildings and resources vanished, after some convincing the Native programs were able to place their pageant photos near BYU’s beauty pageant photos. but do to the modern day out lash at BYU beauty pageants, white BYU students had BYU take down their BYU beauty pageant photos. they also tried to take down the Miss Indian BYu pageant photos too, but after extensive education that the Miss indian BYU pageant is not a beauty pageant objectifying Native women, they finally decided to keep the Miss Indian BYU photos up.

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — September 26, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

  11. Thanks, Mr. Smallcanyon. That history is fascinating.

    Comment by David G. — September 26, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

  12. This is really interesting – both as an exploration of complicated, multi-layered identity and for thinking about how Indians are often (mis)identified with/by their tribal regalia as if identity doesn’t exist without the materiality of the objects that stand for Indianness (here, as Farina points out, this being true often both within and outside Native American cultures). Plus, there’s probably a whole tortured book about BYU’s relationship with its Indian students over the years. Thanks for this guest post!

    Comment by Tona H — September 26, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

  13. What Tona H said!

    Great stuff, Farina! Can you speak to the politics of beauty a bit more, especially as it relates to BYU’s culture (which I’m guessing here) involves finding “life partners” (that’s liberal gentile speak for husbands and wives)?

    Comment by Max — September 26, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

  14. So there is the idea of white perception or definition of what an Indian should be that is brought out in this article. but all three Miss Indian BYU pageant winners talked about in the article like I said are of mixed races, and as such have a very light skin color, which you do not point out. and this I know because I know all three winners that are discussed. this obviously influences white societies reaction to these Miss Indian BYU’s self perceived “indianness,” which they use their clothing and other items to defend their status.

    is there any more in regards to Miss Indian BYU’s who are full blood natives or others who have darker skin color and their experiences and thoughts on the issue? do they experience the same issues of having to defend their “indianness” and have to use clothing and regalia in the same manner? especially since in Utah, many people tend to misidentify Natives for being Mexican. what is their relationship to material clothing and regalia?

    your final sentence you state that they were: “determined to dismantle prejudices and worked to alter material images of Native Americans and LDS indigenous people in particular.” can you discuss the “alter material images of… LDS indigenous people” part?

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — September 27, 2013 @ 2:59 am

  15. Thanks, Farina; this is really intriguing. Like Max and Mr. Smallcanyon, I’m especially curious about the aesthetic and gender elements of these pageants. I look forward to reading your article!

    Comment by Ryan T. — September 27, 2013 @ 8:54 am

  16. Thank you to everyone for the responses and feedback. I apologize for not being able to respond directly yesterday. I was on the road, working and visiting family on the Navajo reservation. In the Journal of the West issue that I am working on, the contributors and I will address many of the given questions. I will let you know more about the issue as we work it out.

    In regards to the posts about mixed ancestry and Indian identity, it is important to understand that conceptualizations of “real Indian,” “Indianness,” “pure Indian,” and “Indian blood” have been debated since the formation and construction of the very idea “Indian.” Before Columbus, there were no “American Indians.” My work speaks to a context of “Indians” at BYU. The students of mixed ancestry or however their ancestry was debated on tribal and national levels (including myself as Miss Indian BYU 2006) would be crowned Miss Indian BYU, representatives of BYU Indian students.

    I address the efforts of Miss Indian BYUs to shape and defend their Indianness in “expected places” of Indian Latter-day Saints (on BYU campus, on Lamanite Generation tours, in LDS churches on their homelands, in Utah County). I have interviewed and examined cases of Miss Indian BYUs who on a census roll may be listed as “full blood” or mixed ancestry (and those who are fluent and were immersed in Native American communities and cultures and those who learned about their Indian ancestry most in depth in preparation for the pageant). Nora Begay, for example, who is considered “full blood” Navajo was also called an “Apple” like Vickie Bird (her successor) for the same reasons.

    One of the main struggles for Miss Indian BYUs, especially during AIM, was asserting their Indian identity to Indian communities as Latter-day Saints. The overarching debates of Indian identity such as blood status also affected Miss Indian BYUs differently, but they shared more in common, I would argue. I focus on these common experiences and what they reveal, considering the differences of course.

    Thank you to all for the insights and great ideas in the posts. I look forward to developing this work.

    Comment by Farina King — September 27, 2013 @ 11:37 am

  17. I also wanted to add that other factors affected how Indian students related to each other at BYU such as whether students were LDS members, from the reservation or an urban setting, participated in Placement, and later participated in BYU Multicultural programs such as Discovery and SOAR. Some BYU Native American students formed cliques on whether they were in Placement or not before it was terminated, and others on whether they went on the BYU Discovery program or not in the 1990s. Indian blood quantum and (physical) appearance of Indianness would not always be the primary factor (and arguably oftentimes was not) that shaped BYU Indian student relations.

    Comment by Farina King — September 27, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

  18. Wow. Fantastic, provocative piece. I’m excited to see the published article!

    Comment by J Stuart — September 28, 2013 @ 9:13 am

  19. Thanks, I hope to one day write a book! There are so many diverse experiences and personal histories of Native American women involved in the Miss Indian BYU pageant. About 38 women were crowned before the pageant was cancelled indefinitely in 2007. I would like to interview as many of them as possible. I have only personally interviewed ten former Miss Indian BYUs, and have access to four other full interview manuscripts. Newspaper articles also provide insights to various other Miss Indian BYU experiences.

    In my earlier response, I think that I really meant to say that I look at Miss Indian BYU in “expected places” for Mormons but “unexpected places” for Indians.

    Comment by Farina — September 28, 2013 @ 6:52 pm

  20. […] JI is pleased to announce that Farina King has agreed to join the JI full-time. See here for her fantastic guest post on the Miss Indian BYU pageant. Here is her extended […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » New JI Addition: Farina King — October 7, 2013 @ 6:01 am


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