For generations, the men in A.J. Kanip’s family have led Ute Indians in song during social gatherings and sacred ceremonies, marking the rhythm of births and deaths and the occasions in between. At the official powwow grounds in Fort Duchesne, on the tribe’s Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah, Kanip is at first reluctant to provide a sample of song in lieu of an actual ceremony. Then, in the quiet of the empty grounds on a hot summer day, a soulful song emerges from Kanip and his drum.
When asked later what it might signify to attach a feather to that drum, Kanip says: “It’s complicated.” It would take an afternoon to explain the meaning and significance in American Indian culture, he says, but the short version is that feathers help “complete” a ceremony, during which dancers wearing them are expressing themselves to the “creator,” who uses birds as a means of carrying songs and prayers between heaven and earth.
Kanip heads over to his car at the powwow grounds and retrieves an eagle feather someone once gave him. He keeps it pressed between two pieces of cardboard. He offers to tie the feather to his round hand drum. When he has finished, the feather hangs over the left side of the drum. “A drum is considered the heartbeat of the people,” Kanip says. “The sound it makes is the sound of the heart.”
As he stands back from the drum and feather, the resemblance to a certain logo becomes uncanny. The University of Utah in 1975 patterned its popular drum and feather logo after just that sort of Ute drum. The logo, along with the Ute nickname used by U athletics teams, is among the last of Native American names, traditions, and imagery being used, at least so prominently, by colleges across the country. Now that the U is a member of the Pac-12, even more focus has been aimed on all aspects of Utah’s flagship institution and has revived the question of whether the U should retire its Ute name and logo.
Rumors of an imminent logo and name change at the end of last year flared up in local media reports but were quickly doused by U administrators, including Chris Hill, who has been the U’s athletics director for the past 25 years. “At the end of the day, none of us wants to be in a position where we’re causing harm or a lack of respect to the American Indian population—that’s first and foremost,” says Hill.
The Athletics Department is open to change “for what is right,” he says, and the logo in particular has been more of a “lightning rod” issue than he ever imagined, with strong opinions on both sides. Personally, he is “somewhat uncomfortable” with the present logo, given the sensitivity to all tribes. “I feel comfortable making sure the Block U is in many places also,” he says of the Athletics Department’s other logo. People can see both logos as fixtures around campus, including at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Those who believe the Ute name and drum and feather logo are a gateway to abuse by non-Native Americans say change is overdue. In 2005, the NCAA called for 18 colleges nationwide to abandon their long-held practices of using American Indian names and imagery to promote athletics. Institutions that failed to comply risked NCAA penalties that would prevent them from playing host to postseason tournaments and would forbid them from wearing Indian logos or nicknames during postseason play. Many institutions complied with the NCAA’s request. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s dancing Chief Illiniwek took a permanent seat in 2007 after an 81-year-old tradition at that school. The Arkansas State University Indians became the Red Wolves in 2008. Indiana University of Pennsylvania traded its Indians nickname for Crimson Hawks.
But other institutions persisted. Bradley University convinced the NCAA to allow it to continue using the Braves nickname. The University of North Dakota sued the NCAA in 2006 to keep the controversial Fighting Sioux nickname after the association threatened sanctions. After more legal action and even a voter referendum, the university now plans to dump the nickname. The fight rages on, though, as the supporters say they’re working to gather signatures to petition for a state constitutional amendment to keep it.
The University of Utah, meanwhile, was among three institutions that quickly persuaded the NCAA back in 2005 to allow them to keep their Indian nicknames. Central Michigan University, Florida State University, and the University of Utah convinced the NCAA to remove them from the list by showing that their namesake tribes—the Chippewa, Seminoles, and Utes—supported their nicknames. So the Ute name and image of a drum with eagle feathers attached to it live on at the University of Utah. Reverence for the name and the symbol doesn’t always translate across cultures, though. Incidents when abuse rears its ugly head might be rare, according to those who support the Ute name and logo, but those incidents also are evidence to others who feel justified in saying the U needs to change.
