Salt Lake City, Utah’s capital, does not conspicuously commemorate its indigenous heritage. According to the dominant LDS version of Utah history, Brigham Young and his pioneers encountered a desert wilderness or “no-man’s land” upon arrival in 1847. And yet, for a city that largely denies its Native past, Salt Lake has a significant number of “Indian heads” dotting its cityscape. Post-pioneer Utah Mormons—and non-indigenous Utahns of all persuasions—followed an old American habit of appropriating the image of the Indian, especially the “brave” or the “chief,” to mark their possession of the land. As an artistic motif, the profile of a male Indian with headdress became a national commonplace thanks to the one-cent coin produced by the U.S. Mint between 1859 and 1909. In Salt Lake City, profiled Indian heads can still be found on the historic street lamps lining Temple Square and on the cabs of the city’s main taxi service. The city’s ornamentalized Natives are nearly all generic (though typically interpreted as Utes or Shoshones); the notable exception is the full-body statue at the State Capitol depicting Massasoit, the 16th-century Wampanoag leader who treatied with the Pilgrims. Castings of this sculpture by Cyrus E. Dallin, perhaps the most famous artist to come out of Utah, also stand near Plymouth Rock (and, in Utah, also at Brigham Young University and the Springville Museum of Art).
Salt Lake’s Indians-as-art range from accidentally racist to truly disgraceful. Dallin’s sculpture, like Avard Fairbanks’s beautiful and somewhat homoerotic “Ute Brave” in front of the University of Utah’s student union, represents the “Noble Savage,” whereas the Ute Car Wash sign on 21st S. (and another on 3rd E. & 3rd S.) invites ridicule. This sign possibly references “Hoyo,” the cartoon Indian boy that served as the athletics mascot for the University of Utah in the mid 20th century. The U of U “Redskins”—now the “Utes” or “Runnin’ Utes,” names adopted with permission but not compensation—played football in “Ute Stadium.” When the stadium was renovated prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics, the university removed a matching pair of bas-relief profiles of an Indian chief by Gilbert Riswold (who also sculpted the Mormon Battalion monument at the State Capitol); Riswold’s bronzes, painted red, had flanked the main entrance since the ’20s, greeting generations of gridiron fans.
Despite the university’s attempts at sensitivity training, student fans costumed in headdresses (and even red face paint) can still be seen at every home football game and tailgate party.
Until 1999 a neon-lighted waving Indian guided freeway drivers to Howe Rental near the I-15/I-80 interchange. The sign originated in the ’50s, when the company’s founder, Charlie Howe, decided to capitalize on the homophony of his name and the stereotypical Indian utterance “how.”
The fetishization of the feathered Indian head can be so reflexive that even well-meaning people who intend to “honor” Natives repeat this stereotyping (a kind of symbolic decapitation). Take, for example, the stump of a giant cottonwood carved and painted in 1985 by Peter “Wolf” Toth into a red-faced elder in Murray Park, just south of Salt Lake. Toth, an immigrant from Hungary, has created similar heads—his “Whispering Giants” project—in all 50 states. According to the plaque beneath “Chief Wasatch” (a folkloric name), the sculpted tree is meant to “raise the nation’s conscience to the plight of the first American[s] so they won’t be forgotten.”
By the count of the 2010 census, over 9,000 Native Americans reside in Salt Lake County.
(Photo of “Ute Brave” by Conor Barry from Daily Utah Chronicle, photo of panel from old Rice Stadium courtesy of Kristy Holt, photo of fans from University of Utah, photo of Howe Rents by Trent Nelson, photo of “Chief Wasatch” by tsayrate on Flickr. All other images by Jared Farmer.)