The University of Utah “Utes:” Towards Increased Rhetorical Sovereignty

Nov 10, 2019

Published in Articles | Issue 2

Cassidy Hoff, University of Utah

November 2018


PDF Version

I have lived in Salt Lake City my entire life, and as a result, my childhood was filled with “Ute” gymnastics meets, basketball games, and the like. Swoop, the “Utes’” red-tailed hawk mascot, once picked me out of the crowd at a volleyball game to receive a volleyball signed by the team.

Fig. 1 Swoop from: Catron, Scott. Swoop, the red-tailed hawk, the mascot of the Utah Utes (the athletics teams of the University of Utah). Wikimedia Commons. Web. 8 Nov. 2010. Digital image.

I was accepted at the University of Utah, or the “U of U,” the “U,” to pursue an undergraduate degree. As I walked around campus, I passed imagery such as the “Ute Brave” statue outside of the student union and the occasional “drum and feathers” logo on passers-by—I always believed Swoop, the drum and feathers, and the “Ute” nickname were related.

Yet, as my time on campus progressed, I began to realize how little I understood about the namesake of my home, university, and sports teams, the “Utes.” This lack of knowledge was compounded by questions that emerged through game attendance: What does Swoop have to do with the Ute Indian Tribe? Why was my one-handed “chop” an acceptable practice while in the students’ section at a basketball game? Additionally, I had heard of a scholarship program developed for Ute students, but I knew of few Native American students on campus. I came to realize that my ignorance likely reflected a majority of the student body—if not a majority of external “Utes” sports fans. How could we be “Ute proud” while knowing so little about the tribe we were, in part, representing?

In my pursuit of these answers, I began to work on the Utes Nickname Project, which is dedicated to studying the storied relationship between the University of Utah and the Ute Tribe. Through my work for the Utes Nickname Project, I researched the beginnings of the university’s use of the “Utes” nickname. The University of Utah associated itself with “Indians” as early as 1907, using monikers from “R*dsk*ns”[1] to “Indians,” and even adopting an “Indian” mascot named Ho-Yo in the 1940s and another mascot called the Crimson Warrior in the 1980s.[2] The University has had permission from the Ute Tribe to use “Utes” as a nickname for the university and associated athletic teams since 1972 (Wodraska and Piper). Furthermore, the University continually addresses concerns brought up by the Ute Tribe, students, faculty, and staff at the University. For example, the U of U removed their mascot, “The Crimson Warrior,” a student dressed in stereotypical Native American garb, in 1993 following complaints (Kenney), and replaced it with Swoop in 1996. More recently, the university and the Ute Indian Tribe renegotiated their Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2014 (Wodraska and Piper). While the Ute Indian Tribe negotiates the terms of the MOU with the University, it fails to address the materials and iterations in which the “Utes” nickname, circle and feathers logo, and Swoop mascot are presented, leaving significant gaps in how the Ute Tribe is presented by the “Ute” brand through media guides. These media guides are not the only means of representation but can serve as a representative anecdote for the “Utes” presentation as a whole (Burke). Through the theoretical lens of the tension between rhetorical colonialism and rhetorical sovereignty, I address whether the University, the Ute Indian Tribe, or another audience altogether is served through the University’s use of the “Utes” nickname, circle and feathers logo, and red-tailed hawk mascot. This “constellated”[3] view of a Native American nickname and a relationally associated mascot and logo has not previously been addressed, and adds yet another layer to the discussion of “Native American” sports brands and the use of Native American nicknames in sports.

Fig. 2 Circle and feathers logo from: Rock, Preston. Utah Utes – Blues Brothers Theme – Lady. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 28 Oct. 2009. Digital image.

Historical Context

The Ute Indian Tribe inhabited the Salt Lake Valley long before the University of Utah, which was established in 1850 as Deseret University (“Deseret University…”). According to Ute Tribe historian Fred A. Conetah, while it is unknown how long the Utes lived in the Great Basin prior to explorers’ arrival, the Utes remained in the region as explorers came through from 1550 onwards. The greatest upheaval to the Utes’ way of life came from the 1830s on, when settlers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints began to occupy present-day Utah. The settlers were too numerous, and with their cattle, began to disrupt the Utes’ hunting practices. Efforts to establish farms for the Tribes were futile and resulted in starvation. In 1861, the Uintah and Ouray Tribe were allotted reservation land in the Uinta Basin that had been deemed “‘unsuitable for farming purposes’” (Conetah, 41). The Uintah and Ouray Tribe occupy the Uintah and Ouray Reservation to this day.

