Skip to main content

A Brief History of the Native American Studies Minor at BYU

By Marissa Touchin-Roblin, Lata Sitake, and Jay Buckley

In 1950 President Spencer W. Kimball of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began the process of providing Indian students with greater access to higher education and seminary and institute programs. He called upon Brigham Young University (BYU) to assist Indian students in achieving their academic and spiritual potentials. Scholarships and programs to help Indian students adjust to university life were begun. During the 1960s, BYU formed the Institute of American Indian Studies, an unprecedented Indian Studies minor, and an Indian Education Department serving hundreds of students. By the mid-1970s, the popularity of the program among American Indians was reflected in enrollment numbers that exceeded 600 students from 77 different tribes representing 38 states. BYU had the largest group of Indian students at any university.1 Because of the increasing enrollment of Indian students, BYU created the Native American Studies (NAS) program in the early 1970s. Leading the program in 1973 was Dr. John R. Maestas, Dr. V. Con Osborne, and Dr. Fred R. Gowans of the Department of Indian Education at BYU. Osborn and Maestas, served as Department Chairmen while Gowans became the Native American Studies Coordinator (a position he held until winter semester 2001). In the early 1980s, the minor received additional academic credibility by becoming a minor within the history department.2

The NAS minor's primary goal has been to offer academic support for American Indians by teaching them how to balance their tribal heritage within the dominant white culture. Gowans said, "Many Indian and non-Indian students graduating from Brigham Young University in studies such as education, sociology, business, and political science will be brought in contact with the American Indian people because of the nature of their occupations. The Native American Studies minor is designed to augment and supplement students of various disciplines so that they may become more culturally aware of the heritage of the American Indians, thus promoting better understanding and cooperation."3 That same goal exists today among faculty committed to refine and improve the minor into the twenty-first century.

Faculty members at BYU have modified the NAS minor to not only serve as an important minor for a variety of majors on campus, but also to inform students of current American Indian issues. Although several changes have recently taken place, the original aims of the minor continue on. Assistant professor of history Jay H. Buckley, who serves as the NAS Coordinator, said "I hope students will see that this minor incorporates both the history of the past and the challenges of the future. Maybe some of the students that participate in this minor will be involved in formulating some viable solutions to today's challenges. We can assist Indian communities and begin to break down cultural barriers by teaching students to do their part in making the world a better place."

Because the NAS program had not been revised for several decades, the History Department asked Buckley to make revising the minor a priority after they hired him last fall. Buckley talked with students, teachers, and administrators throughout campus to gain various insights on implementing new ideas to the program. One recommendation he fully supported was the importance of teaching twentieth century Indian history. In the past, the history courses in the minor had only taught Indian history up until 1900, with little discussion of contemporary Indian issues. A new class, History 387: North American Indian History Since 1900, will be taught next winter. In addition to the historical survey of the century, current American Indian issues will be addressed.

Buckley also worked to make changes in the elective course list to allow more people from across the university to become involved in the minor. He reviewed and identified all BYU courses that had significant components of North American Indian history and culture. The professors were contacted, syllabi obtained, and those that fit the requirements were added to the elective list, creating a true interdisciplinary minor. In addition to the core classes in history and English, the NAS minor has a number of elective courses spanning the disciplines of anthropology, English, history, humanities, linguistics, sociology, and religion. Amber Kidd, from Lilburn, Georgia, majoring in socio-cultural anthropology, said, "Dr. Buckley has done an amazing job in attempting to offer the students a wider variety of class subjects. I wish I was starting over so I could take advantage of the new courses."

Other changes in the program included increasing the minor's required credit hours from 22 to 24 credit hours. The core course have been streamlined. The Introduction to Native America (formerly NAS 101; now History 207) was made a 200 level course worth 3 credit hours. In addition to taking Native American Literature (English 358R), students need to take three of the four core classes in Indian history: Native American Education (History 208); North American Indian History to 1900 (History 386); North American Indian History Since 1900 (History 387); and Indians in Colonial America (History 388). In addition to bringing in more than a dozen electives, existing electives have also been modified. For example, History 362 and 363 have been combined into one course (History 360) and History 457 and History 490 have been removed from the minor. Buckley also wants to provide an environment where students can convey and discuss their thoughts and feelings within a friendly setting-an environment protecting and projecting American Indian rights and issues that normally go un-discussed. Buckley added, "I want the classes to be a place where students feel comfortable. There will occasionally be sensitive issues and topics-close to the emotional surface-that will be discussed." Buckley hopes to create an environment where American Indian students will be willing to share their opinions and experience. He wants non-native and Indian students to work together to tackle important contemporary issues that still need to be resolved.

The new minor also has many ramifications for service learning opportunities. Students graduating with a NAS degree can reach out to Indian reservations and communities, learn how to interact with them, serve as mentors to Indian students, and gain an appreciation for Indian cultures. Sterling Fluharty, a graduate student at Oklahoma University who minored in NAS at BYU, said a few of the benefits of participating in the program include educating "students about cultural differences, dispelling stereotypes, promoting tribal and Indian identities, and assisting Native students to return to their people prepared to really help."

Knowledge gained from participating in the NAS program is beneficial for all students-especially for those who are pursuing jobs working with American Indians. "Part of my responsibilities working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing assistance to tribal entities in cases of disaster or emergency. The knowledge I have gained through the NAS minor has been a wonderful base on which to build," said Kidd. For students who are anticipating employment with American Indians, this minor will help them achieve a better cultural understanding. For students who are just interested in diversity issues or multiculturalism, the NAS courses will broaden their perspective. Perhaps most importantly, for those individuals working with students, government, or other public functions, obtaining a NAS minor will help them treat American Indian people with the respect and rights they deserve.

Due to the increased difficulty for everyone in being admitted to BYU, the enrollment of American Indian students is about one third what it was in the 1970s. Still, students of all races at BYU can come together to learn about the original inhabitants of the Americas. With the support and help of faculty members from History and other department, windows of opportunity will open to students. The excitement of increased academic and spiritual growth for Indian and non-Indian students at BYU will continue to grow. Now, in addition to the activities of the Tribe of Many Feathers, cultural awareness opportunities during Native American Month (November), the annual pow-wow (March), the Miss Indian BYU pageant (March), and great artistic performances and productions, the revised Native American Studies minor will help strengthen student's faith and provide the educational background to make a real difference upon graduation in the church, their vocations, and in the communities they serve.

To contact us:

Department of History
Brigham Young University
2130 JFSB
Provo, UT 84602Phone: (801) 378-4335


1Janice White Clemmer, "Native American Studies: A Utah Perspective," Wicazo Sa Review 2 (1986): 17.
2Ibid., 17-18.
3Ibid., 19-20.