Native American mixed-race relationships in Utah


Jonathan and Mandie Hansen are a typical married couple. They live in the suburbs, enjoy their weekly date nights and love going on vacations with their young son. However, one major difference separates them from other couples: race. Mandie is white and Jonathan is Native American.  

According to Jonathan, mixed-race relationships are a sensitive issue in Utah. 

“People want to pretend that you don’t exist,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with you.”

However, according to recent statistics, mixed-race relationships are steadily increasing with more and more people deciding to marry and date outside their race.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of interracial marriages has soared over the last 35 years. Overall, the Bureau calculates that more than 7 percent of America’s 59 million married couples in 2005 were interracial, compared to less than 2 percent in 1970.

Being an interracial couple is never easy.  Dealing with challenges including racism, cultural differences and raising biracial children in a largely white area can be taxing, no matter how strong a relationship is. Are the challenges associated with being an interracial couple worth it?

Marrying Other Ethnic Groups

Despite the increase in interracial marriages as a whole, mixed-race marriages involving Native Americans remain low. They account for less than 1 percent of interracial marriages in the United States.

Even though mixed-race marriages involving Native Americans are uncommon, Jonathan, 32, and Mandie Mortensen, 30, don’t consider their relationship unconventional. Not now, at least. 

When Mandie first announced to her conservative family, who reside in West Valley, that she was engaged to a Navajo man, they were less than enthusiastic.

“My family pretended that they were all right with me marrying Jonathan, but I knew better,” Mandie said. “[Because] of their hesitancy, it made me question our relationship as well. It took me a few months before I finally [decided] that I loved Jonathan and would marry him with or without my family’s approval.”

Jonathan and Mandie were married in 2002. After a lot of compromise, Mandie says her family has finally warmed up to Jonathan.

“They see that I love him and that [our] marriage is solid,” Mandie said. “I think they are happy because I’m happy.” 

Throughout the six years of their marriage, Mandie and Jonathan have learned to take things one day at a time. They have accepted the fact that being in an interracial marriage always comes with challenges. They will always have to deal with racism and cultural issues, but are trying to make understanding and cooperation the basis of their marriage.

“I’m not Navajo. I never will be,” Mandie said. “But I’m married to a wonderful man who is Navajo so I need to respect their traditions and way of life.”

Marrying Between Tribes

While many Native Americans are not marrying whites, Asians, or African Americans, many are marrying outside of their tribe. While these unions might not be “interracial” by traditional definitions, they can still bring up cultural issues.

When Dayna Jones, 27, a Navajo, started dating Chris Jorgensen, 31, a Ute, she was certain their relationship would never work. Dayna was concerned that because they were from different tribes, their values and beliefs would be too different.

“I was raised in a very traditional Navajo family,” Dayna said. “No one in my family has ever dated or married [someone] from a different tribe. How could I suddenly go against my upbringing and date a Ute?”

Much like Dayna, Chris was also hesitant about dating outside of his tribe.

“Even though we are both Native Americans, Utes and Navajos have different ways of doing things,” Chris said. “I thought dating a Navajo would simply mean too many compromises.”

Despite their initial reluctance to get involved with one another, love quickly bloomed between them.

“I couldn’t help that I fell in love with a Ute,” Dayna said. “Once I started to develop serious feelings for Chris, what tribe he was from didn’t seem to matter so much.”

Chris and Dayna have now been married for three years. They are the first to admit it has been challenging. One of the main issues they have had to deal with involves blending their families.

“When I first married Dayna, my mother did not approve of her,” Chris said. “She wanted me to marry a Ute and Dayna did not fit the mold. She is more accepting of her now that we are married, but I am positive there are still some feelings of resentment there.”

Chris and Dayna also frequently have disagreements about how to raise their 1-year-old daughter, Nicole. Because Nicole is both Navajo and Ute, they want her to feel connected with both tribes.