As federal laws currently stand, the Ute Tribe is sovereign, or self-governing, enabling them to grant the U permission to use their Ute name as a nickname. This sovereignty complicates outsider attempts to negate or weigh-in on the Ute Tribe’s relationship with the University of Utah. Danielle Endres (“American Indian Permission…”) found the University and tribe’s situation to represent a “double-bind.” The “double-bind” encompasses the rhetorical colonialism that can occur through the University’s use of the Ute nickname, and also the rhetorical sovereignty of the Ute Tribe who allow the U to use their name as a nickname (Endres). [4] Endres’ “double-bind” informs two key goals of this study: to respect the sovereignty of the Ute Indian Tribe, while critically analyzing the power structure inherent to the university-Ute relationship that intersects with ongoing systems of rhetorical colonialism and oppression.

The contemporary relationship between the University of Utah and the Ute Tribe takes the form of the Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU. The Ute Tribe has been concerned with appropriate representation of their name through the U of U (Wodraska and Piper). The MOU is discussed in an annual meeting and is up for renewal every five years (University of Utah). This document serves as the basis for their ongoing relationship, outlining the goals and expectations of the relationship for each party. The MOU is intended to legitimize the University’s use of the nickname, following scrutiny from the NCAA. Yet, the MOU only addresses the “Ute” nickname, while failing to mention the circle and feathers logo (also known, unofficially, as the drum and feathers logo), or the Swoop mascot (University of Utah). Additionally, the MOU designates “the Ute name as a representative symbol of [the university’s] athletics organizations” but maintains a distinction between the athletics logo and the academic side of the U’s use of the Block U logo (University of Utah).

The University and Ute Indian Tribe’s focus is solely on the “Ute” nickname in the MOU fails to address the influence of the circle and feathers logo and Swoop mascot on the “Ute” athletic brand. All three elements of the brand are relationally associated, despite the Ute Tribe’s support of a sole element through the MOU. The Memorandum’s focus on the nickname alone leads to miseducation about the circle and feathers logo and the Swoop mascot. This miseducation enables complicity with the system of rhetorical colonialism, as fans, faculty, staff, and external audiences of the U of U are shown representations of Ute identity, and more broadly a generic “Native American” identity, that are removed from the Ute Tribe’s traditions, customs, and beliefs. The MOU is a sort of modern day “treaty” that limits the Ute Tribe’s rhetorical sovereignty by maintaining a power imbalance and enabling the University of Utah to reap more from the agreement than the Ute Tribe.

The University of Utah Department of Athletics’ (or University of Utah Athletics Department) media guides released from 1990-2016 in the sports of gymnastics, men’s and women’s basketball, and football highlight the way the university utilizes the “Utes” nickname, circle and feathers logo, and Swoop mascot to construct a “Ute” brand. This “Ute” brand encompasses the logo, mascot, and nickname, and also a “Ute” identity that can be assumed and performed by athletes, fans, spectators, and media. Media guides are promotional documents containing statistics, history, and rosters, etc. for the given year, intended for use by media. As they are written for an external audience (outside of the university), the media guides illustrate how the “Utes” brand is constructed—who obtains “Ute” identity, where references to such identity occur, what characteristics are associated with the identity—among other means of constructing the identity on campus through songs and game-time traditions. The “Ute” brand is tied to the Ute Tribe by association, yet distinct from it. This interplay of identities creates a grey area wherein fans “play Indian.” Thus, the guides demonstrate how sports teams at the U have utilized the “Utes” nickname, the circle and feathers logo, and the Swoop mascot throughout the 1990-2016 timeframe in order to construct a particular “Ute” identity and brand that is complicit in rhetorical colonialism. My aim is to attempt to support decolonization, or the suggesting of non-Eurocentric ways of thinking and being, to increase the Ute Tribe’s rhetorical sovereignty.

