Ute Tribe is vexed over U. scholarships

Published: Sunday, Sept. 17 2006 12:19 a.m. MDT

One year ago, University of Utah President Michael Young noted the "mutually respectful" relationship with the Ute Indian Tribe when he appealed NCAA restrictions on the school's nickname — the Utes.

At the time, the state's top Native American official sang the U.'s praises. "The University of Utah has demonstrated outstanding regard for the Ute Tribe," said Forrest Cuch, a Ute and director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs.

Now his attitude has changed.

"I'm disappointed, and I think the Ute Tribe is, too," Cuch says.

At issue is whether the U. agreed last year to provide scholarships for Ute students in exchange for tribal approval to retain the nickname.

"We were under the impression that it was all under way," said Cameron Cuch, former Ute Tribe education director.

University officials told the tribe an alumni donor had agreed to contribute to the scholarships, he said. "We were made to feel as though these things were being put in place."

Fred Esplin, U. vice president for university relations, said he did discuss scholarship opportunities for Ute students with Cameron Cuch three years prior to the NCAA ruling. A memorandum of understanding reached then did not include scholarships but statements of cooperation and support, Esplin said.

But, he said, the scholarships didn't come up during last year's talks between the U. and tribal leaders regarding use of the Ute nickname. And, he said, the university did not commit scholarships to the tribe in exchange for the name.

"If your question is was there a quid pro quo, there was not," Esplin said.

The NCAA threatened last year to ban American Indian logos at post-season tournaments. It identified 18 schools as having "hostile" or "abusive" nicknames, images or mascots. The new rules would have prevented those mascots from performing at tournament games, and band members and cheerleaders from wearing Indian images on uniforms beginning in 2008.

The announcement created a community uproar as the University of Utah weighed whether to change its long-standing mascot.

Bolstered by a formal resolution of support from the Ute Tribal Council, the U. appealed the NCAA ruling and obtained permission to continue using the name.

In a statement, the NCAA executive committee noted the relationship between the university and the tribe as a "significant factor" in its decision.

Esplin said the U. only wants to use the nickname if the tribe feels good about it. "We wouldn't try to purchase it," he said.

But in a time in which officials from Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to Ute tribal officials have identified education and college success as a way for some Native American young people to move out of poverty, the confusion seems to be bad timing.

The Ute Tribe always has a half-dozen students who are equipped to enter college, but the tribe has limited money for higher education.

In the discussions he remembers, Cameron Cuch said Esplin told him the scholarships wouldn't be in effect for the fall 2005 semester, but it would be available by the next spring.

"It didn't happen," he said. "Now the school year has started, fall semester has started, and nothing."

The U. actively recruits Ute students, Esplin said. There is a range of scholarships, grants and financial aid available to them and other Native American students. Rather than a donor, a trust fund managed by a local bank was established for first-generation minority students.

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