“We want [Nicole] to grow up with a strong sense of identity,” Dayna said. “Figuring out how to teach her both Navajo and Ute traditions is the complicated part. We don’t ever want her to think that one [tribe] is more important than the other.”

Even though marrying someone from a different Native American tribe has not been simple, Chris says he has no regrets.

“My [marriage] with Dayna is not perfect, but what marriage is?” Chris said. “I love her and that has always been the most important thing.”

Raising Biracial Children

Biracial children have become commonplace in modern society. More and more children are growing up with parents of different races, learning two or mote sets of traditions, values, even languages.

Mandie and Jonathan know firsthand that raising a biracial child is never easy. The couple says they have struggled teaching their 6-year-old son, Jack, about both his Navajo and white heritage.

“Teaching your child about two different heritages is a tough thing,” Jonathan said. “Jack seems confused about the fact that he is both white and Navajo. Hopefully that will become clearer to him as he gets older.”

Mandie and Jonathan have tried to incorporate both white and Native American traditions into everyday life so that Jack is constantly surrounded by his heritage.

“I try to cook traditional meals once in a while and have been teaching Jack some Navajo words,” Jonathan said. “We also make sure that we visit both sides of the family often so that he is exposed to both cultures. He definitely loves learning about both cultures.”

Even though Jack is only 5, Mandie and Jonathan are hopeful he will continue to relate to both his Navajo and white heritage as he gets older.

“Jack is already proud of his heritage,” Mandie said. “We think it will continue as he grows older if we [continue] to emphasize the importance of both cultures.”

Ultimately, the couple thinks the most important thing they can do is love their son and make sure he knows that the color of his skin is not the most important thing.

“We want our son to grow up and know that he is loved,” Jonathan said. “In our family, love is more important than race ever will be.”

Empowerment through education


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools rose 26 percent between 1985 and 2007. As enrollment in public schools and adult education programs increases in the United States, the quality of what is taught to children and adults becomes more important.

Jennifer Isleib, a University of Utah student majoring in education, said education is the key to the future.

“Without the education of the past and present, humanity would be lost,” said Isleib, who works as a teacher’s aid at Dilworth Elementary. “Knowing our past is how we are going to make changes in the future, especially with young children because they are our future voice.”

One of the most important subjects in school is history. One aspect of history that is very important is learning about American Indians, said David Keyes, a social studies specialist in the Salt Lake City School District.

He believes that teaching children about American Indians is important because their story is everyone’s story.

“We need to know about the many tribes and nations that were here before the encounter with Europeans,” Keyes said in an e-mail interview. “We also need to know what happened to these peoples as a result of the encounter and how these tribes and nations continue to be part of our story today.”

In many schools today, history curricula mention cultures very quickly and then move on, Keyes said. American Indians are only mentioned briefly in many of the lessons taught in school, and many of the textbooks in Utah schools today devote only a chapter or two specifically to American Indians before and at the time of the European encounter, Keyes said.

According to the Utah State Office of Education Social Studies Core curriculum handout, the first lesson about American Indians is not until the 4th grade. This is a brief mention of the American Indian settlement on the East Coast during the encounter with the Europeans and some details about American Indians settling in Utah.

As it is very important to educate children in public schools, it is also very important to educate adults about issues that have been taught incorrectly in the past. Forrest Cuch, director of the Division of Indian Affairs, has made it a goal to inform kids and adults about history.

Cuch is a member of the Ute Indian Tribe and was born and raised on the Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Reservation in northeastern Utah. When Cuch attended elementary school he was taught that American Indians didn’t make any contribution to civilization.

In 1994, Cuch became the social studies department head at Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Utah. During this time Cuch developed a multi-cultural program and taught a full load of classes.

Cuch has also developed an “empowerment training” program for members of Indian tribes. This 10-month program taught as many as 30 people at a time about the history of their culture, spiritual, physical and mental health and taught participants how to live a better life for themselves and their children, Cuch said.

“We let them choose by showing a contrast of both worlds,” Cuch said. “After 10 months many of them were empowered to get off welfare and live a better life.”