I struggled with the role I serve as a White, non-Native scholar writing about the relationship between the University of Utah and the Ute Indian Tribe. How could I produce a meaningful assessment of “Ute” identity at the University of Utah without speaking to a Ute? Without being Native? My goal isn’t to reconcile these potential limitations, but to instead recognize the importance of narrative and story to Indigenous ontologies (Hunt) and constellate the identity constructed by the University of Utah Athletics Department with the Ute Tribe’s identity to pinpoint modern-day, ongoing colonialism.

Rhetorical Colonialism

Considering the expansive history of the “Utes” nickname at the University of Utah, I decided to study documents closely associated with U of U sports teams—media guides—to examine the rhetorical relationship between the two entities. Rhetorical and discursive choices can and often do reinforce existing power structures. Jason Edward Black (“Native Resistive Rhetoric…”), Danielle Endres (“The Rhetoric of Nuclear…”), and Casey Ryan Kelly tied the perpetuation of such power structures more explicitly to rhetoric through their explication of rhetorical colonialism. “Rhetorical colonialism undermines the political and cultural influence of Native Americans and asserts control over their lands and resources,” especially through the act of naming (Stuckey and Murphy 85). For example, Native Americans have been rhetorically colonized through the naming of their lands by European settlers and the appropriation of Native names for mascots and sports teams (Stuckey and Murphy). The dominant power in a rhetorically colonial relationship is capable of marring identity, personhood, and personal sovereignty, effectually dehumanizing the rhetorically colonialized by means of misrepresentation.

Rhetorical sovereignty can be used to combat the oppressive effects of colonialism. Scott Richard Lyons, Matthew Dennis, and the aforementioned authors, discuss Native American rhetorical sovereignty as a means of “decolonizing” dominant rhetoric. Rhetorical sovereignty is essential to undoing and opposing rhetorical colonialism. As Lyons writes, rhetorical sovereignty is to “allow Indians to have some say about the nature of their textual representations” (458). As the Ute Indian Tribe has “say” in only one element of the “Ute” brand—the nickname—the “Ute” identity remains incomplete. It remains isolated from the logo and mascot and perpetuates racial stereotypes while limiting Ute rhetorical sovereignty. I recognize the interconnectedness of the logo, mascot, and nickname to identify ongoing colonialism and suggest ways to increase the Ute Tribe’s rhetorical sovereignty.

The Effects of Rhetorical Colonialism

When I turned to literature on the impact of Native American nicknames, mascots, and imagery on Native Americans’ lives, I uncovered a wealth of studies. Authors such as Lawrence R. Baca, Mary Jiang Bresnahan and Kelly Flowers, Jeff Dolley, Sudie Hofmann, C. Richard King, Christine Rose, Synthia S. Slowikowski, Ellen J. Staurowsky, Brenda Farnell, Stephanie A. Fryberg et al., Angela R. LaRocque et al., the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Jesse A. Steinfeldt et al., and Heather A. Vanderford have discussed the negative impacts of Native American mascots on Native American lives. Yet, none of these authors discuss a tripartite brand. The loose association of the red-tailed hawk mascot, circle and feathers logo, and “Utes” nickname is evidence of rhetorical colonialism that is distinct from solely mental and emotional impacts of Native American mascots, imagery, and nicknames on Native Americans. The tripartite “Utes” brand reflects on the Ute Indian Tribe as a whole in a way that conveys transience and racial stereotypes. This relationship between the “Utes” and Utes identities implicates that the Ute Indian Tribe is rhetorically colonialized through the creation of “Ute” identity. To this end, I explore the ways in which mascot, nickname, and imagery converge to illustrate modern-day colonialism.

