Native Village Youth and Education News
January 1, 2009 Issue 193 Volume 4

Students protest, say Ute nickname breeding racism

Salt Lake City, Utah: Shouting chants of "We want scholarships!" and "Pay the bill, Chris Hill!" the 14 students marched through the University of Utah campus Thursday to protest what they allege is the U.'s lackluster support of American Indian students while its athletic programs benefit from the Ute name.

Hill is the school's athletic director.

"Too many of us question the motives of the university," said Joel Arvizo, a doctoral student of Navajo and Chicano descent, speaking through an electric bullhorn. "The U. has treated us with cold indifference for far too long."

But Octavio Villalpando, the U.'s associate vice president for diversity, rejects such charges. "In its 150 year history, the U. has never invested as many human and financial resources in its support of the Native American community, students and faculty," Villalpando said.

While debate over the school's trademarked use of the words "Ute" and "Runnin' Utes" and its use of American Indian imagery, including the drum-and-feathers logo, isn't new, protesters were irate over several recent events. They were unhappy that the U. gave up $2.1 million in federal grant money marked for teacher training programs for American Indian students last spring.

Last month, vendors hawked T-shirts before the U. football game against Texas Christian University that depicted a large-nosed American Indian roasting the TCU mascot of a horned frog, an animal revered by Utes and other American Indians. BYU students displayed posters reading "back to the reservation" and the "Trail of Tears" during a women's volleyball match, while some fans attending the U.-BYU football game dressed in war paint and headdresses.

Such incidents, they say, demonstrate how the Ute trademark invites ridicule and disrespect from fellow students and breeds mockery and racism at athletic events.

Not all students of native background share the protesters' anger and disappointment. "I know some American Indian students are uncomfortable about being singled out in discussion of these issues," said Lena Judee, program coordinator for American Indians in the U.'s Center for Ethnic Student Affairs and a Navajo tribal member.

And there are questions about what the university can and should do to help American Indian students in light of a 2003 Supreme Court decision barring universities from awarding financial assistance based on race. At the same time, a memorandum of understanding between the Northern Ute Indian Tribe and the U. seeks cooperative programs in exchange for use of the Ute trademark. While not legally binding, the matriculation of more Utes and other American Indians, as well as "educational programs that accelerate the development of ... tribal human resources," are mentioned in the memo.

While the university regretted giving up the $2.1 million in federal grants, it could not afford to provide $1.5 million in matching funds for 10 students as required to keep the federal money. Instead a director of American Indian teacher education in the college of education was hired to affirm the U.'s commitment to graduating more American Indian educators.

"It made far more sense to us to invest in that goal through those means, rather than rely on federal money that comes and goes," said Villalpando. He also noted the U.'s recent American Indian faculty hire in the department of ethnic studies, along with plans for another in fall 2010.

Villalpando said the U. has revised its vendor approval process in the wake of the T-shirt incident. He also wrote a public letter of apology to the American Indian community, expressing the university's "collective repudiation of this racist depiction."

The university abandoned its "Crimson Warrior" mascot in 1995 and replaced it with the red-tailed hawk "Swoop." And U. spokeswoman Coralie Alder said the drum-and-feathers logo is being phased out in favor of the U block. "We know there are some Native American students who don't like the use of this name and imagery but we have permission from the governing body of the Northern Ute tribe. We're listening to students' concerns and doing our best to raise sensitivities."

Arvizo said the agreement between the U. and the Northern Ute tribe over the trademark ignores the disrespect American Indian students endure because of its use. "We are trying to bring to light the multiple realities of the Ute trademark," said Arvizo, who wants it discontinued.

Other protesters said it's time the U. either dispense with the Ute trademark or make good on the memorandum. Amie Hammond, a Ute tribal member from Colorado who joined in Thursday's protest, said the issue of the Ute trademark may be more sensitive to American Indian students from reservations than more urbanized students, she said. "I'm almost scared to say anything about that, because I could offend people. But it's like seeing your culture used as a cartoon."

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