Cuch hopes in the future these programs can be expanded to include all types of cultures because cultural diversity is what makes the world beautiful today.

Incorporating many cultures into curricula in public schools is important for children to learn about cultural diversity.

Teaching and educating children and young adults will help them understand the issues that American Indians deal with. Society still uses language, images and generalization that reinforce stereotypes associated with minorities, said Keyes, the social studies specialist.

“Over the past decade we have had an explosion of excellent materials for teachers to use,” Keyes said. “At a societal level we can continue to hope that our nation becomes more sensitive to American Indian issues.”

Navajo Hogan serves traditional foods


Squanto, of the Wampanoag tribe, helped the starving pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony 387 years ago. He lived with them and taught them how to fish and plant corn and other local vegetables.

The American Indians originally cultivated about 60 percent of the foods we eat today, said Forrest S. Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs. Those foods include corn, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolates and coffee beans.

While mainstream America has taken these native foods and created new recipes with them, the Navajo Hogan, a Salt Lake City restaurant, keeps Native American food traditions alive with their fry bread and Navajo taco.

The concrete building at 447 E 3300 South looks plain at first glance, with only a big yellow and red sign adorning its gray walls. The inside has a few simple, metal tables and chairs and a long counter in front of the open kitchen. The walls are decorated with Native American murals, strings of dried chili peppers, tribal maps, painted animal hides and various weaponry and trinkets.

Bill and Marcie Espinoza, originally from New Mexico, opened the Navajo Hogan in 1989. The building first housed the Espinozas’ arcade for the teenagers attending nearby Granite High School. One night, though, as Marcie was making dinner, Bill had the idea to sell the traditional Navajo taco that his wife made. He wanted everyone to have to opportunity to enjoy it. She refused at first because she had a full-time job, but after some persuasion from Bill she was convinced.

The restaurant’s main menu item is the Navajo taco. The traditional is the most popular, made with fresh fry bread topped with homemade chili beans, cheddar cheese, chopped lettuce, tomatoes and onions. The Navajo Hogan offers about 10 other variations as well, including vegetarian, chili cheese, blue corn and chicken.

Most North American tribes were never taught how to make bread but they experimented and learned to prepare fry bread, Cuch said in an e-mail. After surrendering to the U.S. Cavalry, Native Americans were issued rations of “salted pork or bacon, refined flour, salt, sugar, and lard,” Cuch said. They had to use the white settlers’ food to create the bread.

“The Indians mixed the flour with water and salt and made a dough,” Cuch said. “With the grease from the bacon or lard, they place the dough in the grease and created grease/fry bread.”

The Navajo Hogan also makes a sweet fry bread with cinnamon and sugar.
Mutton stew is also a staple of the Navajo tradition, Cuch said. The Navajo Hogan makes a limited amount of mutton stew with vegetables every Saturday and is served on a first come first serve basis.

Regulars come in every Saturday for the stew. Some will even call in advance to reserve their bowl, Bill said.

Mutton stew comes from the Navajo tradition of herding sheep. Their eating habits are different from other tribes, even within Utah. The Utes, the Native American tribe that Utah is named for, don’t have any well-known food traditions, Cuch said.

The food diversity stems from the Utes’ nomadic background as opposed to the Navajo’s early settling. Mormon pioneers eventually forced the Utes to change their ways. The move to a reservation restricted their eating habits and food sources.

“[The Utes used to] eat more wild game, including deer, elk, buffalo, antelope [and] trout,” Cuch said. “They learned to plant and eat corn from the Hopi.”

Though the Utes’ eating habits have changed from their traditional ways, Utahns still have the opportunity to try the Navajo taco and mutton stew at the Navajo Hogan.

Bill smiles and greets a pair of his regular customers and writes down their order from memory. He cooks their Navajo tacos according to each of their specifications, even cutting one into quarters.

People from all around the world have come to eat at the Navajo Hogan, especially during the 2002 Winter Olympics. There have been customers from New York, Alaska, Japan and Australia, Bill said.