Mascots stereotype and highlight particular aspects of the depicted race or species (Nothen and Atkinson), embodying characteristics the athletic teams of universities wish to uphold. The negative impacts of Native American mascots include perpetuating racist stereotypes as well as general detriment to Natives’ lives (Davis; Baca; Fryberg et al., LaRocque et al.; National Congress of American Indians; Steinfeldt et al.; Vanderford, Bresnahan and Flowers; Dolley; Hofmann; King; NCAI; Rose; Slowikowski; Staurowsky). The University of Utah Athletics Department’s mascot, Swoop, is not a Native American. Yet, Swoop’s existence can be seen as a way to decontextualize the “Utes” nickname from association with a mascot. I discuss the impact of Swoop’s existence on the “Ute” identity as a way to illustrate the ongoing rhetorical colonialism through discussion of the Ute-U relationship.

Native American nicknames given to sports teams detach tribes’ identities from their lived realities. Black, Mark R. Connolly, Brian R. Moushegian, and Frank Nuessel focused their research on these nicknames. Black, a non-Native American, described his experience as a Florida State University Seminole, which he branded a “misrepresented identity, a Seminole persona I do not understand but apparently assume through attending football games…” (605). During my childhood, I always believed I was part of the sports team—one of the “Utes.” Yet, this assumed identity colonializes the Ute Tribe, as they are separated from tradition, language, and culture while under the umbrella of the “Ute” brand.

Furthermore, Black noted “university strategies for control, arguing for the Native as a symbol rather than a mascot” (606). Black’s recognition of the “symbol” status as a key strategy for the implementation of institutional dominance illuminates the University of Utah’s attempt to distance the “Utes” nickname from its historical status as having once been a mascot (Ho-Yo and the Crimson Warrior). Additionally, the University and Ute Tribe’s Memorandum of Understanding designates the “Utes” nickname for athletic application only, while the U recognizes the nickname as “more than just distinctive shorthand for Utah” (“Ute Proud”). Thus, the application of the “Utes” nickname reaches a symbolic level, further insinuating an attempt to distance the nickname from association with a mascot. As Kenneth Burke and James P. Zappen identified, most relationships are rhetorical and, as such, lend to identification of some elements as part of a larger whole. With this in mind, the attempt to use the “Ute” nickname for solely athletic purposes fails, as it is relationally associated with Swoop and the circle and feathers logo. As Shawn Wilson notes, an Indigenous paradigm is founded in relationships. Yet, the “Ute” brand is devoid of relation to the circle and feathers logo and Swoop mascot. This disconnect leads to miseducation and perpetuated colonialism as the Ute Tribe is represented by a “Ute” identity constructed by a loose association of a “Ute” brand mascot, logo, and nickname. Further, the brand represents a means of capitalizing on the Ute Tribe’s relationship with the U of U without the Ute Tribe being sufficiently compensated—not just monetarily, but through accurate, appropriate representation. In order to decolonize the MOU and increase Ute Indian Tribe sovereignty, I assess the relationships between the circle and feathers logo, the Swoop mascot, and the “Ute” nickname in University of Utah media guides. This assessment attempts to decolonize the “Ute” brand and re-associate the Ute Tribe with tradition and permanence.

University Media Guides

When I began searching for media guides for my analysis, the breadth of documents available and the history within them took me aback. I was surprised, for example, to see what looked to be a colored pencil sketch of Indians on horseback on the cover of a media guide from 1927. To contemporize my analysis, I chose to assess guides from more recent years, from which I would be able to analyze more material. My selections were the gymnastics, football, and men’s and women’s basketball guides from the 1994-1995 and 2015-2016 seasons.

My first foray into the guides revealed inconsistencies throughout. The men’s guides were the only ones with any description of the Ute Indian Tribe’s relationship with the University of Utah. In addition, the page describing the Ute-University relationship was housed behind pages highlighting new buildings for the athletic programs. Thus, information about the Ute Indian Tribe’s relationship was either omitted or backgrounded within all of the guides. Additionally, the “Utes” nickname was continuously coupled with words such as “current” and “former,” illustrating the “Utes” identity’s transience. (See example media guide page below with the phrase “former Ute” at the end of the “Personal” section). This transience and backgrounding is suitable for a sports-team brand and “pseudo-identity,” but not an identity linked to a real, living people.

