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The University of Utah Utes: Working Toward Understanding

The University of Utah and the Ute Indian Tribe are working on a Memorandum of Understanding to come to terms on the Ute mascot and logo.

In 2011, David W. Pershing, president of the University of Utah, promised the Indigenous Students and Allies for Change (ISAFC) he would slowly phase out the team name Ute as well as the feather and drum logo. But ISAFC co-chair Samantha Eldridge, Navaho, said Pershing changed his mind once the Ute Indian Tribe called for a Memorandum of Understanding.

Phil Chimburas, a council member of the Ute Tribe in Fort Duquesne, Utah, said it was too soon to discuss the MOU. “We are still in negotiation,” he said.

But Forrest Cuche, Ute elder, cultural advisor, and Utah’s former Director of Indian Affairs—a position he held for 13 years—said the MOU could include scholarships for Ute students and an educational plan. While the MOU is not expected to call for retirement of the name or logo, Cuche is in agreement with Ethridge that fan behavior must be addressed.

For Cuche, removing the drum and feather logo and team name “Utes” would be wrong. “I am totally against the name Redskin,” he said. “But we are clinging to the name because we are otherwise invisible in this state.”

“We are ignored as a culture and as a presence,” Cuche said, fearing that removing the tribal references will remove the Ute tribe from the public’s view entirely. “We want an education program that will instruct the university on the customs, culture, and history of the Ute people. They need factual information about Indian people today. We don't want to be depicted as dead and gone, and we also want to be reflected in the museum.”

Indigenous Students and Allies for Change

T-shirts saying Ute-aholics and feathers and drums on underwear are the ultimate in disrespect for Native students.

Eldridge said the fan behavior at games is so disgraceful it is impossible for Natives to attend sporting events. “They used to put the drum and feather on underwear. T-shirts have Ute-aholics written on them. Students paint their face red and wear headdresses. The whooping, the hollering and tomahawk, at every game you will find someone like this.”

Indigenous Students and Allies for Change

T-shirts saying Ute-aholics and feathers and drums on underwear are the ultimate in disrespect for Native students.

When the student group met with the university’s president, they were told to develop an education program to prepare the school for the retirement of the logo. “We put together a power point presentation with our traditions and research to raise awareness, and the university was going to phase out the drum and feather merchandise. We did our part and presented to student groups and community members, the football team, and Board of Trustees,” Eldridge said.

The group also presented at the National Indian Education Conference in Oklahoma in 2012, and at Haskell University’s Empowerment Summit. They brought in Dennis Banks and the 1491s, a sketch comedy group from Minnesota and Oklahoma.

By 2013, the students realized they had not seen any change in the logo and contacted the president. “They told us they were keeping the logo, and that ‘you just need to do what you are going to do,’” Eldridge said. “He was stringing us along.”

Indigenous Students and Allies for Change

Fan behavior at the University of Utah games frequently includes disrespectful representations of sacred objects.

“That’s when we drafted the petition, not just locally but nationally.” Eldridge managed to get more than 700 signatures that called for the retirement of the logo.

RELATED: Petition to Change University of Utah 'Ute' Nickname on

According to Valoree Dowell, a communications specialist in the University of Utah’s Marketing/Communications Office, “Negotiations for an MOU between the school and the tribe would permit the use of the name. Conversations between the tribe and school are going well,” she said. “We are negotiating for use of the Ute name and the tribe is supportive about it. It’s an ongoing process.”

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When asked how the school feels about the behavior of the fans at games, Dowell said, “Fan behavior is important to the school in general.”

Indigenous Students and Allies for Change

Students dress up in face paint and headdresses and can be seen at every game.

Eldridge is frustrated by the lack of communication between the student group and the tribe. “A lot of their community members don’t go to these games, and they are not in there and seeing what’s going on. Our students feel threatened, and in trying to educate the students, they (mainstream students) felt threatened. They feel ownership and it’s such a strong tradition, they don’t understand how they are appropriating our culture.”

The ISAFC feels that change will be difficult for the school and students. “This has been going on since the University of Utah teams were referred to as the Redskins, and it is something our students have always dealt with. We have seen how things can escalate. Rather than see something happen to our students, we avoid the games altogether,” Eldridge said.

Indigenous Students and Allies for Change

Fan behavior at the University of Utah games frequently includes disrespectful representations of sacred objects.

Monique Thacker, MaCaw from Washington State, PHD program at the university, agrees. “The Utes became the official name in the 1970s,” she said, noting that the previous mascot was named Ho Yo, and had an oversized head and nose, with his tongue hanging out. “He was put into place in 1947, voted in by the student body,” Thacker said.

Originally, Thacker, who has fought team names and logos before, didn’t want to apply to the school because of the mascot issue. “But I loved the program and they offered me a government scholarship and have paid for my tuition.”

The University of Utah website states there are more than 30,000 students and the student group claims only 175 Native students, only four of whom are Utes. Thacker said speaking out about the logo is difficult. “You become a target,” she said. “And it is not just one tribe this effects. When the other schools have signs ‘Back to the reservation for you’, I find that very offensive. I belong here just as much as any other student does, and I want to represent myself as a Native American woman not as an Indian representation at games. To see them throw up a teepee and tailgate with a case of beer is so demeaning.”

Indigenous Students and Allies for Change

The misrepresentation of sacred feathers, drums, headdresses and more makes Native students so uncomfortable, many avoid going to the games.

A university employee, who asked to remain anonymous, and is Navaho said, “I think it’s a good school, but regarding the mascot and logo, and the day to day stereotypes, it’s hard for me to see.”

“I cannot take my kids to those games,” she said. “Or they will think that’s what our culture is. We are thriving and professionals, we are not an image. I think the kids would think their culture is being made fun of, all that whooping and hollering, and wearing sacred regalia.”

“There has never been an attempt to curb the fans and it is our hope to put some process in place to curb that,” Cuche said. “I am offended by that myself, but this is an opportunity to promote education. We desire the visibility.”

Cuche said the draft MOU being considered seeks to include an Indian advisor to the president, a scholarship program, and to build more of a relationship with the university.

According to Cuche, activists in the 1970s sought to have the name and logo changed, but when they saw the tribal resolution supported the name and logo, they backed off. In his opinion, “this generation has no respect for tribal sovereignty.”

“Central Michigan has an MOU that addresses offensive behavior and the university has said they will address these behaviors in the future. We are behind times in our state and we are having to learn from other tribes.”