Similar to Squanto, Bill is teaching and spreading the Native American ways and knowledge, all while feeding new people traditional Navajo foods.

Tribal leader training in SLC provides growth, opportunity


One man has high hopes for the education of Native American people, and 90 tribal leaders from across the U.S. have supported his life changing efforts.

His name is Forrest Cuch.

The program? Empowerment training.

And no, Cuch didn’t always see life the way he sees it now. As an enrolled member of the Ute Indian Tribe and executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs since 1997, he had to wade through years of his own fears and insecurities before he could help others tackle their own.

“We had a way of life that was good, but when I started hearing about Pilgrims the information was painful to me,” he says. “‘Oh, what about the Indians?'” he asked. “I didn’t feel good about school.”

Cuch admits he didn’t trust what he’d been taught by his parents and says he was confused about his heritage.

“Had the American Indians made no progress to society”? Did his people really kill those in wagon trains “without any provocation”? Were there historical inaccuracies that he should know about?

“I had to learn about my “own humanity,” he says, “my good side as well as my bad. My people enslaved [others]. I learned from that.”

Cuch also learned from a man named Mack Gift Ph.D., a non-Native American professor who taught him at Westminster College where he graduated in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science.

Twenty-nine years later, after Cuch had gained experience in Native American directing, planning and administration involving various endeavors, as well as becoming a department head and teacher in the social studies department at Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, Cuch and Gift came together once again.

The rest may even be history.

About 30 tribal leaders from across the country were invited to attend that first empowerment training in 2002 at the Embassy Suites Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. Among other things, the experiential and lecture oriented training instructed Native American tribal leaders in history, community development, spirituality, government, business and physical and mental health.

The curriculum borrows from the Minnesota Model of “training and empowering disabled people under the National Governor’s Council for the Disabled program,” Cuch says. Passive/aggressive behavior as well as eye contact is a part of the agenda that helps to educate tribal leaders to improve their lives.

And the medium has proved a success.

Thirty tribal leaders were invited and spent one weekend a month for 10 months at the same location the following year. In 2005, 30 additional tribal leaders from various Native American tribes were selected, making a total of approximately 90 tribal leaders who would finish the program.

“There was no preaching,” Cuch says. The leaders were shown how to make a better life by contrast and by choice. Though education was given, it was up to the tribal leader to take it in and live it, he says.

“It was a respite for people, a respite for excellent learning,” Gift adds in a phone interview. “Each of the tribes learned to go beyond tribal identity. They found a commonality.”

Not surprisingly, with the training of tribal leaders came growth for others.

“Tribal leaders have shared it with other people,” Gift says.” It is a great program, but we are trying to get funding to go through it again.”

Currently, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Utah is evaluating Cuch’s program, which he said costs an average of $100,000 per training or about $3,300 per participant.

The research group was “pretty impressed with the program” Gift says. He has high hopes that, in time, the training will expand. Once it’s been established annually for Native American tribal leaders, Gift would like to involve as many Native Americans as possible.

“When we hear, ‘we’re ready to live now, we see clearly now,’ that makes us feel good,” Cuch says, speaking of the empowerment program his division provides. “We must use every medium possible, and it’s a very challenging thing to do. [But] the future hinges on the quality of education for all people.”

Two Utahns find power in their personal history


“History empowers people!” says Forrest S. Cuch, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs.

Cuch, a Ute, is one of the many people who has used his history to find power and strength. He says, “What I’ve learned from my own history is my own humanity; my good side along with my bad side.”

As Cuch attended public and private school in Utah, he was taught that Indians were savage. He says the lessons he learned each day were very different than the ones that his parents taught him at home. It wasn’t until after college that he was able to really learn the truth about the history of his people; the Utes.

Discovering the truth about Native Americans has empowered Cuch. It has given him the motivation and the desire to teach others about his own history. He recognizes the misconceptions many people have about American Indians as ignorance. His goal is to change the way people view the natives of Utah, his ancestors.

