Robert Gehrke: Utah lawmakers shouldn’t defend disparaging depictions of Native Americans

Robert Gehrke

Last year, after a contentious process, amid chants of “Vote them out!” the Iron County School Board voted 3-2 to jettison the long-standing and racially insensitive “Redmen” mascot at Cedar City High School.

It came after emotional testimony from Native American students about the hostile treatment they had been subjected to and the sense that going to a school with a derogatory stereotype as its mascot just added insult to injury.

In response to that move, Cedar City Republican Rep. Rex Shipp is sponsoring a resolution in the upcoming session that would put the Legislature on record as supporting Native American names for schools and places and discourage changing them unless there is “consensus” among the affected people.

Shipp even suggested to my colleague Bethany Rodgers that the aforementioned school board should have polled the indigenous population, as well as the community at large, before making a decision.

“The reason the ‘Redmen’ name was originally assigned was ... to honor the Native Americans,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of them that felt like they didn’t want it changed. And so it was just a real divisive thing.”

These debates often are divisive. It’s like our hometown version of the Confederate monument wars of recent years.

Those fighting the change always end up — like Shipp did — decrying runaway “political correctness,” and I suppose if that includes extending common decency to our fellow human beings, they might have a point.

But I’m not sure you could find many Native Americans who feel like it’s an honor to be called a redman. It is really an archaic, derogatory term that doesn’t “honor” anyone and shouldn’t be used, much less put on a school.

Considering how many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now consider the term “Mormon” to be derogatory, you could imagine the outrage if a school wanted to use it as its mascot.

The school board made the right decision morally, whether or not it had a poll showing the backing of the majority white population.

I’m not suggesting that we need to just get rid of all of these mascots, because not all of them are created — or depicted — equal.

On one extreme you have clearly pejorative terms like “Redmen” or its NFL equivalent, the Washington Redskins, which feel like such throwbacks to a bygone era that they’re the kind of terms our racist grandparents might have used.

Then you’ve got those like the Cleveland Indians, a team I’ve liked since the early 1980s (and named, at least sort of, for Major League Baseball’s first Native American player), but would be fine if the team changed the name. And I desperately wish the team would just lose the grinning cartoonish Chief Wahoo.

And then you have the University of Utah Utes, a moniker used with the agreement of the tribe and a label that has evolved significantly over the years.

My uncle played football for the school back when it still went by the name “Redskins.” The school ditched that in 1972. When I was attending the university, it still had a Ute warrior ride out before games, but by the time I graduated that, too, had been discontinued — despite protests over the “political correctness” of it all from many students — and replaced with the current red-tailed hawk.

We campaigned hard to name the new hawk mascot “Garry,” but the school went with “Swoop,” which I still believe was a bad decision.

Somehow, the university has survived and thrived. Last October, I took my son to a football game, and during halftime probably 80 young Ute dancers (real Utes, not university students) were the halftime entertainment, in colorful beaded dresses and feathers.

They had to be freezing, but it was incredible to watch and, more importantly, showed appreciation from the school that is renting the tribe’s name.

Forrest Cuch, a member of the Ute Tribe and former state director of Indian Affairs, said the use of Native American mascots is “a complicated issue,” but he and most tribal members support the University of Utah using the name.

Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, tweeted last week that it is “really unbelievable” that a resolution like Shipp’s would be introduced, but he also recognizes that societal norms change over time.

A couple years ago, I wrote about the “Sham Battle” in Wellsville — a staged farce pitting the noble white settlers against “savages” in war paint on horseback whooping and pretending to attack a town.

It was a culturally tone-deaf relic going back decades, and the city, to its credit, opted to revamp with the help of Parry and the Shoshone tribe. It was the right decision because, generally speaking, we should be moving away from appropriating the culture of any group of people and using it for our own purposes.

It’s especially true when the representation is a revolting cultural slur — like Redmen. That movement toward decency will have plenty of people standing in the way who are unwilling to relinquish a warped sense of ownership. The state of Utah and the Legislature should not be among their ranks.