When Rigid Mormon Rules Clash With Native American Traditions


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.”

Then in 2010, the church scrubbed a few overt references to race as a demarcation of moral degeneration from the Book. It removed from its Book two sections that described Lamanites as cursed with a “skin of blackness” and “a dark, filthy, and loathsome people.”

“They are very rapidly trying to get rid of the language of race that permeates the Book of Mormons. This is a response in part to the changing racial dynamics in the wake of the civil rights movement in America and in part a desire to satisfy its current church members and reach out to new lands and peoples,” says David Lewis, a professor of history at Utah State University. Lewis was born into a Mormon family, but stopped practicing the religion when he was 14 years old.

Just over a year ago in December 2013, the Church officially and publicly disavowed its history of discriminatory treatment of black Americans and Africans and their exclusion from full participation in the church. "Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form," a statement on the LDS website reads.

But the scriptural changes have not necessarily been paralleled by practical changes in the Church.

When I asked J what the term meant to him, he said, “Lamanite tells me that we Indians were sinful at one time. That is why we are cursed with dark skin.”

“Personally, I was told things by BYU personnel like, you are being sinful by embracing your Lamanite values, you should not even be speaking your Indian language. You have a great deal of potential, so give up your Indian culture because it will get you nowhere.”

Regardless of direct references to race and skin tone, the term “Lamanite” expresses the Mormon view—as conceived of and articulated in the 19th century—of American Indians as a degenerative class of human beings who are capable of salvation only if they turn their back on their cultural traditions and embrace the Mormon way of life.

That American Indians joined and have remained in the Mormon Church is but one example of their tortured history in the face of colonizing forces that led to their displacement, loss of lands, and subsumption of personal, linguistic, and cultural identities. BYU’s refusal to recognize this history reveals its insistence on denigrating a group of people that belong to their church.

“This has been another method of displacing and replacing native heritage history and origins. It's part of the settler-colonial dynamic, to redefine who we are,” Angelo Baca asserts.

Baca says he grew up as a traditional Native American but also with the Church; his mother is a Mormon and raised him as one: “The gospel is a part of my culture.”

“But as I got older it became difficult to reconcile both ideas. I started asking questions that no one else wanted to bring up.”

Baca created a documentary titled, In Laman's Terms: Looking at Lamanite Identity. In it he set out to make sense of the warring internal identities that have found resolution in the American Indians who call themselves Mormons.

Baca is now an anthropologist and archaeologist who teaches in the Ethnic Studies Department at Brown University.


In the early years of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith believed strongly in converting American Indians to his new religion.

“Smith plugged into the idea that there's a strong relationship between Mormons and Indians; he believes they have a kinship binding them together,” Lewis explains.

“Mormons call Native Americans the 'chosen people'—and tell them, 'you can become everything we are.'”

According to Lewis, Smith sent missionaries into native communities in the southeastern parts of America—Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and southern Illinois—proselytizing with this message of  “brotherhood” and “redemption,” and even advocating intermarriage.

“But amid massive displacement and the reservation policy going on in American at the time, it went nowhere.”

It was not until Joseph Smith was assassinated and Mormons fled the East where they had never found much of a welcome, found their “Zion” in Salt Lake City, Utah and secured their colony there, that their mission efforts resumed.

In Lewis' book, Neither Wolf nor Dog, he describes how, in the middle of the 19th century, the quickly expanding Mormon settlement in the Salt Lake Valley transformed the ecology of the valley that the Ute and Shoshone tribes had sustained for hundreds of generations. They pushed the tribes from their fertile grasslands, turning the indigenous population into dependents on the Mormons for material sustenance in the form of charity, food and menial labor.

The title of Lewis' book is taken from the words of Sitting Bull, a tribal chief from South Dakota and a leader of the resistance to the violent expansion of white settlements. On the assimilation Indians were forced into, Sitting Bull wrote: “I do not wish to be shut up in a corral. All agency Indians I have seen are worthless. They are neither red warriors nor white farmers. They are neither wolf nor dog.”

In 1851, J.H. Holeman, appointed by the federal government as “Indian agent” in Utah Territory, wrote of the consequences of the expansion of the Mormon colony under Brigham Young's leadership: “The Indians have been driven from their lands and their hunting grounds destroyed without compensation wherefore they are in many instances reduced to a state of suffering, bordering on starvation.”

“Holeman arrived to replace an earlier set of federal appointees who had found it impossible to work with Brigham Young and had fled the territory in fear for their lives,” explained Lewis. “Holeman got along with Young at first...but his blunt reports about Mormon treatment of Indians got him in trouble with Young and he soon left Utah himself.”

With their lands diminished and their resources compromised, Native Americans began to convert in the second half of the 19th century. Between 1947 and 2000 an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 students cycled through the Indian Student Placement Program (ISPP), a program that placed Indian children in the foster care of members of the LDS.

Mormon literature describes ISPP as a voluntary program, but in truth many families enrolled their children out of economic desperation.

“You have a situation where kids were being taken from their home, they didn't know their culture or where they came from; there were incidences of suicide and depression. Poor families didn't have a lot of resources and saw that the Mormons would be able to take them on,” explains Baca.

“At that time it was also seen as something to be proud of because you had natives pursuing education and going beyond the tribe. It created this additional class that could contribute skills and be involved in the Mormon culture.”

While Baca has renounced the religion, his mother still adheres to it. “Some people do a really beautiful job of weaving the two parts of their identity together. My mother, for example, still takes one with the other,” Baca says.

“Native Americans are not all or nothing. Adding another theological construct isn't as antithetical as it would be to Christians, for example,” Lewis says.

But balancing more than one set of cultural and religious identities is antithetical to the tenets of LDS, a fact revealed by BYU's disinterest in accommodating students like J.

Carrie Jenkins, a spokesperson for BYU, wrote to me, affirming what the Honor Code Office had told J: “BYU does look at each issue on an individual basis, but in general, BYU does not make exceptions for cultural practices.”

Elise Boxer grew up on the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Reservation in Poplar, Montana. Her mother is a Chicana from California with a deep connection to her indigenous roots in Mexico. Her father is Dakota  from the Fort Peck Sioux and Assiniboine tribe located in Montana. Both of Boxer's parents converted to the Mormon religion in the middle of the 1970s. Today Elise Boxer describes herself as a “Dakota first and foremost” and Mormon second. She knows the Church would prefer she transpose the ranking of her identities.

Unlike Baca, once Boxer began to recognize the profligate racism of the Mormon Church she did not entirely reject the faith.

Boxer received her PhD from Arizona State University. Today she is a visiting professor at University of Utah in the Ethnic Studies Department, where she explores how the LDS Church has constructed Indian identity.

“I find that people are happy to see the conflict articulated. It is something they've experienced, but not been able to articulate for themselves.”

Boxer says that while she hopes the scriptural changes generate a shift within the Church in the future, fundamental racism against American Indian culture has thus far remained. However, this does not shake her commitment to the religion.

As for J, after he was unable to enroll in BYU, he looked abroad. He is now studying Russian at Moscow State University: “The Mormons often tell us to give up our traditions, culture and practice—and we give them up," he said. "But long hair is one that I am not prepared to give up.”

People like Elise Boxer and J embody a baffling amalgam of identities, bewildering to those outside the slender demographic slice they represent. In their attempt to find resolution, it seems they must defend the boundary between an identity that has survived the hammer of colonialism and one that provides a place in a powerful community. 

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