U Associate Vice President of Equity and Diversity Octavio Villalpando tells a story of a young Native American student who last year spotted a teepee in a tailgate lot on a day the Utah football team was playing. Villalpando says she stopped to check it out, believing it might be a new location for a Native American blessing that she was on her way to witness at the campus American Indian Resource Center, where she thought she was supposed to go. But her accidental detour was anything but a blessing. She instead saw a “completely, completely inebriated man” who was dressed as a Native American, marching around and doing his “Indian holler,” says Villalpando.
The woman approached the man. “He told her that he wanted to make sure that the University better understood its native roots and that he was doing this to bring attention to that,” Villalpando says. The scene brought tears to the woman’s eyes. She complained that day to a gate official at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but the man’s First Amendment rights prevailed, according to Villalpando.
It’s not just one incident that has Villalpando concerned about the nickname and logo. “I would call it a concern that is routinely expressed by current members of the University community, including faculty, students, and staff, and the external community,” he says. “People will ask routinely, ‘When are we going to remove the drum and feather logo?’ ” It’s a concern also raised by faculty who are considering a position at the University, he says. “The question is not just one of whether the Ute Tribe is offended or not,” Villalpando says. “The other question is how the symbols are offensive to people beyond the Ute Tribe. So, it’s a larger question, I would propose.”
Utah athletics fan Randy Lewis, who attended the U in the late 1970s, says he later heard about the teepee incident, and he believes the man in question is in a “tiny minority” of people who occasionally bring shame to the University’s nickname and logo. “I felt sickened and horrible about it for her,” Lewis says, adding that he will confront anyone he sees abusing Native American imagery or traditions. He not only wants to see the Ute name and logo stay, he’d also like U officials to meet with Ute tribal leaders and come up with a way to incorporate the tribe into the U’s athletic tradition in a manner that would be positive.
Even before the NCAA issued its rules, some institutions—including the University of Utah—had begun to move away from offensive nicknames and traditions. By the mid-1970s, the U had stopped using the nickname Redskins and became the Utes. The official logo became the drum and feather. The Crimson Warrior, a man in Native American garb who rode a horse into the football stadium, was retired in the 1980s, when Ted Capener was vice president of institutional advancement. “I had groups of young Native American students in my office who sometimes had tears in their eyes,” Capener recalls of the situation leading up to the warrior’s retirement. Swoop, a red-tailed hawk, became the official mascot in 1996.
“There are no plans at present to discontinue use of the Ute name,” says Fred Esplin, the U’s vice president of institutional advancement. The same is true of the logo. “It is beloved greatly by U athletics fans,” Esplin says. But he says he realizes that the name and logo are a “concern” to some Native Americans.
Danielle Endres, a U associate professor of communications, can back up that point with her own academic research. “I did discover that many of the Native Americans on campus are uncomfortable with the nickname,” says Endres, who specializes in Native American rhetoric and activism. “They generally expressed that it kind of created a hostile environment on campus.”
Other American Indians, though, including Forrest Cuch, chief executive officer of Ute Tribal Enterprises, say that the use of mascots and logos bearing their names brings more awareness of their tribes. One thing American Indians find worse than having their imagery and traditions abused is being ignored, he says, and he thinks the University’s use of the Ute name and logo should remain. “My position is that there’s nothing wrong with it, so nothing needs to be fixed,” says Cuch, who was the state’s Indian Affairs director until last year. In his new post, he looks after the Ute Tribe’s business holdings. He says his fear is that if the U relinquished the drum and feather logo, it would be like saying, “Maybe it’s time to eliminate any decent reference to the Ute people and erase them from any kind of landmark from the state of Utah.” The Ute name and logo represent a long, successful relationship between his tribe and the University, he says.
A Negative Impact
Certainly no one in a position of power within the Ute Tribe is lobbying to change the name and logo. But opposition is out there. U American Indian Resource Center Director Matthew Makomenaw often is the one who students, Native American or otherwise, turn to when they take issue with the way the people treat Indian imagery and traditions on and off campus. “I think currently there are some students who feel strongly about the issue, whether it’s the nickname or the drum and feather,” said Makomenaw, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottowa and Chippewa Indians.
