Christopher Mead: Time for the U. to give up its Native American nickname

In recent weeks, America has opened a new, important and potentially transformative chapter. More and more Americans are demonstrating their willingness to stand up (and kneel down) in recognition that Black Lives Matter.

The changes we need to make are systemic. Powerful forms of change are needed because the roots of American racism are deep, stretching back to and beyond the founding of this nation and rooted in the enslavement of over 12 million African people. We see the effects of this ongoing history daily, in the form of housing and health disparities, unjust educational and vocational outcomes and the mass incarceration of black men.

Hand in hand with this sad history is another: that of the marginalization and mass killing of the peoples who inhabited this land before it was called America. Native peoples have also suffered terribly from white supremacy. Numbering some 10 million prior to contact, their total population was reduced to less than 300,000 at the turn of the 20th century. The narrative since then has been scarcely more encouraging. While the story of America’s first peoples over the past 100 years has been one of accomplishment, patriotism and remarkable resilience, we must recognize that this history is overlaid by a national culture of ongoing neglect. Reparations are owed Native Americans, and this work can begin close to home.

In Utah, at least one Native American name is known by nearly everyone — that of the Ute tribe, namesake to the state and the University of Utah’s Running Utes. Marketed by the university as an example of cultural appreciation and understanding, this association has a history that reveals its problematic basis.

The university’s questionable relationship to Ute culture goes back to the 1920s. As historians such as Danielle Endres have described, prior to the mid-1920s, athletics teams played as the “the Crimson.” In the years that followed, “Utes” and “Redskins” nicknames became the norm. In the 1940s, a mascot of a Native American child named “Ho-Yo” was introduced, and in the 1950s and 1960s, it was common for students to attend games dressed in “war paint” and feathers.

The subsequent history reveals an attempt to sanitize both this overtly racist past and the ongoing exploitation of the Ute people for sports marketing purposes. In 1978, the “Ho-Yo” mascot was retired, along with the “Redskins” nickname. In 1985, a new mascot was introduced — the “Crimson Warrior,” a figure dressed in what was then claimed to be authentic Ute regalia. Responding to pressure from the Intertribal Student Association and other Native American students on campus, in 1996 the university introduced Swoop, a red-tailed hawk that serves as the current mascot.

So might seem to end the history of the university’s racist use of the Ute name and imagery. The university now places “displaying stereotypical Native American imagery or symbols” on its list of unacceptable fan behaviors and, to some observers, the “drum and feather” iconography appears far less problematic than the branding of organizations such as the Washington Redskins. The university, moreover, has entered into a formal agreement with the Ute Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation — one that they claim benefits both the university and the tribe. The U. is able to continue to use branding that has long been popular with fans, and the tribe benefits from increased visibility and a $100,000 annual payment.

Defenders of the university’s current practices suggest that the university’s use is respectful and proceeds with the full support of the Ute people. In fact, the continued use of the “drum and feather” imagery relegates sacred symbols to crass commercial display. One need only think of how inapposite many people would find jerseys emblazoned with images of Jesus or the Angel Moroni to see how this is so.

Apologists also paper over the fact that the arrangement is with only one of the three tribes that claim the Ute name. Too many people are unaware that the “Ute Tribe” in fact encompasses three tribal reservations — Uintah-Ouray, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain. The memo of understanding is between the university and the people who live on the Uintah-Ouray reservation.

On a more fundamental level, however, the reciprocal arrangement is unjust by its very nature. One way of thinking about the agreement foregrounds the issue of consent. Even if all Ute people strongly supported the agreement (and it is worth noting they do not), the agreement would still represent the exploitation of a less powerful party by a more powerful one.

Another and more promising way of thinking foregrounds the possibility of reparations. While the Utes have an absolute right to self-determine, this does not absolve the university of its reparative responsibility to dismantle its racist and instrumental use of their name and imagery.

The question, in other words, is whether the university ought to do what is right or merely what is required in order to receive consent. Given a long history of exploitation and ridicule, is it right for the university to ask anything of the Ute people at all?

I would like to suggest that it is not. Justice for the Ute people will not be found in a quid pro quo marketing agreement that costs the university little while earning it millions. Justice must rather begin with the recognition of an historic wrong and a debt owed. The university by itself cannot undo our national history, but it can act in reparative ways to begin to right its own racist practices.

This work must begin with an immediate end to the use of the Ute name and imagery by university sports teams as part of a money-making enterprise. This change must not mark the end of the university’s support of the Ute people but rather should be its true beginning. In Fall 2019, only 0.4% of the university’s undergraduates identified as American Indian (of any nation). I can think of no better way for the University of Utah to testify to the strength of a new and expanded commitment than by covering full tuition and housing costs for any Ute who wishes to attend classes. Furthermore, it should support that monetary promise with a moral one that works to make the campus into a place that truly facilitates the success of students who rarely have access to higher education.

The call I am making is not new and has received periodic expression in the pages of this newspaper. In this moment of national reckoning, however, this issue has renewed urgency. If the administration of the university does not act now, when will it? As the nation comes to face its past in new ways, will the University of Utah do the same, or will it continue an exploitative arrangement for fear of losing money and angering sports fans who might not be aware of the problematic history they are participating in?

This is far from the only issue of racial justice that faces the university, which has much work to do in addressing the influence of white supremacy across its operations. Black students, staff and faculty deserve a transformed experience, and this work must begin immediately and in earnest. For many of us who care about the University of Utah and are invested in it, the university’s exploitation of the Ute people represents a particularly blatant and public form of institutional racism. It is also a form of racism in which the university’s agency is clear.

Ending the use of the Ute nickname would signal seriousness, promise to improve the university’s reputation and stand simply and most importantly as the right thing to do.

Christopher Mead

Christopher Mead lives in Salt Lake City and is an employee of the University of Utah. These views are his own and not necessarily those of the university.