Former Utah Athletes, Tribe Share What It Means To Be ‘Ute Proud’

Jun 30, 2023, 12:38 PM | Updated: 12:39 pm

ROOSEVELT, UTAH – Former Utah athletes from football and gymnastics spent three days on the Uintah-Ouray Ute Reservation helping to run a football camp for the kids who live there. KSL Sports was on hand to ask them afterward; what does it mean to be Ute Proud?

Over the past few years there has been great debate over the use of native names and imagery in sports and in many cases rightfully so. In recent years, the University of Utah and the Ute Tribe have been working harder on the relationship in an effort to not only be respectful to the namesake, but to also offer more opportunities for the tribe and information to the public about who the Utes are and why the relationship works.

While there is always room for continued growth and improvement between the two parties, the general consensus from both sides is a want to keep doing better for each other. That’s where Athletes For Life and the former Utah Ute athletes involved with it coming and spending time with the tribe to build that bridge with the youth is a big deal.



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What It Means To Be ‘Ute Proud’

Make no mistake, from the athletes’ perspective there has always been a sense of pride in being a “Ute”. However, spending time with the Ute people, seeing where they live, talking about their needs and understanding their culture better adds a new layer to that sense of pride.

For Ute Tribe member Forrest Cuch, being “Ute Proud” is having a healthy sense of self and being receptive to others.

“To be a whole, complete, and healthy person who looks at life in a healthy way where there is hope for the future,” Cuch said. “A person who is open to enjoy and make the most of life. To share and to give and receive.”


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Needless to say, that is the exact energy that took place between the former Utah athletes, the Ute children, and the athletes at Union High School where the football camp was held. Everyone walked away with a slightly better understanding and respect for each other which was a big goal for Athletes For Life founder, Hank Mondaca.

“For me, it means giving back,” Mondaca said of being Ute Proud. “Being able to look back on an exceptional experience at the U and to really understand what it means to wear the Drum and Feather- to come out here and meet the Ute people. It makes me very proud to know that myself and these other coaches are making a difference to bring that relationship closer together.”

More Work To Be Done Between The Utes

This year’s Athletes For Life event was just the start of what Mondaca and his fellow Utah teammates hope will be a growing relationship that will see some of these younger kids through high school and give them the confidence to conquer anything.

One of the parents who took his two sons to camp, Derek Kochanpanasken, just wants opportunities for his boys and hopes Mondaca and the rest of the Utah athletes can continue to get more kids on the reservation involved and loving football.

“This camp definitely helps with outlets for football,” Kochanpanasken said. “Football is kind of a thing that’s not the number one choice for Natives around here, but more outlets for football and just giving different opportunities for the kids is definitely good.”


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Cuch’s son, Cameron, currently works on the National Advisory Council for the University of Utah which is how he got connected with Mondaca and learned about Athletes For Life and their original work at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. While the Uintah-Ouray Utes’ situation is not anywhere near as dire as Pine Ridge, Cameron was very adamant about wanting to bring more opportunity to the reservation and hopes they can do so with Mondaca and Utah as partners.

“The relationship is really important,” Cameron said. “Years ago, I was the education director for our tribe and put the first MOU in place back in 2003. It really helped the university in terms of in 2005 when the NCAA came with a crackdown on the use of Native American mascots, the university already had an agreement in place that said they had permission to use it. From there it has sort of evolved into enrichment programs, programs for our youth to visit the university, be a part of sports activities, and events like this. Just the relationships created through the university, its alumni, players, coaching staffs- it’s led to a lot of things both academically and athletically.”

Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @BodkinKSLsports

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Former Utah Athletes, Tribe Share What It Means To Be ‘Ute Proud’