Fig. 3 Sample Media Guide Page from  of Utah Department of Athletics: 2015-16 Utah Women’s Basketball Media Guide. J. Willard Marriott Digital Library. Web. 2015-16. Digital image. Used with permission.

The Swoop mascot was seldom mentioned within the media guides, despite his presence at sporting events. Within the “Ute Proud” and “Utah Traditions” pages, the football and men’s basketball guides discussed the presence of Swoop and his introduction in 1996 (see Fig. 4 below). By extension, there was no explanation of Swoop’s introduction within the women’s guides of the same seasons. The insufficient explanation and integration of Swoop indicates a lack of rationale for the mascot, other than a non-human animal stand-in to distract from associations of the “Utes” nickname with a mascot.

Examples outside of the media guides that continue the perpetuation of racial stereotypes include: The phrase “ki-yi!” is in the “Utah Fight Song,” a game-time anthem, and the “U of U chop,” a game-time arm movement (University of Utah Department of Athletics, University of Utah 2016 Football… 17).The circle and feathers logo was inconsistently used within the media guides, as well.

While commonly used as a page header, as in Fig. 4, the logo sometimes appeared on athletic gear in photos. The symbolism of the logo was never described. In a similar situation to that of the Swoop mascot, the circle and feathers logo is used without explicit permission from the Ute Tribe. Indeed, the lexical choice to name the logo the “‘circle’ and feathers” could be an attempt to avoid perpetuation of racial stereotypes associated with Native American traditions involving drums. The colloquial nickname for the logo, the “drum and feathers,” indicates this lexical choice ineffectively distances the logo from such stereotypes.

Within the University of Utah, attempts are being made to increase campus education about the Ute Tribe. The “Ute Proud” campaign was launched in 2014 for such a purpose and to sell special merchandise that supports Ute scholarship efforts. The campaign continues to this day, with the “Ute Proud” game in October of 2018 featuring the annual Ute Tribe halftime performance (Baldwin). The “Ute Proud” campaign was intended to “[teach] more about the Ute culture, heritage and the history of our region” (“Ute Proud”). Yet, the University of Utah Athletics Department’s media guides were unreflective of this goal. Connolly explains, “Defending Native American-related nicknames and images as being respectful of Native Americans” is not a new tactic and maintains objectification of Native American symbols (534). The “Ute” identity is one piece of the “Utes” brand, a marketing tool. This branding mechanism relegates Ute identity and culture— a culture cannot be accurately represented by a brand. The inconsistent inclusion of the Ute-U relationship, the inconsistent inclusion of the history of the Ute Indian Tribe, the lack of explanation of the circle and feathers logo’s symbolism, the inconsequentiality of Swoop, and the transience associated with the “Utes” nickname implicate rhetorical colonialism and indicate a disconnect between the University of Utah’s goals and the content of the Athletics Department’s media guides. While the U of U maintains that their use of the “Utes” nickname is respectful of the Ute Indian Tribe, the construction of the “Utes” brand and identity falls short of enabling Ute rhetorical sovereignty or the cessation of rhetorical colonialism.

Fig. 4 Sample Media Guide Page from University of Utah Department of Athletics: 2015-16 Utah Men’s Basketball Media Guide. J. Willard Marriott Digital Library. Web. 2015-16. Digital image. Used with permission.

In effect, the media guides construct an incomplete, sport-centric “Ute” brand and identity that enables fans, students, athletes, and others to “play Indian” (Deloria). Philip J. Deloria writes, “The self-defining pairing of American truth with American freedom rests on the ability to wield power against Indians—social, military, economic, and political—while simultaneously drawing power from them” (191). “Playing Indian” is thus an assumption of Native American identity that allows the identity’s reconstruction by a non-Native entity, enabling misrepresentation of the Native American identity. The university’s sports-centric “Ute” brand and identity pulls power from the Ute identity while the university is simultaneously controlling the “Ute” brand and identity construction. In this way, despite the rhetorical sovereignty exercised by the Ute Indian Tribe to permit the U of U to use their name as a nickname for athletic teams, the relationship illustrates a deep-set power imbalance and “playing Indian.”