According to his Web site, “He sees his present job as a major challenge with primary emphasis on educating Utah leaders and the general public, not only calling [others’] attention to the ancient presence of American Indian people in Utah, but also their present and enduring plight as citizens with very unique contributions yet to be made to modern day society.”

Some of those contributions are featured in “A History of Utah’s American Indians,” a book he edited that was published in 2000 by Utah State University Press.

Learning the truth through research and study has given Cuch a power to stand as a symbol for the American Indian people.

Jeanne Ludlow, a resident of Sandy, Utah, is another individual who has learned how history empowers people.             

Ludlow is a family history expert and has found a similar empowerment from discovering her history. In a recent e-mail interview she was asked how discovering her family history has empowered her, “It has changed my outlook on life because I don’t have to stumble through life alone. When you research someone, you become very close to him/her. I can endure because they endured. Not only that, I believe they’re pulling for me – cheering me on – maybe even guardian angels in this and other aspects of my life.”

Ludlow grew up with two grandfathers who were very diligent in the research of their family history. They taught her at a young age to appreciate this skill and to desire to learn and discover the world and people that came before her.    

She recognizes that as she has researched her personal history, she has developed skills that she can use in the world to help herself and others succeed. “I have learned how to read early handwriting. I have become familiar with Scandinavian, and German resources, and [am] familiar with words on research documents. Computer skills have changed my life. I could make an income with [these] skills. I have had people offer to pay me. Or, like others, I could compile my work and sell it in a book, or write a biography.” She continues, “I have the means of being of great service to others. I could teach or research for other people. I guess the empowerment is the perspective I get about my place in the community and the world, today; an interest in all people, and a desire to learn their history.”

Ludlow mentions the simple things she now appreciates because of the lessons she has learned from her ancestors. “I’m grateful for electric lights, bathrooms, refrigerators, pick-up trucks…there are so many relatives, who have gone before me, it makes me want to make the most of my life.”

Expert wants to expand Native American education in Salt Lake


Forrest Cuch said he was lucky to have parents who could afford to give him a private education.

Unlike other American Indian children, Cuch learned English at a young age, stayed in school and finished his undergraduate degree by 25 years old.

He said many children growing up on an American Indian reservation are not so fortunate.

“The only reason I can speak English with you right now is because of the education I received,” said Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, in an interview.

After 25 years teaching and acting as an administrator at a private school in Utah, Cuch has plans to reform Utah’s educational system.

He said that teachers require all children to follow lesson plans and learn at the same pace, which is not conducive to a learning environment.

“There is an effort to reform the school level, especially through higher education teachers,” Cuch said. “Colleges need to be altered to change (those ideas).”

Cuch is not the only person working to change the educational system.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, a teacher and songwriter in Utah, organized the Cradleboard Teaching Project in the 1970s.

The program is designed to help Native Americans receive a broader education than what they can receive in an average classroom.

According to the web site for the Cradleboard Teaching Project, Sainte-Marie tries to bring important, educational issues to students through music.

“As a teacher who was also a songwriter, I had brought Indian issues to the attention of my own generation through my records,” she said. “Then, in the late 70s, I became a semi-regular on ‘Sesame Street’ for five years. I wanted little kids and their caretakers to know one thing above all: that Indians exist. We are not all dead and stuffed in museums like the dinosaurs.”

Cuch has been trying to demonstrate that same fact for years.

He said American Indians have been paying federal income taxes and working in North America since the mid-1800s but still don’t always receive the same benefits as Anglo-Saxons.

When American Indians signed treaties with the federal government in the 1800s, they were promised protection, food and land. They received poor food that ruined their diet, Cuch said. The federal government also continually made treaties with American Indians that other European settlers would rescind.

Elementary school students don’t hear these facts, he said.

“Ninety percent of the history you’ve received in school is not entirely accurate,” Cuch said. “It was only after I got out of college that I understood.”

