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Utah athletics: Student group asks U. to drop ties to Ute tribe

Published December 5, 2013 12:33 pm

Petition says school perpetuates "denigration and mockery" of Native Americans at football games, in tailgate lots.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Even though the Ute Indian tribe has given the University of Utah approval to use the Ute name and maintains it wants to continue its relationship with the university, pressure is building for the school to drop the name and its use of the drum and feather logo.

The university has so far dodged scrutiny because it has the support of the tribe. But that support might not be as strong as it once was.

University officials and tribal business leaders are negotiating an updated "Memorandum of Understanding" over the use of the name and symbols.

Once a mere formality, tribal leaders are demanding more.

According to a letter made public before the meeting, the Ute tribe is asking for the university to create an Office of the Special Advisor to the President on American Indian Affairs with a tribal member serving as adviser. The tribe also is asking for tuition waivers instead of scholarships for enrolled members of the tribe. The demands are born out of a belief the tribe would receive such benefits when the parties renewed a "Memorandum of Understanding" in 2005, which allows the university to continue its use of the Ute name and symbols.

According to the letter, the tribe continues to support the university's use of the logos, but it claims the school hasn't done enough to promote tribal human resources.

Following a Nov. 21 meeting between the two parties, a joint news release was issued that characterized the meeting as "fruitful and productive" and stated discussions would continue.

Valoree Dowell, with the University of Utah communications, declined to discuss the meeting further, stating the university will release the agreement once it is complete. Gordon Howell, the chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, did not respond to email and phone messages.

While the two sides are touting cohesiveness, there is growing momentum among the university's estimated 170 Native American students to end the alliance between the university and tribe.

A student group called the Indigenous Students and Allies for Change has started a petition asking the university to end the use of the Native American ties. The petition includes photos of people in Native American attire at university events and claims such acts perpetuate discrimination toward Native Americans.

"By allowing University of Utah students and fans to wear Native American headdresses, paint their faces red and 'play Indian,' throughout campus, at tailgating events and in the football stadium, the University of Utah is unilaterally allowing the denigration and mockery of Native American traditions, customs and religious symbols," the petition states.

Samantha Eldridge, an associate instructor in the political science department and co-chair of the group, started the petition and also expressed frustration her group wasn't represented in the meeting, as it requested.

"We respect tribal sovereignty and the relationship the Ute Tribe has with the University of Utah. However, we argue this is a student, human and civil rights issue," she said. "The drum and feather are religious and cultural symbols sacred to all tribes, and Native American students should not be subjected to its denigration or mockery."

Eldridge contends there was no student representation at the meeting, though Dowell said there was. Dowell said the university officials felt it was not their place to invite the group since the Ute Indian Tribal Leadership Committee organized the meeting, which was held at the Alta Club.

In a letter written to Eldridge by Ed Buendia, the associate vice president of equity and diversity, Utah's administration does want the group's help with a fan education campaign that will help educate fans about the history, culture and contributions of Native American groups from Utah.

While Eldridge indicated her group is open to such education, the group believes the ultimate solution is retiring the symbols.

"Since 2011, we have been meeting with the University of Utah administration to address our issues and concerns," Eldridge said in a statement. "We have provided testimonials and research to support the negative impacts resulting from the cultural appropriation of Native Americans. Meanwhile, the University of Utah has failed to set policies in place to prevent inappropriate behavior and dress. It is now two years later and we are still addressing the same issues and concerns, to no avail.

"It is clear that the insensitivity and misrepresentation of Native American students will continue as long as the University of Utah identifies itself with the drum and feather logo and Ute nickname."

lwodraska@sltrib.com