While it is up to the Ute Tribe to determine whether or not the actions performed by members of the university—fans, athletes, and others—are inappropriate or offensive, recognizing the potential harm of these actions (perpetuating racial stereotypes through a lack of community education) is critical to the continued use of the “Utes” nickname with an eye to increasing rhetorical sovereignty of the Ute Tribe.

Towards Increased Rhetorical Sovereignty

For what audience was the “Ute” identity constructed in the University of Utah’s media guides? Overall, the media guides constructed the “Ute” identity, through their use of the “Utes” nickname, circle and feathers logo, and Swoop mascot, for the media. While this appears a reasonable construction on the surface, the guides leave many gaps in the Ute identity, focusing on certain aspects of the university’s past while dismissing others. Such deliberate rhetorical choices illustrate rhetorical colonialism, as the media guides construct a more complete “Ute” identity for money-generating and male sports teams at the University of Utah, while the identity is far more incomplete within the women’s guides. Additionally, the U of U rhetorically colonizes the Ute Tribe through its failure to sufficiently educate external audiences about the tribe and its relationship with the university. Furthermore, the “Utes” nickname’s association with a brand and “pseudo-Ute-identity” perpetuates colonization of the Ute Tribe. I suggest increasing rhetorical sovereignty for the Ute Tribe through further education and recognition of all three elements as pieces of a collective “Ute” brand on campus as a means to improve the current relationship. However, I advise an eventual severance of the “Utes” nickname from the U of U.

The “Utes” nickname has become synecdoche for the U, despite the Ute Tribe and university’s attempts to restrict the nickname to athletic venues. Additionally, many fans, like I used to, assume “Ute” identity by attending sports games, not realizing that the nickname is only for athletic applications. The university has failed to explicitly inform students they are not “Utes,” further illustrating a disconnect between the intent of policy and reality, and further enabling fans to “play Indian.” Additionally, the means with which elements of the “Ute” identity are shown within the media guides—often kept to headings and game recaps, with any history of the nickname secluded to a single page, if included at all—reflect the brand’s incoherence and incomplete construction.

Without the permission of the sovereign Ute Tribe, the U of U would be unable to use the “Utes” nickname—this fact is overlooked within the women’s media guides and appears as a means of appeasing those who may ask, “What is a Ute?” in the men’s guides. This failure to recognize the sovereignty of the Ute Tribe within the media guides overall exhibits rhetorical colonialism, as the power held by the Ute Tribe is unacknowledged. The Ute Tribe’s government is recognized within the football and basketball media guides, however without any note of their sovereignty. There is no mention whatsoever of the Utes’ governmental workings in the women’s guides. Indeed, there is no apparent reason why the Ute Tribe and University of Utah’s relationship is missing from the women’s media guides, other than men’s sports being associated with more prestige in our society.

Despite the introduction of the “Ute Proud” campaign in 2014, there are significant gaps left in the construction of the “Utes” brand and educational material about the Ute Tribe within the media guides. The sovereignty of the Ute Tribe is left unmentioned and there is no explanation of Swoop’s connection to the Ute Tribe. As such, Swoop seems to exist to distance the “Utes” nickname from associations with a mascot. Additionally, the circle and feathers logo’s symbolism is not described within any of the guides, leaving room for uneducated assumptions about the symbol’s connection to Ute traditions.

As I first started my research into the Ute Tribe and University of Utah’s relationship several years ago, I decided to take a brief look at a more recent media guide. See Fig. 5 below for a sample page from a 2018 football guide. The content of the “Utah Traditions” page gives the same description of the Ute Indian Tribe as the 2015-16 men’s basketball guide in Fig. 4 above. While the guides appear to no longer have the circle and feathers logo as page headers, some athletic gear still sports the symbol. There is still no explanation of the logo within the guide I reviewed.

Fig. 5 Sample from a 2018 Media Guide from University of Utah Department of Athletics: University of Utah, 2018 Football Media Guide. J. Willard Marriott Digital Library. Web. 2018. Digital image. Used with permission.

