A Bronzed and Nameless Icon
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Deep within the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, storage shelves are lined with bronze figures. Next to miniature casts of Ute men rest statues of cowboys mounted atop bucking horses. The two figures symbolize cultural and political odds, yet among the archives, they are aligned, categorized, stacked, and organized by materiality. These archives are sealed, climate controlled, and only visible by appointment or field trip.
Less than a mile away, in plain sight, another bronze man stands, exposed to the elements, proudly guarding the University of Utah Union. He oversees the grass field and concrete paths in a breechcloth and war bonnet. Students clad in red, with screen-print feathers pasted on their chests, hurry past rarely acknowledging the “Brave Ute.”
Ute was not always used as a symbol, a mascot, or a nickname for University of Utah athletics. Having been labeled the “Crimsons” since the school’s genesis, it wasn’t until the latter half of the 1920s that the usage of “Ute” evolved into a misguided moniker for an all-white men’s athletic team. Students commonly used “Indians,” “redskins,” “redskin braves,” and “Utes” interchangeably as nicknames for the school’s sports teams. Eventually “Runnin’ Ute” became the steadfast nickname of the University, and a man covered in excessively feathered garb galloped across the football field on a horse. I try to envision this; the Ute Brave statue itself morphing into human form and flesh to parade a grossly simplified representation of his heritage for sporting fans. Several visual iterations and artistic renderings of the symbol passed through the public sphere over the years: “Hoyo the little Indian” mascot, “Chief Alumni,” “Crimson Warrior,” etc.
Debates in the 1960s (and likely much earlier, though these voices and concerns were not captured by national or regional media outlets) led to the public’s questioning of indigenous mascotry and the appropriation of cultural figures. After years of contention regarding the use of the Ute as a mascot, the University transitioned to “Swoop” the red-tailed hawk, another caricatured species. The Ute nickname still remains an icon on the Wasatch front, thanks to continuous conversations and agreements with the Ute tribe. Debates in local newspapers persist over whether or not the use of the Ute name and symbol is a form of appropriation. Some push this argument even further by claiming that compensation to the tribe is a neo-colonial attempt at salvaging the university’s name. Some members of the Ute tribe view the nickname as a way of salvaging what little is left of their presence in the area. Can use of feathers on a logo or a nameless sculpture fully acknowledge the history of the Ute tribe and other indigenous groups whose cultures aren’t displayed through university athletics?
30 miles west of the Wasatch mountain range lie the Oquirrh mountains—once home to the Goshute tribe. Today these same mountains cradle the cavernous gouge in the earth known as the Bingham Canyon Mine or The Kennecott Copper Mine—the one I’ve been told, with much enthusiasm, is visible from space. The mine produces more copper than any other mine in the United States, so it’s not unreasonable to imagine that the bronze statues depicting western icons like cowboys on bucking steeds and nude Indian busts hidden in the basement of the UMFA or proudly displayed across campus are infused with a percentage of the Oquirrh Mountains.
Today, these same foothills are marked by industry. Large machinery plows over the land, leaving behind ecological dead zones visible and audible from I-80. The entire topography has transformed at the helm of mechanized open-pit mining; hillsides and land formations that once neighbored the canyon such as Copper Hill have disappeared entirely.
Both the extracted material itself and its byproducts seep into the nearby residential communities, burdening the families whose ancestry entangles them into decades of the mining operation. At low levels of concentration, copper is necessary for life. At high concentrations, however, the metal is toxic. It interferes with cell metabolism. The Kennecott Mine emits more toxins than any other entity in the state, releasing and disposing of 206 million pounds of toxic chemicals per year. Surrounding residents are subject to high levels of lead, not only in their water, but also in the air they breathe. The soft burn of copper grazes the flesh and the throat of the European pioneers’ ancestors. The Goshute land exists only as an imaginary; the canyon of copper is scraped like the last bit of soup in the post-depression bowl.
“Beautiful and durable—copper lasts a lifetime” boasts the Copper Development Association. Copper is long-lasting and one of the easiest and most profitable metals to recycle. For this reason, ancient bronze statues are rare, especially those depicting pagan deities. Most bronze bodies were melted down in times of warfare for coinage or weaponry. Though the bodies of unused sculptures are preserved and stored in museum basements today, will the bronze cowboys and Indians one day be met with the frantic, molten heat of wartime, fused together into one body, one coin to be tossed?
The Ute Brave statue, when viewed from the South, stands beneath a large, white, analog clock. The minute hands on the Union wall tick as the surrounding concrete crumbles and the green lawn is watered then mowed, yet the bronze man stands firmly and will continue to do so until debate arises once again in The Daily Utah Chronicle. Bronze will prevail over decades and centuries; it is so normalized in our homes, our infrastructure, our décor, and our statues that we hardly look up to recognize it, but a large hole in the canyon remains.
~Michelle Wentling (Spring 2019)
For Further Reading:
“Communication Institute.” Utes Nickname Project. https://institute.communication.utah.edu/projects/utesnicknameproject.php.
Copper Development Association Inc., Standards & Properties: Metallurgy of Copper-Base Alloys. https://www.copper.org/.
“Copper.” The Environmental Literacy Council. https://enviroliteracy.org/special-features/its-element-ary/copper/.
Duncan, Clifford. “The Northern Utes of Utah.” In History Of Utah’s American Indians, edited by Cuch Forrest S., by Begay David, Defa Dennis, Holt Ronald, Maryboy Nancy, McPherson Robert S., Parry Mae, Tom Gary, and Yazzie Mary Jane, 167-224. Salt Lake City: University Press of Colorado, 2000.
Joi O’Donoghue, Amy. “EPA Report Details Toxic Releases for US, Utah.” KSL.com. https://www.ksl.com/article/42875579.
Pritzker, Barry. A Native American encyclopedia: History, culture, and peoples. Oxford University Press on Demand, 2000.
Whitehead, Bruce D., and Robert E. Rampton. “Bingham Canyon.” In From the Ground Up: A History of Mining in Utah, edited by Whitley Colleen, by Notarianni Philip F., 220-49. University Press of Colorado, 2006.