The legend of the Thunderbird: The Southern Paiute Tribe and SUU

Southern Utah University’s campus was built in 1897 on the homeland of the Southern Paiute Native American Tribe. The Southern Paiutes have lived in this area, now known as southern Utah, since time immemorial. Early Utah settlers displaced the Paiute people, and the tribe entered into an era of great trials, as Tribal Administrator Shane Parashonts described.

Parashonts is an enrolled member of the tribe, and for the past six years has worked closely with SUU creating opportunities for collaboration between the tribe and the university. Although the tribe owns reservation land and has established relationships with SUU and the Cedar City community in the present day, their history tells of hardships overcome, resiliency and rich traditions that live on today.

The Paiute Tribe of Utah is made up of five bands that exist throughout southern Utah: the Kanosh Band, the Koosharem Band, the Shivwits Band, the Indian Peaks Band and the Cedar Band, the last two being located in town. 

“Our headquarters is in Cedar City, Utah. The leaders chose to headquarter the tribe in Cedar because it was a central spot between [the five bands],” explained Parashonts.

When the state entered the Union in 1849, the name “Utah” was chosen, originating from the name of the Ute Native Americans, who were known as the people of the mountains. The whole state of Utah was once territory of the Paiute and other Native American tribes. While the Southern Paiutes still lived in the Cedar City area, the displacement caused by settlers devastated life as they had known it, and they would face great adversity as they adapted to the new way of life.

Unfortunately, by the 1950s, the Southern Paiutes were one of the tribes to have been terminated from federal recognition in a series of laws and acts signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This termination took away the federal government’s responsibility to assist the tribe with federal benefits or respect the lands they once owned. 

“In the 1970s, our leaders formed and came together and united to fight for and pursue restoration legislation,” Parashonts said. His father, Travis Parashonts, was one of the leaders of this pursuit. “During the tribe’s fight for regaining its federal recognition, one of the processes they had to go through was a lot of public meetings. There was a lot of input from the community.” In 1980, the tribe’s federal recognition was reinstated through these efforts, restoring to the Southern Paiute their land and establishing resources to improve their living conditions.

A 1931 gathering of Southern Paiute tribe members.
Photo courtesy of the Gerald R. Sherratt Library Special Collections.

SUU was, at the time, called Southern Utah State College. “The school was a strong advocate for the tribe in supporting their pursuit to regain recognition,” said Parashonts. “Even back in the ‘70s, the college was supporting the tribe and our efforts in doing right to the wrongs that were done to our tribe.”

Parashonts has worked closely with the last three presidents of SUU. The tribe and the university have organized opportunities for students to be introduced to the people and culture that came long before SUU, such as a traditional dance that all new students watch on the final day of freshman orientation. 

“We’ve really looked at these opportunities to be more actively involved, to create that awareness but also to be there as support. We have a voice, and we want to recognize the important role our tribe plays in our community but also the important role that this partnership and [this legacy] can play in our community,” said Parashonts. He feels fortunate to play a part in expanding the reach and impact of their tribe within the university and to strengthen this important bond between the two.

The university has shown commitment to this partnership with the Southern Paiutes and continues to honor their people and their homelands through dedicated efforts towards inclusion and diversity. SUU has released a Land Acknowledgment Statement, declaring, “​​SUU wishes to acknowledge and honor the Indigenous communities of this region as original possessors, stewards, and inhabitants of this Too’veep (land), and recognize that the University is situated on the traditional homelands of the Nung’wu (Southern Paiute People).”

Shane Parashonts (L) and Travis Parashonts (R) perform a traditional Southern Paiute blessing over SUU president Mindy Benson at her inauguration.
Photo courtesy of SUU’s Marketing Department.

In the fall of 2022, then president-to-be Mindy Benson contacted the tribe and asked them to participate in her inauguration ceremony. Travis Parashonts performed a traditional Southern Paiute blessing over the president in a beautiful show of support and solidarity between the tribe and the school. 

Shortly after, in the fall semester, a two-day conference was held on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 with the goal to educate community members about Southern Paiute language and culture. The Fall Gathering was the first event of its kind, where tribe members and SUU faculty came together to discuss community development and diversity.

The university offers courses in many departments centered around Native American culture. Students can take Native American history, culture and literature classes through the history, anthropology and English departments, respectively.

The special collections department of SUU’s library houses artifacts, photographs and documents preserving the history of the tribe on campus. They have created exhibits to display these artifacts and have worked closely with the tribe on these projects. 

The Southern Paiute tribal flag hangs in the Hall of Flags in the Sharwan Smith Student Center among other flags representing nations all over the world. “Recognizing us as a sovereign nation and as a community partner — that means a lot,” said Parashonts. 

Even the university’s mascot, the Thunderbird, comes from legends of Indigenous peoples. The university’s original mascot was the Bronco until 1960 when a change was proposed and students and faculty submitted their suggestions for a student vote: the Iron Men, the Falcons and the Thunderbirds. 

According to a 1961 edition of the College of Southern Utah newspaper, the Thunderbird was proposed as a “strong, mighty, powerful, good and friendly” symbol that represented the school’s values and recognized the Native American people and this sacred symbol. After four months of deliberation, this “sacred bearer of happiness” was chosen as the university mascot, as it remains today.

When asked for his message to the SUU community, Parashonts encouraged people to learn more about the tribe itself. 

“One of the first things we want everyone to know is we are here. There is a tribe that is located in Cedar City,” said Parashonts. “There is a lot of uniqueness and special qualities about the tribe that we love sharing with our community. We are a sovereign nation; we govern ourselves. There is a lot that can be learned from the tribe, and we are here to help share and tell that story.”

Shane Parashonts, Tribal Administrator for the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.
Photo courtesy of Shane Parashonts.

Parashonts hopes that students recognize that the beautiful land they stand on while walking on campus is filled with deep history, culture, traditions, spirituality and connectedness — these things are parts of the legacy that the Southern Paiutes have preserved, even through great suffering. We are, as he puts it, “stewards of the land, of each other and of our communities.” 

The Southern Paiute tribe has endured much that has stained the history of Cedar City. Through the sacrifices their ancestors made, the Southern Paiutes have continued to exemplify the characteristics of the Thunderbird for which SUU’s mascot was named. They are “strong, mighty, powerful, good and friendly,” and SUU continues to reap the benefits of the Southern Paiutes’ love for this land. As the school and the tribe continue to grow, both hope to maintain this relationship of mutual support and teach students about the history of the land on which SUU was built.


Author: Lily Brunson
Feature photo courtesy of Bria Hansen 

This article was originally published in the March 2023 edition of the University Journal.