The University of Utah’s unique relationship with the Ute Tribe represents a commitment and responsibility to create a respectful and prideful “Ute” brand on campus. With the introduction of the “Ute Proud” campaign, the U seems committed to contribute to education and awareness of the Ute Tribe. Additionally, their commitment to the campaign indicates no intent to remove the “Utes” brand and identity. Yet, through the media guides produced by the University of Utah’s Department of Athletics, the “Ute” brand constructed for external audiences is neither cohesive nor representative of “What is a Ute.” From inconsistent explanation of the Ute-U relationship across media guides; to rhetorical choices creating improper associations between “Ute” identity and racial stereotypes, the media guides are complicit in the system of rhetorical colonialism. There are no improvements that could be made that would entirely erase the rhetorical colonialism inherent to the relationship, and accordingly the “Utes” nickname should be removed.

However, given the University of Utah’s intent to keep the “Utes” brand and identity, and the Ute Tribe’s continued support of the MOU, the university can illustrate the “Utes” brand and identity in a more ethical fashion. Policy changes at the university could begin to increase the Ute Tribe’s rhetorical sovereignty, without dropping the nickname completely. For example, through the removal of racial stereotype performances: the “U of U chop” and “Ki-yi!” in the “Utah Fight Song.” Furthermore, the University of Utah Department of Athletics can cease referring to current and former athletes as “current” and “former” “Utes,” and refer to them as current and former U of U athletes, instead. This slight change would help to communicate the permanence of the associated Ute identity. Also, the media guide contributors can describe the circle and feathers properly—what it stands for and represents—in order to increase understanding of why the logo is used, and how it reflects, if it does, Ute traditions. This would contribute to a more cohesive “Ute” identity, and support the rhetorical sovereignty of the Ute Tribe by accurately representing their traditions and beliefs through university-produced publications. Finally, the media guide authors can create a page dedicated solely to the history of the “Utes” nickname as it pertains to the U’s athletic teams. This page will not only increase understanding of the Ute Tribe, but also represent, more accurately, the pride the U feels when using the “Ute” nickname with the permission of the sovereign Ute Tribe.

In my analysis, I found that the media guides constructed the “Ute” identity primarily for male and money-producing sports, such as basketball and football. Beyond those sports, the “Ute” brand overall was not tripartite and exhibited inconsistent uses of the Swoop mascot, circle and feathers logo, and “Utes” nickname. Hence, given the university’s continued use of the “Utes” nickname, and no apparent intention to stop, a compromising way forward that will increase the Ute Tribe’s rhetorical sovereignty is this: Recognize the unavoidable association of the tripartite elements of “Ute” brand on campus. Additionally, increase the cohesion behind each element of the “Ute” sport identity by implementing detailed descriptions of each element’s connection to the Ute Tribe, written by Ute Tribe members, which will contribute to a more realistic and curated “Ute” identity on campus. This can be achieved in a number of ways, including but not limited to: 1) explaining the purpose and symbolic meaning behind the circle and feathers logo—if there is none, then the Block U should be implemented as a replacement logo, 2) adding a page solely dedicated to the Ute Tribe within the media guides, explaining their sovereign status and recognizing their permission to use their nickname as a privilege—thus reflecting the pride that the U feels to use their nickname, and 3) ceasing the use of words such as “current,” “former,” and otherwise in conjunction with the “Ute” nickname. With these implementations, the University of Utah can improve education about Ute traditions in relation to the “Ute” nickname, circle and feathers logo, and Swoop mascot, at least within media guides, and thus increase the Ute Indian Tribe’s rhetorical sovereignty.

Yet, even with these improvements, fans and spectators are likely to assume the “Utes” identity—the media guides are only a small piece of the “Ute” brand. Thus, the question remains: How can a sports team identity and brand appropriately and adequately represent a dynamic, rich culture? If it cannot, then the sports identity enables fans, students, and athletes at the university to “play Indian,” drawing power from the Native Americans’ identity while the athletics department exerts power over the identity and brand’s construction.

