Luke Duncan: Those objecting to Utah nickname don’t speak for Ute Tribe

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune To celebrate the Ute Proud campaign, a partnership between the Ute tribe and the University of Utah, and Native American Heritage Month, members of the Ute tribe filled the basketball court in dance during halftime of the University of Utah and UC Riverside game, November 21, 2014, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

Last month, The Salt Lake Tribune ran a commentary titled, “Time for the U. to Give up its Native American Nickname.” The author, a University of Utah employee named Christopher Mead, argued that the University of Utah needs to stop using the name “Running Utes.”

Our business committee, the elected governing body of the Ute Indian Tribe, was incensed and deeply troubled when we read the piece. Mead’s approach in raising this issue on behalf of our tribe, and the implicit attitude of saving the Ute people from themselves, lacks common sense. It undermines tribal rights, it causes conflict between native and non-native communities, and it negates our ability as a sovereign nation to make appropriate decisions for our people.

The Ute Indian Tribe is a major economic engine in northeastern Utah. We work closely with the state, local governments, and major institutions to address long-standing issues that range from preservation of cultural and environment resources to responsible energy development. These relationships are valuable to us, and an op-ed like Mead’s has a devastating impact on them, and on the trust we have built over many years.

Let us be clear. Only the Ute Indian Tribe can speak for itself. And regarding the matter at hand, the Ute Indian Tribe encourages the University of Utah to use our name for its sports programs.

Our tribe drafted the Athletics Naming Agreement, and the university has used the Ute name with our full support since 1972. In fact, we just renewed our memorandum of understanding in December for another five years, and we retain trademark rights to the Ute Proud name and imagery.

The relationship between the Ute Indian Tribe and the University of Utah is a long and valued one, and it’s a source of pride to our tribal members. Not only does it reflect our shared commitment to building genuine respect for and understanding of our tribe’s history, it also has significant educational benefits for our youth.

In a key part of the agreement, the university provides a Ute Proud education campaign (http://uteproud.utah.edu/) during the football, basketball, and gymnastics seasons. This campaign explains Ute Indian history and the Ute Indian Tribe’s cultural and economic contributions to the state.

The campaign also provides a code of conduct that educates sports fans about inappropriate behaviors that dishonor the Ute and other Native American populations. The Ute Indian Tribe assigns a tribal representative to work with the university to develop and approve all campaign elements.

Our tribe is well aware that this association with the University of Utah‚ the flagship institution of higher learning in our state — raises tribal visibility and community awareness. Once a year, the university’s halftime show incorporates a traditional powwow with appropriate and approved cultural tie-ins, providing a valuable opportunity to educate and promote understanding.

In addition, the university supports campus events to raise awareness of American Indian cultures, from the annual campus powwow to Native American Month. It has added educational materials about the Ute Indian Tribe to first-year student orientation, and it’s making those materials available through its American Indian Resource Center as well.

This is important to us, after enduring the devastating termination and assimilation policies of the last century. We will not be invisible, or erased.

What’s more, the University of Utah actively supports Ute Indian students and other federally recognized American Indian students who are attending the university, and it provides annual financial support to the Ute Indian Tribe to enhance K-12 education on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

The University of Utah recognizes that the Ute name is at the core of our tribe’s cultural identity and that of our members, and it constitutes an inseparable element of our rich cultural traditions. The university also has consistently expressed its honor in being allowed to use the Ute name with due respect and integrity.

We are a sovereign nation with an absolute right to self-determination. The Athletics Naming Agreement was ours to make, and it’s grounded in mutual respect. We will not accept efforts of non-natives, who do not know the history or understand the work we have done, calling for its demise.

Luke Duncan

Luke Duncan is the chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, the governing body of the Ute Indian Tribe. The tribe is made up of three bands: the Uintah, the Whiteriver and the Uncompahgre; two representatives from each band are elected to serve four-year terms on the Business Committee. The tribe’s Uintah and Ouray Reservation is located in northeastern Utah, approximately 150 miles east of Salt Lake City. It’s the second-largest Indian reservation in the United States, covering more than 4.5 million acres.