By Jacob Rueda
The term “Ute” has become synonymous with the University of Utah. Names such as “Utes,” “redskins,” and “redskin braves” have been associated with the university sports teams in some manner or another. Most of those names have been dropped except for “Ute,” a name that is almost always associated with football.
In reality, the actual Utes are barely recognized by students and fans of the university’s sports teams alike. The tribe itself struggles to find acknowledgement in a world that cares more about use than consequence.
The University of Utah was established in 1850. It started using the Ute identity beginning in the 1920s, according to Utes Nickname Project website. The school received permission to use the “Ute” identity from one of the three recognized Ute Tribes, the Northern Ute Nation.
The other two nations, the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Tribes, did not grant permission to the school to use their name.
The Ute tribe has inhabited the area for over ten thousand years. The university has made efforts throughout its history to bridge relations with the Ute Tribe, albeit somewhat clumsily at times.
The Daily Utah Chronicle reported in October 1951 that the U.S. Supreme Court awarded $17,000,000 (equal to $167,880,884.62 in 2019 money) in an effort to appease the Uintah-Ouray reservation and for “furthering educational standards of the people.” Eleven young people between the ages of 17 and 19 were selected and interviewed for acceptance into the university.
At the time the university used a mascot called Hoyo, a cartoonish Native American child. The Chronicle absent-mindedly reported in that issue that the acceptance of native peoples at the university meant Hoyo “will at last have some country cousins on campus to urge him on to greater activity.”
Letters to the Editor in an April 1970 issue of the Chronicle acknowledged the “Ute” identity as a sign of strength, vitality, and “a source of pride.” While other students found the university’s mascots racist, others believed those who found them offensive were reading too much into things.
In April 1972, the issue was addressed again in the Chronicle. The concern over the use of native people’s image in college sports was growing nationwide. According to the article, tribes were suing universities for appropriating names and images alike.
There was some reconciliation later on, at least from the Chronicle itself. In 1987, the paper decided to distinguish when it referred to the Ute Tribe and when it referred to the school by using quotations marks when referencing the school. That practice has since been abandoned.
April 2014 saw the University of Utah signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ute Tribe. The memorandum is a five-year agreement where the university is allowed to use the name of the tribe on a conditional basis.
Among the conditions, the university is to include in its campus programs a member of the tribe who was not a student. The purpose of that is to “enhance Native American perspectives,” writes author Larry Gerlach in the summer 2017 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly.
Other conditions to use the name include a tribe-approved Native American advisor, a special advisor to Native American affairs, a full-time advisor on the reservation for high school students to attend college, and financial aid and scholarships for Native American students.
The debate over the name came up once more in the Chronicle on August 2016. This time, it was about doing away with the “Ute” nickname altogether. The article deemed the nickname “culturally insensitive” when referring to the school. Two sides, one for and one against, argued their points much like Letters to the Editor did 46 years earlier.
The Chronicle reported in September 2019 efforts by the Housing and Residential Office and Social Justice Advocates to educate dorm residents and advisors on moving away from using familiar symbols and replacing them. They also suggested using the phrase “Go Utah” instead of “Go Utes.” To date, none of these transitions have been implemented.
According to Gerlach in his article for the Quarterly, the National Collegiate Athletic Association declared that starting February 1, 2006, “institutions with hostile or abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery” were prohibited from hosting championship games or displaying their mascots in jerseys and uniforms during championship tournaments.
Despite these regulations, the University of Utah was permitted to keep the classic drum and feather logo. Students at the school continue to debate its use.
Controversy surrounding the use of Native American symbols and names has plagued professional, high school and college teams alike. For example, the Washington Redskins continue to stir up controversy with their name and logo.
The situation with the Redskins is similar to that of the University of Utah with the drum and feather logo and the name “Utes.” Most fans support the team name and logo while others support changing the name and image of the teams altogether.
The situation got more complicated in Cedar High School in Cedar City, a small town in the southwestern corner of Utah. The mascot “Redman” had started to raise the ire of some members of the Paiute community.
In a Salt Lake Tribune article from January 2019, various members of the Paiute community expressed personal conflict when it came to supporting the mascot for Cedar High School. Opinions were split; some supported it while others didn’t. The support came at a price for some and questioned whether such support was warranted in the face of communal backlash.
Since that time, the school opted to change the mascot. Google docs published in the school’s website say a committee of “students, faculty, staff, and alumni” moved forward with changing the identity and mascot of the school. They are now known as “Reds” and the mascot is a wolf.
Unlike Cedar High School, the University of Utah does not have even a sizeable population of Native peoples. Therefore, it cannot and likely will not form any sort of committee with the kind of influence that impacted Cedar High School to evolve away from its former mascot.
Also, changing mascots for the university will not have the same significance as it did for Cedar High School. A school with a high non-native population that moves from using a Native American symbol cannot appreciate the significance of that like a school with a high Native American population.
Regardless, there is still a strong sense of pride for fans who identify as “Utes.” It has not waned in the slightest despite objections from individuals who feel the identity of “Utes” should not be commercialized or casually used.
Despite the clamor to respect Native Americans and protect the image of the Ute Tribe, statistics from the Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis at the university say Native Americans accounted for 0% of first time freshmen, undergraduate or graduate students in 2018.
To date, there has been no inquiry on the tribe’s views of the name or how their image is appropriated and used by the University of Utah today.
Since the Memorandum of Understanding between the school and the Ute Mountain Tribe in 2014, there have been no formal documented objections from either side over the agreement.
How the Utes intend to proceed with their relationship with the university after all that has transpired remains to be seen.
Jacob Rueda is a junior majoring in communication with an emphasis in journalism at the University of Utah.
Connor Richards, “Debate: Should Utah Ditch The ‘Ute’ Nickname?” The Daily Utah Chronicle, August 29, 2016.
“Indian Youths Enter U on Tribal Grant,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, October 9, 1951, 1.
Craig Glover, “Letters to the Editor: Seriously?,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, April 24, 1970, 1.
“Indians See Red, Hide Skins to Ute,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, April 19, 1972, 2.
“Memorandum of Understanding between the Ute Indian Tribe and the University of Utah,” April 2014.
Martin Raybould, “Letters: Bring ‘Ute’ Back into Football,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, November 13, 1984.
Natalie Colby, “Appropriation or Appreciation? Social Justice Advocates Host ‘Utah Fan Am I,’” The Daily Utah Chronicle, September 26, 2019.
“New Policy Distinguishes ‘Utes,’” The Daily Utah Chronicle, October 1, 1987.
Erin Alberty, “Is a ‘Redmen’ mascot racist or does it honor Native Americans? The debate is dividing a southern Utah town,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 13, 2019.
The Utes Nickname Project, Communication Institute, The University of Utah.
Gerlach, Larry R. “Appropriation and Accommodation: The University of Utah and the Utes.” Utah Historical Quarterly 85, no.3 (Summer 2017): 204-223.