In effect, although the rhetorical sovereignty of the Ute Tribe is evident through their Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Utah and could be increased through the proposed initiatives described above, there will be ongoing rhetorical colonialism within the relationship. These findings reflect the enduring struggles of Indigenous peoples within the United States of America. While formal agreements have been struck between Indigenous peoples and universities to continue their use of either mascots or nomenclature, the sports identities enable spectators and fans to “play Indian.” Though Native American nicknames that are inoffensive, such as the “Utes” or the “Seminoles,” have been suggested as a means to continue the association of Native American cultures with sports teams, the usage of these identities in association with a sports team nickname cannot sufficiently or accurately represent a people’s identity.

I grew up with the “Utes.” I understand that it would be sad for many to see the nickname go. Yet, through my research, I have discovered and explored the historic evolution of the “Utes” nickname and the ways in which the brand and identity rhetorically colonizes the Ute Tribe. Ultimately, the continued use of the nickname enables fans to play Indian and use the “Utes” identity disparately from the Ute Tribe—the Ute Tribe will always be underserved by the University of Utah’s use of their name as a nickname. I encourage “Utes” fans to consider their love and passion for other sports teams. A name change for the University of Utah’s athletics teams would change the name, but not the teams and not the passion fans bring to every game. Further, I encourage the University of Utah and the Ute Indian Tribe to revisit their Memorandum of Understanding and cease the use of the “Utes” nickname. A people’s identity does not belong in association with a sports team nickname, brand, or “identity.”

Works Cited

Baca, Lawrence R. “Native Images in Schools and the Racially Hostile Environment.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues, vol. 28, no. 1, 2004, pp. 71-78.

Baldwin, Kristin. “University of Utah Football Celebrates 5th Annual ‘Ute Proud’ Game.” Basin Now, 15 Oct. 2018,

Black, Jason Edward. “The ‘Mascotting’ of Native America: Construction, Commodity, and Assimilation.” The American Indian Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 4, 2002, pp. 605-622.

—. “Native Resistive Rhetoric and the Decolonization of American Indian Removal Discourse.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 95, no. 1, 2009, pp. 66-88.

Bresnahan, Mary Jiang, and Kelly Flowers. “The Effects of Involvement in Sports on Attitudes Toward Native American Sport Mascots.” Howard Journal of Communications, vol. 19, no. 2, 2008, pp. 165-181.

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Burke, Kenneth, and James Philip Zappen. “On Persuasion, Identification, and Dialectical Symmetry.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 39, no. 4, 2006, pp. 333–339., doi:10.1353/par.2007.0000.

Catron, Scott. Swoop, the Red-Tailed Hawk, the Mascot of the Utah Utes (the Athletics Teams of the University of Utah). Wikimedia Commons. Web. 8 Nov. 2010. Digital image.

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[1] “R*dsk*ns” is the mascot and nickname for the professional football team from Washington, D.C.

[2] Information about the early years of the University of Utah’s mascots and nickname traditions was obtained from the Utes Nickname Project website:

[3] Here I use “constellated” to indicate a synthesis of the disparate elements of the “Utes” brand and identity.

[4] The Utes’ negotiation of the MOU represents Endres’ “double-bind:” The MOU represents Ute rhetorical sovereignty, however, also complicity with systems of rhetorical colonialism, as elements of Ute identity are missing from the document, which leads to misrepresentation.

About the Author:

Cassidy Hoff works at the Center for Technology and Venture Commercialization at the University of Utah, where she supports the commercialization of intellectual property generated by University faculty and staff. A Utah native, she graduated from the University of Utah with a Bachelor’s Degree in Writing and Rhetoric Studies.

About the Mentor:

Steven Alvarez is associate professor of English at St. John’s University in Queens. He is the
author of Brokering Tareas: Mexican Immigrant Families Translanguaging Homework
Literacies and Communities Literacies en Confianza: Learning from Bilingual After-School
Programs, both published in 2017. Dr. Alvarez’s current research studies Mexican migration in
New York City through the prism of food, specifically “taco literacy.” The research project
examines how foodways narratives demonstrate a literacy of care for Mexican communities
across the five boroughs, through stories of bilingual learning, literacy practices, and community


Copyeditor(s): Sophie Schmidt

Editorial Assistant(s): Lauren Brentnell, Catheryn Jennings

Reviewers: Christina Cedillo and Steven Alvarez