In 1967, Brigham Young University’s Tribe of Many Feathers club hosted the first Miss Indian BYU pageant. Significantly different from most beauty pageants at the time, this pageant selected a candidate who faithfully represented her Native culture and served as an ambassador for BYU’s Native population. Contestants demonstrated their tribal culture and language, as well as familiarity with government policies relevant to native communities. Once selected, Miss Indian BYU maintained Native traditions and culture and helped Native students adjust to changing times that affected traditional practices. She also performed and facilitated service projects both on and off campus to demonstrate communal ties and inspire others. In short, Miss Indian BYU acted as a faithful representative of BYU’s Indigenous student population.
The pageant flourished in the 1970s when BYU boasted a relatively large Indigenous student body compared to subsequent decades. In 1970, for instance, 600 Native students attended BYU, the largest Native presence at any American university. Beginning in 1977, BYU offered the first Native American Studies program in the state of Utah, which continues today as the American Indian Studies minor. This emphasis on Indigenous students, however, was not without controversy. Much of the push for an Indigenous presence on campus came from Spencer W. Kimball, an apostle and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to Kimball and other church leaders at the time, the Book of Mormon taught that American Indians descended from the tribe of Joseph of Egypt, and members of the Church had an obligation to redeem Indigenous peoples by sharing with them the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, some observers found Kimball’s emphasis on American Indian programs and presence, including Miss Indian BYU, reflective of a colonial and paternalistic attitude. Nevertheless, many Native students participated in, and benefited from, these initiatives by bonding over indigenous heritage, correcting misconceptions or insensitive stereotypes, and involving themselves in community affairs.
Since its heyday in the 1970s, American Indian presence on BYU’s campus declined due to the rise of tribal colleges and educational opportunities for American Indians closer to home, and the closing of Latter-day Saint Southwest Indian and Northern Indian missions in the 1970s. During the 1990s, BYU consolidated some programs and resources previously reserved for Indigenous students into broader multicultural programs and resources. The pageant took a hiatus from 1991–2000 but returned in 2001. The last official pageant occurred in 2006; the club council ended the pageant in 2007 due to lack of interest and contestation over blood quantum and tribal affiliation from some of the participants. Today, BYU’s Tribe of Many Feathers continues to elect a Miss Tribe of Many Feathers at BYU, yet the university no longer officially sponsors this activity. The portrait hallway displaying the Miss Indian BYU candidates serves as a reminder of BYU’s tradition of interactions with an Indigenous student body.