Universities and colleges train teachers to relate to students, handle arguments and teach students in a productive manner. Cuch said there isn’t enough emphasis put on teaching students about American Indian history. He said they also need to teach according to each student.

Many American Indian students drop out of school before graduating because the educational system doesn’t always help students who have been raised on an American Indian reservation and can’t speak enough English, Cuch said.

“(The school system) has failed to educate my people,” he said. “Right now, American Indians are at the bottom of high school drop out rates. (The) better way is to teach kids in small classrooms and encourage them to work as a group.”

Cuch plans to approach higher education institutions such as the University of Utah to discuss ways to prepare teachers to educate all students.

“I’m going to challenge them to make some changes,” he said.



Educators concerned about Utah American Indian dropouts


During the 2003-04 school year, just 377 American Indians in Utah graduated from high school while 26,976 white students graduated. According to the 2005 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, in the 2003-04 school year, 6.4 percent of Utah’s American Indian students in grades 9 through 12 dropped out of high school before graduating. This contrasts with Utah’s white students, whose dropout rate was 3 percent.

Because American Indians comprise just 2 percent of Utah’s population, this dropout rate raises concerns for the educational and occupational future of American Indians. Among those concerned is Forrest S. Cuch, director of Utah’s Division of Indian Affairs.

Cuch, born in 1951 on the Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Reservation, is a member of the Ute Indian Tribe. He studied at public schools until the 9th grade, when he enrolled in Wasatch Academy, a private college-prep school in Mt. Pleasant, Utah. He then attended Westminster College and graduated in 1973 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in behavioral sciences.

He supports private schools and credits his educational background, private schooling, to his earned occupational position. Cuch knows why American Indians have a high dropout rate. It is because “we [American Indians] come to school illiterate.” Illiterate in the ways outside of the American Indian lifestyle, that is.

Cuch’s concern is that Utah’s public school teachers don’t know how to teach American Indian children. There is an important difference in the way America’s majority is taught and the way American Indians are taught. Cuch explained that when American Indian students attend public schools for the first time, they are taken from a nurturing environment and expected to perform exactly as their peers of other races do. This causes frustration in the part of the educator and also of the student.

Cuch describes the typical classroom’s learning styles as patriarchal, analytical, competitive, controlling of nature, detail-oriented and ultimately scientific. In contrast, American Indian ways are matriarchal, holistic, cooperative, dedicated to living in harmony with nature, focused on a larger scheme and very spiritual. He emphasized that American Indian children are raised in a different world – one in which they are given the freedom to learn in their own style. When these children are placed in this unfamiliar environment, their performance levels will differ from other children. Cuch noted that the American Indian students gradually lose interest in a world that confuses them and places pressure to compete.

He suggested, “The better way to teach our kids is in a smaller classroom where they can work in groups.” He also said each child needs more individual attention. Having witnessed firsthand the way public schools handle the specific needs of American Indian students, Cuch observed “there is an effort but it is not enough.”

Nola Lodge, a clinical instructor and director of American Indian Teacher Education at the University of Utah, also has an opinion on the education of American Indian youth. In an e-mail interview, Lodge agreed with Cuch in that “teachers are not prepared to work with AI [American Indian] students.  Consequently they [students] do not reach their potential.” Lodge also worries that public school systems don’t give an accurate representation of American Indian history. The reason, she notes, is “teachers cannot teach what they do not know or understand.”

American Indians in Utah have a few alternative options to attending public schools. The Uinta River High School in Fort Duchesne is open for grades 9 through 12 where the student to teacher ratio is 10-to-1. Schools like this offer more one-on-one interactions between teachers and students, thus employing Cuch’s idea of smaller classrooms. Smaller schools are available, but are they enough? Cuch says no, that the teaching style is what should be stressed. “The best way to teach is out of love.” Lodge agrees that love is a key element. “To educate any child,” she says, “we must foster a love of learning.”

Until public schools offer better programs for American Indian students, Cuch recommends private and charter schooling for Native children, where class sizes are smaller and curriculum is more flexible.

%d bloggers like this: