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Lee Benson, Deseret News
Tracy Christensen, a member of the Ute Tribe and a short order cook at the Randlett Mercantile, sees "no disrespect" with the way the University of Utah uses the Utes nickname.
I don't find it offensive, if that's what you're asking. And I've never heard anyone around here say it's a problem. You see the emblem everywhere. A lot of people buy the jackets and hats and stuff. They like them. No, I don't think the school is doing anything bad. —Tracy Christensen

RANDLETT, Uintah County — Tracy Christensen heard it on the radio on her way to work. Something about the appropriateness of the University of Utah using Utes for its nickname and the Ute drum and feathers for its logo.

Her ears perked up. Tracy knows Utes. She is one; has been all her life.

She lives here in Randlett, population 220, in the heart of Ute country. Seven miles away is Ft. Duchesne, headquarters of the sprawling Uintah and Ouray reservation, at 4.5 million acres the second-largest Indian reservation in the United States.

Tracy works at the Randlett Mercantile, the town's only commercial enterprise, where the solid wood floorboards have been propping up a store since they were first hammered down in 1914. She's the resident short-order cook and she'll whip you up a breakfast burrito that'll make you consider the seven-mile detour you took off U.S. 40 to get here your wisest move of the entire day.

Her reaction to suggestions that there's something disrespectful about the state university up in Salt Lake City calling itself the Utes?

"Oh, I don't know," she says. "No reaction, really."

Does she, as a Ute by birth, have a problem with, say, a football team also using the name and logo?

"You know what?" she says. "I don't."

Tracy admits, she's no sports fan, "not even close," but she grew up with the University of Utah being the Utes and has never given it a second thought.

"I don't find it offensive, if that's what you're asking," she says. "And I've never heard anyone around here say it's a problem. You see the emblem everywhere. A lot of people buy the jackets and hats and stuff. They like them. No, I don't think the school is doing anything bad."

For that matter, neither does she think the high school in nearby Vernal is doing anything bad by calling itself the Utes and using a feather in its logo — and an Indian as its mascot.

The Uintah High School Utes have pretty much covered all the local Native American bases — since Ute is the name of the resident Indian tribe and Uintah the name of the predominant Ute band.

Tracy's lack of outrage is seconded by Art Cesspooch, a customer who has stopped into the mercantile for some quick supplies.

Art lives in Ft. Duchesne and runs a company called AC/DC Oilfield Services that provides labor and other necessities to the outfits working the rich deposits of fossil fuel that lie underneath reservation land.

I ask Art if he's a Ute and he says, "I'm a Wehock Indian."

"You're a what?"

"A Wehock Indian — we hock anything."

As the joke sinks in, Art verifies that of course he's a Ute, a Ute with a sense of humor.

"I think they should keep the nickname, 'cause the old people would be really offended if they don't,' " Art says. "A lot of our culture is going away. We need to keep as much of it as we can."

He says he's never heard anyone in the tribe complain about the University of Utah using "Utes" as a nickname, although he's quick to add, "If you asked a bunch of the young kids they'd say they shouldn't keep it, just for the publicity."

Art does think if the drum and feathers offend any Indians because those items are often regarded as sacred by Native Americans, then their use should be discontinued.

But long live the Utes.

"It advertises our reservation and our way of life," he says.

Back at the grill, Tracy presses a spatula down on a hamburger patty as she says that the topic doesn't even register on the reservation's concerns.

The biggest issues right now, she says, are questions of jurisdiction — who can do what on reservation territory — and "trying to get the gang situation under control."

But a school calling itself the Utes?

"I think it's more of a white people's issue," says the card-carrying Ute. And then she goes back to her cooking.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: [email protected]