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When Rigid Mormon Rules Clash With Native American Traditions

It starts with having the "wrong" kind of haircut.

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A 23-year-old man born and raised in the Mormon Church, "J" is an American Indian. In keeping with the latter of his cultural identifications, he wears his hair long, cutting it only when a member of his family dies. This past autumn, when J tried to enroll at Brigham Young University, the private school funded by the Church of Ladder-day Saints, he ran into a problem.

BYU's strictly enforced Honor Code requires that men keep their hair cut close to their heads. It reads, "Hairstyles should be clean and neat, avoiding extreme styles or colors, and trimmed above the collar, leaving the ear uncovered."

Incredulous that the school affiliated with his own religion would deny him enrollment, J inquired with the Honor Code Office if they could make an exception. “Waivers are not granted for hair or beards due to religious or cultural beliefs,” a representative from the office wrote back.

Another member of BYU's faculty, Quint Randle, wrote a more conciliatory email to J, sympathizing with his frustrations but encouraging him to consider the financial benefits of attending BYU as a Mormon, even if it meant forsaking other personal preferences:

“The church subsidizes tuition by more than 50%. Were you aware of this?” Randle asked.

Continuing, Randle wrote: “So in exchange for that 50% reduction in tuition that the church is paying for, you get to agree to be part of that image the church wants to present to the world as BYU.”

While the dress code of BYU is indiscriminately applied to all who wish to attend the school, its particular exclusion of American Indians who wear their hair long suggests the coercive dynamic that animated the relationship between the two groups when Mormons began settling and displacing the indigenous population of Utah, is still operating in full force.

J asked to remain anonymous for the purposes of the story out of fear of being excommunicated from the Mormon Church. Excommunication goes on every day of every week, sometimes at the request of members who wish to be cut loose from the church and other times because of charges of “immoral activity” or “heresy.”

In 2002, anthropologist Thomas Murphy came close to being excommunicated after he published a paper that raised scientific questions on the genetic feasibility put forth in the Book of Mormon's creation myth, in which the indigenous population of North America plays a central part.

In the Mormon, or LDS, religion, the native population of North America is referred to as “Lamanites,” i.e., descendants of Laman, son-gone-bad of the Mormon prophet, Lehi. The story claims that Lehi emigrated from “Israel” in 600 BCE to what is now America.

In this story—written in 1830 by church founder Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon—Laman and Lemuel were the sinful counterparts to their brother Nephi, who obeyed his father and the teachings of God. Laman and Lemuel eventually wiped out the Nephites, and God then “cursed” the Lamanites with dark skin.

So, it is from Laman whom all American Indians are said to have descended, according to the original Book of Mormon.

However, in 2002 the language in the introduction to the Book was slightly altered in response to the DNA evidence (which Murphy used in writing his paper) that suggested no lineage exists between the indigenous population and those from the Middle East. The cogency of Thomas Murphy's science-based argument had reached too broad an audience for the Church to muffle it by banishing him. Therefore, in response to the internal disruption this new information triggered, they tried an appeasement approach: the Lamanites were no longer referred to as the "principal ancestors of the American Indians," but “ among the ancestors of the American Indians.”

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