Utah schools discuss on-campus representation of Indigenous peoples

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A resolution in Utah’s most recent legislative session started conversations about on-campus representations of Indigenous peoples. These representations include mascots and statues, like the “Massasoit Indian” statue on the BYU campus. (Universe archives)

Discussions about inclusivity on Utah campuses continue after a resolution urging Utah schools to retire Native American mascots failed in the recent Utah legislative session.

The resolution, HCR3, would have encouraged K-12 public schools to retire their Native American mascots. It failed to pass the House on Feb. 16 after Utah lawmakers spoke against it. HCR3 would not have been binding law, but a statement of encouragement to promote inclusivity and sensitivity toward native students.

The resolution began as a way to encourage public high schools to change mascots. For example, names like the Indians, Braves and Red Men were deemed harmful because of their non-specificity and misrepresentation of Indigenous Americans.

“No one tribe has the authority to regulate these names, images and practices. The lack of proper oversight has allowed scores of public schools to misrepresent Indigenous Americans,” said James Courage Singer during the House Education Committee. Singer is a Salt Lake Community College sociology and ethnic studies professor, co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters and tribal citizen of the Navajo Nation.

However, HCR3 didn’t specify that all Native American mascots were required to be changed.

If a school is named in honor of a Native American, they could choose to retain the name of the school. For example, the University of Utah entered an agreement with the Northern Ute Indian tribe for use of the Ute name. 

Franci Taylor, director of the University of Utah’s American Indian Resource Center, said the university has a “very strong Memorandum of Understanding with the Northern Ute Tribe, which is based on their support for the use of their tribal identity in conjunction with U. of U. athletics.”

According to the memorandum, the Ute Indian Tribe encourages the University of Utah to use the Ute name for the university’s sports programs with its full support, and the U. recognizes that the Ute name is at the core of the cultural identity of the Tribe and “constitutes an inseparable element of their rich cultural traditions.”

The U.’s goal is to raise tribal visibility and community awareness through promoting educational benefits for Ute Indian tribal member youth. This includes summer youth programs for students, opportunities for tribal member youth to attend U. sporting events, providing educational services to tribal students to increase college attendance, and honoring Ute tribal members through a design that will be incorporated into team uniforms at one home game during Native American Heritage Month.

However, some U. students feel the name could use an upgrade. “The university could honor and represent the Ute people better by using a word in the Ute language for the mascot. For example, the word for eagle. This would put the spotlight on culture and language revitalization over using people as a mascot,” said Kali Dale, chapter president of the U.’s American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

“There are negative connotations that are received by Native students,” Virgil Johnson, a former tribal chairman of The Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation and the former chair of eight tribes in the state of Utah, said during the House Education Committee. “It affects their academics, as well as spiritual and social standings. They’re harmful and perpetuate stereotypes that have been around in this country for a long time.”

An American Psychology Association study conducted in 2005 found that Native American mascots harm Indigenous students’ social identity and self-esteem.

The APA recommended the retirement of American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools and organizations because the practice “undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities, establishes an unwelcome and hostile learning environment for American Indian students, has a negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children, undermines the ability of American Indian Nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture; and may represent a violation of the civil rights of American Indian people.”

In the midst of the discussion of Native American representation in Utah schools, a Native American statue stands southwest of BYU’s Harold B. Library.

The statue honors Chief Massasoit, the Native chief who prevented the failure of the Plymouth Colony and the starvation that the Pilgrims faced in the earliest years of its establishment. He is also known for the peace treaty he signed with the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony in March 1621, which was honored by both sides until after Massasoit’s death.

The original sculpture was erected on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth in 1921. It was made by Utah artist Cyris Dallin, who also created the Angel Moroni statue for the Salt Lake City Temple.

The BYU statue, known as the “Massasoit Indian,” is one of three copies of the original. One is located in Kansas City, one on the BYU campus, and one is positioned in front of the East entrance of the Utah Capitol.

BYU law professor Michalyn Steele said the statue is “appropriate as a recognition of a great Indigenous leader and the Utah artist who honored him in this way.”

Since Massasoit doesn’t belong to a tribe indigenous to the West, the statue may be regarded more as a tribute to a famous Utah artist rather than a local tribe. Massasoit was the chief of the Wampanoag Confederacy of modern-day New England, which inhabited parts of present Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The BYU campus sits on the traditional homelands of the Ute, Paiute and Shoshone peoples, which don’t currently have statue representations in any public area on campus.

BYU history professor Jenny Pulsipher said it may be time to review the Chief Massasoit statue.

“Perhaps its identifying plaque should be updated, explaining both the past and present context in a way that helps current members of BYU’s community understand what the monument meant to people when it was created and what it means to people now — particularly Native American people,” Pulsipher said, adding that “more history teaching, more open, civil discussion, more contextualization, particularly of monuments, art, or other things that, in our current time, are hurtful to specific groups” should be encouraged.

“There are a lot of exciting things happening on campus, including a new seminar focusing on Native American history led by professor Michael Taylor,” Steele said. 

Taylor, a BYU English professor and associate director of American Indian Studies, teaches a Native American Rights seminar with Native students every Friday.

As for the legislature’s willingness to consider whether to pass a future resolution retiring the use of Native American mascots statewide, House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, questioned whether lawmakers were being too sensitive and if animal mascots would be considered too controversial in the future.

“I’m not trying to directly compare the two,” Gibson said on the House floor in February. “But will we have PETA arguing against that as well?”

The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, said the measure was about being “more conscientious of our Native American neighbors.” 

HCR3 was voted down, 27-45.

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