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Aftershock in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY – It’s the start of a new school year at the University of Utah, but at least one American Indian student will not be attending.

Debra Yazzie, Navajo, said she became “stressed out” and left the university after a year in which she advocated for Native students against defamatory stereotypes in slogans, posters and T-shirts.

They are issues that a current Indian program coordinator calls “old bones,” best left alone.

During the last school year, the Coalition to Protect American Indian Education Rights, headed by Yazzie, staged a protest to “raise awareness of the university’s attempts to silence American Indian students, staff and faculty who protest university policies that ultimately alienate, divide and destroy American Indian communities.”

At issue were several years’ worth of complaints, ranging from questionable practices around the “Ute” nickname at athletic events to decisions about programs for American Indian students.

Yazzie and others questioned the appropriateness of the “Ute” name in light of shortcomings they perceive in Native education efforts, but prominent Native figures have distanced themselves.

There is no indication that the Northern Ute Tribe, near Fort Duchesne, Utah is withdrawing from an agreement exempting the university from an NCAA ban on using Indian mascots. And one Northern Ute tribal member, Forrest Cuch, said the accounts of issues at the university have been “taken out of context.”

Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, works with Indian professors who, in turn, work with the campus’ American Indian Resource Center “to be sure students receive counseling and tutoring” and other services.

“I’m very comfortable (in saying) that things have improved,” he said, contending that last year’s dissent was caused by “just one student in particular” and a professor who “caused a lot of trouble.”

In a prepared statement, the university said it continues to support Indian students with a variety of resources and outreach, central to which is the AIRC.

Some issues appear to remain, however.

Beverly Fenton, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, former AIRC director, said she was fired after less than a year on the job, despite her efforts to help Native students. She disagrees that the university was supportive, at least in her experience with Professor Octavio Villalpando, to whom she reported.

Through a spokesperson, Villalpando, associate vice president for diversity, declined comment on issues raised by American Indian students at the university, any measures taken over the last year to resolve those issues, or other, related queries, although he has been a central figure in university responses to student dissent.

The characterization that only a few Native students have been involved in controversy has allowed the university to minimize the protest and the issues involved, said Jessica Solyom, who worked for the defunct American Indian Teacher Training Program and with professor Bryan Brayboy, Lumbee, who implemented the program.

The AITTP graduated some 40 American Indian teachers in six years before its demise and rebirth as the American Indian Teacher Education Collaboration, currently without federal funding from the Office of Indian Education. The last cohort from the previous three-year AITTP program finished in June and the program closed.

Brayboy is now at Arizona State University, where he was joined by some of his students. He blamed competing ideologies for his leaving the University of Utah, which he said did not support him in his position.

Lena Judee, Navajo, interim AIRC director and the university’s American Indian Program coordinator, tried to facilitate what the Native students were saying last year, though she “didn’t agree with the way they were going about it” and feels revisiting the issues – “old bones” – does not help, even though they may be unresolved.

The university has been “very proactive” in promoting American Indian students and programs “given that Utah itself is predominantly male and white – minorities are underrepresented throughout the state,” she said.

Ceceilia Tso, AITEC coordinator and the College of Education Grants and contract officer, ties the former Native teacher training program’s demise to Brayboy’s departure. Because he was the administrator of the OIE grant and there was “no one to run the program” application to the OIE was not made in March 2008. It was not a question of withholding matching funds as some contended, she said.

The OIE later invited the university to apply because “they understood we were re-grouping” but Utah came in 12th on a list of 11 that were funded in the March 2009 applicant group. “We hope to get it – we’ll keep on applying until we do.”

Despite contrary assertions, Indian enrollment on campus seems to be holding, albeit at a fairly low level of less than one percent of the student body. University figures show Native student enrollment ranging upward from 49 in 1971 to 177 in 1994 and 1995, and then varying generally upward to about 200 in 2007 and 2008, after which it declines to 188 in 2009, a figure slightly lower than the 196 estimated by Judee.

Yazzie is back in Arizona, where she may prepare for the Law School Admission Test or taking classes at ASU. The coalition is working on a Web site for material “documenting issues of racist and hostile language, imagery and gestures occurring on university campuses (sports related or not),” that would offer the means to file complaints with civil

rights officials and others.

For its part, the university has “established a process to ensure a more comprehensive review process for applications to sell any merchandise on campus” after a large-nosed “Indian” caricature appeared on a T-shirt sold before a sports event – one of the coalition’s issues – and has taken other measures, the university’s public relations director said.