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Is Miss Indian BYU tradition waning?

Drop in tribal enrollment may be hurting pageant

PROVO — As a Navajo who was Miss Indian Brigham Young University 2007, Farina Smith enjoyed visiting the Miss Indian BYU portraits that hang in a third-floor hallway of the Wilkinson Student Center.

"It's a beautiful history of this place," she said.

There is no room in the hallway for a picture of Smith or her two immediate predecessors, which doesn't bother her. What does is that she may never have a successor.

The on-again, off-again tradition of Miss Indian BYU is off yet again. The tradition might not return after a controversy over candidate qualifications led to cancellation of the Miss Indian BYU pageant in March.

"It's unfortunate what happened," Smith said. "There were mistakes on everybody's part. It doesn't have to be the end of everything."

The Tribe of Many Feathers student club is considering options for the future, club president Shauntel Talk said. No decision will be made until September, said Talk, who was one of seven contestants who applied for the pageant this year.

The contestants represented five tribes — Chickasaw, Sioux, Navajo, Cherokee and one from Canada.

"I think the Miss Indian BYU program is important to the club," Talk said, "but it's getting more difficult to gather Native American young women to participate. I've seen a gradual decrease in the number of contestants, and I don't think we should keep anyone from participating."

Miss Indian BYU's main job is to represent the American Indian student body by sharing her native culture with visitors to BYU's annual powwow and with children at area schools. The title was created in 1967 when the university launched Indian Week — now Heritage Week — in the midst of a drive to recruit more American Indians to the school.

"They wanted someone to represent the American Indian students and act as the hostess of this celebration," said Smith, who is researching the pageant's history as history major pursuing a minor in Native American studies.

BYU had five American Indian students in 1951. A long, laborious push by BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU, began to pay off in the 1960s.

By 1967, 122 American Indian students attended BYU. The number leapt to more than 600 in 1973-74, according to Wilkinson's history, "Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years."

Wilkinson boasted that BYU had largest American Indian student population at a private university in the United States. BYU couldn't verify Wilkinson's number on Wednesday, but it is fact that American Indian enrollment at BYU has nose-dived to 167 students — a meager one half of 1 percent of the total student body.

That larger trend might have impacted the pageant. As the reigning Miss Indian BYU, Smith was in charge of recruiting contestants.

"I e-mailed every single female American Indian student at BYU," she said. "I called every American Indian girl I knew. I was trying to recruit girls since fall."

She managed to find seven contestants for a pageant that requires at least five. The demanding qualifications were also an issue. Contestants had to prove during the pageants they could share their tribe's culture. Talk pointed to two requirements that caused this year's trouble — that the women be club members and perform 50 hours of community service. Talk felt strongly about them, but she said they were different from last year and caused confusion.

When the club council reviewed the applications, Talk said they found that weren't club members and some hadn't completed the service hours.

The council decided to cancel the pageant two weeks before it was scheduled and instead host a cultural showcase. Several of the seven were upset by the decision because of the work they had done to prepare. The club later canceled the showcase, too, because of a lack of applicants.

"I was the one trying to stick up for having (a pageant)," said Smith, who sat on the club council. "But I support their decision. I admire all of them and our adviser, and I think of them as my friends."

The Miss Indian BYU pageant took a year off in 1986 and suffered a longer hiatus from 1991-2000. The 38th Miss Indian BYU hopes another year off won't end the tradition.

"It wasn't just having a crown, it was having this opportunity to serve and share cultures and that unique Native American heritage with others," she said. "It allowed you to have the opportunity you wouldn't always have or take.

"For me as a Latter-day Saint, we are all children of the same spiritual father. We're all human beings with the same humanity. The pageant wasn't just spotlighting American Indians and putting a crown on this beautiful Native American woman, but it dispelled a lot of stereotypes that exist to this day."