Ute Brave: Copper’s Cradle
Deep within the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, bronze figures line the rows of storage shelves. The archives are sealed, climate controlled, and only visible by appointment. Next to miniature casts of Ute men rest statues of cowboys mounted atop bucking horses. The two figures stand at cultural and political odds in Western history, yet within the archives, they are aligned, categorized, stacked, and organized by materiality.
Less than a mile away, another bronze man stands exposed to the elements, proudly guarding the University of Utah Union. Clad in no more than a breechcloth and war bonnet, he oversees a patch of campus green space—a field of Kentucky Bluegrass, a non-native species that cloaks the lawns and sports fields of the Salt Lake Valley. Students hurry past in their screen-printed cotton garments, rarely acknowledging the statue known as “Ute Brave.”
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 interchangeably used “Indians,” “redskins,” “redskin braves,” and “Utes” as nicknames for the school’s sports teams. Eventually “Runnin’ Ute” became the steadfast nickname of the University when a man covered in excessively feathered garb galloped across the stadium. It’s as if the Ute Brave statue itself morphed into human form and flesh to parade a simplified representation of his heritage for sporting fans. Several visual iterations and artistic renderings of the symbol followed: “Hoyo the little Indian” mascot, “Chief Alumni,” “Crimson Warrior,” etc.
Public debates emerged in the Salt Lake community in the 1960s, leading to greater 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, a caricatured species pasted and printed across imported fibers in an attempt at showcasing local pride. The Ute nickname still remains an icon on the Wasatch Front due to continuous conversations and agreements with the Ute tribe. Debates persist, however: Can a feather logo or a nameless sculpture fully acknowledge the history of the Ute tribe? Do these symbols encapsulate the indigenous groups whose cultures aren’t displayed through university athletics?
Thirty 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 mining operation produces more copper than any other 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 scattered across campus are infused with a percentage of the Oquirrh Mountains.
Today, these same foothills are marked by industry. Large machinery plows the land, leaving behind ecological dead zones that are visible and audible from I-80. The topography west of the Salt Lake Valley 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 toxic byproducts seep into the nearby residential communities, burdening families whose ancestry is entangled with decades of mining. 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 throats of the pioneers’ ancestors. Goshute land exists only as an imaginary as 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?
When viewed from the south, a large, white, analog clock looms over “Ute Brave.” The minute hand ticks along the Union wall as the surrounding concrete crumbles and the green lawn is watered then mowed, watered then mowed. For now, the bronze man stands firm 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 memorials that we rarely look up to acknowledge it. But a hole in the canyon remains.
Michelle Wentling grew up in a small Ohio town. After completing a BA in English at The Ohio State University, she relocated to Salt Lake City in pursuit of cultural and ecological shifts. She is currently studying Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. b. 1995