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Native student protest has diverse roots and reasons

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SALT LAKE CITY – Charges and countercharges of hostility and misunderstanding have fueled a long-standing controversy that erupted Dec. 4 when a group of Native students confronted the University of Utah to call for an investigation into policies affecting them.

The protest march was peaceful and, while no university officials spoke to the group, Michael Young, University of Utah president, was asked – unsuccessfully – to meet about issues highlighted at the protest, said Deb Yazzie, head of the Coalition to Protect American Indian Education Rights.

“The purpose of this protest is 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,” the coalition’s prepared statement read.

Asked to elaborate on the group’s concerns, Yazzie said the University of Utah uses the “Ute” nickname and has the red-tailed hawk as a mascot, “but the community and the university have not embraced that – people still wear feathers and paint and do the ‘tomahawk chop.’”

The many-faceted sense of outrage appears to center only in part on the “Ute” name as used by the university. Other key issues have included a T-shirt offensive to students, a controversial sign displayed during a volleyball game at nearby Brigham Young University and the termination of an American Indian teacher-training program.

The NCAA in 2005 exempted the University of Utah from its ban on Indian mascots because the university had an agreement on use of the “Ute” name with the Northern Ute tribe, headquartered in Fort Duchesne, Utah. The student coalition contends there were promises from the university to the Northern Ute tribe “to help Ute students get college educations in exchange for the continued use of the ‘Ute’ nickname,” but the university has denied there were agreements for specific services or programs.

Coalition members objected to a T-shirt sold on campus Nov. 6 depicting a headdress and moccasin-wearing, bare-chested man with a large nose, presumably representing the University of Utah “Runnin’ Utes,” roasting a representation of a horned frog, the mascot of an opposing team, Texas Christian University, before a football game. The horned frog was also said to be sacred to some indigenous peoples. The non-student vendors and the university later apologized.

In a similar incident, a university web page displayed a shirtless white man in a student cheering section wearing a blue headdress and paint on his cheeks, said Earl Clegg, campus bookstore director. Although the students connected the web page to the bookstore, the offensive depiction was on the university’s licensing web page until it was taken down in November, he said.

The coalition also targeted a display of offensive messages by a fan on a dry erase board during a volleyball game in 2007 at BYU in Provo, Utah. The messages said “Back to the Rez 4 U” and “Trail of Tears Part II” in reference to the rival “Ute” team. Apologies were issued, but no action was taken against the individual fan because BYU did not determine who she was.

Finally, the university’s decision to end a popular American Indian teacher training and math/science program was a key element in the recent student unrest.

In 2007, the university signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Towaoc, Colo. and White Mesa, Utah, for an American Indian teacher training program under which the university agreed to actively recruit qualified Native students, provide counseling and other support systems and work toward employment for graduates. The Utes agreed to recruit, publicize and assist in the program and to advise the university.

The university subsequently announced that about $2 million in grants had been received from the U.S. Office of Indian Education to prepare math and science teachers and to enable teacher aides to become certified teachers. The latter was in part a program coordinated with schools in Kayenta, Ariz. on the Navajo Nation.

But a year after the grant announcement, the program was dropped, for reasons that vary according to the source. The university’s official position is that the $1.5 million it would have had to provide in matching funds would have come from state money appropriated for “instructional services and programs for students university-wide.”

It “would have been inappropriate to divert these monies, especially to programs outside the state of Utah,” the statement said.

Prof. Bryan Brayboy, Lumbee, who headed the program, left the university in August 2007 because, “it was clear to me that my own ideology about the work we were doing wasn’t compatible with the university’s ideologies about meeting the needs of Native students and communities. I didn’t feel supported in my position.”

The AITTP “was always about ‘we,’ not ‘I’ and that doesn’t always play well with these institutions, but you’re not able to talk back.”

Octavio Villalpando, the university’s assistant vice president for equity and diversity, said the issue is not one of control, but rather one of “sustainability,” because the American Indian teachers’ program, now under the College of Education with full-time faculty and support staff, is a sustainable program that does not rely on federal grants that might not be renewed.

In terms of overall funding administered by the university he said, “we treat American Indian students like all other under-represented communities,” citing students of color; women in certain fields of study; gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, and “especially first-generation” students in those target groups.

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