Makomenaw points to photos that can be found on several U Facebook links, depicting Utah fans wearing Native American garb. One image features two young women with long blond hair, each wearing a rainbow colored headdress and two-piece fringed, faux buckskin outfits with moccasins. Another photo shows a teepee with a feather and drum logo set up in a tailgate lot. It’s that kind of treatment that sends some students to Makomenaw’s office in tears. “The research on American Indian nicknames and mascots shows that it has a negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian youth,” he says. Some Native Americans tell Makomenaw they don’t want to bring their children to football games because it isn’t a “welcoming environment” when fans dress up like Indians and perpetuate only a stereotype of Native Americans.
Even so, during John Ashton’s 23 years as the U Alumni Association’s executive director, support among many alumni and fans for the U’s use of the Indian name and logo have been clear, he says. “There’s no question that the weight of opinion was on preserving the tradition of the Ute name and drum and feather,” Ashton says, and changing the logo now would be difficult because it has become so successful and recognizable. If the Ute Tribe withdrew approval of using their name or the logo, then it would be time for change, he says.
Any change now would involve the U Board of Trustees and Michele Mattsson, the board’s current vice chairwoman. “I personally love the logo and the name, and feel it’s rooted in strong tradition,” she says. “To me it’s a nice connection to Ute heritage.”
Others, including Villalpando, don’t see it that way when the logo—the emblem of Kanip’s drum and eagle feather—can be found on merchandise such as underwear, garden gnomes, and shot glasses. “I think a [public] university has the responsibility to the taxpayers of that state to ensure that it provides an educationally sound experience to all students,” Villalpando says. “And if students bring to the attention of the university concerns about its particular practices or symbols impacting their learning, then I think it’s the university’s responsibility to listen to them and to explore how best to enhance the academic experience for all students. … It’s not an issue of political correctness. It’s an issue of educationally sound strategies.”
Barbara Snyder, the U’s vice president for student affairs, realizes the problems. “I understand how offensive the continued use of the drum and feather logo is, not just to Native American students but to those who value social justice,” she says.
So, what next? Some say the answer is education.
In presentations Makomenaw makes on campus, he tells people to close their eyes and picture a Native American, and he asks if they see someone wearing a headdress or a polo shirt and slacks. It’s an exercise, he says, to drive home the point that American Indians are scientists, history teachers, neighbors, and, in other words, just like anyone else you might know. The hard part, he adds, is how to educate the masses about Native American culture in a way that will foster more sensitivity and understanding.
Hill says he favors more education and understanding among what he estimates are the 5 percent of people who regard the name and logo in disrespectful ways. “If what we have as a nickname and logo lead to more offensive things, then I think we need to take a hard look at what we’re leading people to,” he says.
Striking the right tone
Keith Keddington, a U student who is president of The MUSS, the U’s student athletics fan group, says there is an overwhelming desire among Utah students to continue using the Ute name as well as the drum and feather logo, but he also sees a need for learning. “It is a storied icon that provides a unique opportunity for education and increased respect for Ute tradition,” he says. “I see a great opportunity to share information about the Ute Tribe both on campus, in the community, and on a national level. We should further develop an understanding of who and what we represent by using the Ute name.”
Mattsson and other U officials past and present, as well as Ute Tribe members, all say that at the very least, the U could lead or facilitate efforts to better educate Ute fans and the campus community about the tribe from which it borrows its name and logo.
As Kanip played his drum and sang and spoke on that hot summer day, he agreed that there could be a little more education around campus about what a Ute is or what the logo means. Standing close to Kanip’s own round drum, you can feel its vibrations as he plays. As he sings, you sense the deep respect Kanip has for the meaning and place that songs hold among not just Utes but all Native Americans.
“Only certain people can make a drum, to make it sound a certain way,” he says. “I can’t do it. I can just offer the songs for it. It takes patience, skill, and time.
“Something like this,” he says, looking at his drum, “you can’t rush. The tone, it’s an instrument of God. So, it needs a tone that brings out the spirituality of the event or ceremony.”
—Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer who is a frequent contributor to Continuum.