The Ute Indian Tribe has agreed to continue allowing sports teams at the University of the Utah to compete as “Utes” — though as part of an update to the longstanding deal, the school must educate all incoming students about the tribe.
The renewed contract, which was signed Tuesday, will hold for the next five years.
“This agreement renews our shared commitment to building genuine respect and understanding of our tribe’s history,” said Luke Duncan, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribal Business Committee, "as well as our goal to support our youth in pursuing their education.”
The U. has had a formal agreement with the tribe since 1972. In exchange for allowing the school’s athletic department to use its name, the university has supported scholarships for tribal members and agreed to support those students through graduation.
Even still, American Indians are the smallest ethnic group on campus with about 200 of the 33,000 students there.
The school also provides annual financial support to the tribe for K-12 education on the reservation in northeastern Utah. And it holds awareness events on campus about Native American culture and history.
The U. specifically launched the Ute Proud program to showcase those traditions during football and basketball games and gymnastics meets. During those events, members talk about their history and perform before attendees. They also teach fans about inappropriate behavior — such as wearing sacred regalia or red face paint — that dishonor the tribe and other Native American groups.
For the first time this year, the agreement will require the school to teach all first-year students about the tribe at freshmen orientation.
Duncan said with that new provision, he’s “pleased to continue” with the partnership.
The agreement comes at a time when schools and teams across the country are under fire to stop using Native American names and mascots, which are largely considered derogatory, stereotyped and racist. That includes a southern Utah high school that was recently pressured to change its controversial mascot, The Redmen.
Similarly, in 2005, the NCAA attempted to restrict the U.'s use of the Utes nickname, but the university appealed on the grounds that the name was appropriate, given that it had a good relationship with the tribe. The NCAA agreed.
The school first agreed to adopt the “Runnin’ Utes” name 48 years ago. Through the mid-1980s it continued to have a “Crimson Warrior” ride onto the field at football games and drive a spear into a hay bale. Years later, as part of the agreement with the tribe, it changed its mascot from an Indian to a hawk.
More recently, the U. has opted to use the “Block U” symbol more frequently than the drum and feather logo — or as the university calls it, the “circle and feather” — which is associated with the tribe. And it has faced some pushback from students over the tribal affiliation.
But the tribe said it stands by and supports the memorandum of understanding. And Mark Harlan, U. athletic director, said: “We’re honored to continue using the Ute name, and we acknowledge the special responsibility our athletes and fans bear to the Ute Indian Tribe.”