Echo From the Buttes: Old tradition, new name

By

Marshall Terrill

Each August, Arizona State University's first-year students paint the gold A on “A” Mountain white to signify a fresh start to the school year. It's an activity that has been around longer than the university has been called ASU.

This year, however, the tradition has a new name.

Previously called “Whitewash the A,” the freshman welcome event will now be called “Echo From the Buttes” — wording taken from ASU's fight song.

The name change had been considered for several years, but when the student-led Alliance of Indigenous Peoples (AIP) and the ASU Student Alumni Association met last year with goals for preserving Hayden Butte — considered a sacred place for local tribes — they came to a mutual agreement that a change was needed. Negative connotations of the term “whitewash” had raised some concerns.

The Tempe campus is located on American Indian ancestral homelands, including the Akimel O'odham (Pima) and Pee Posh (Maricopa) peoples, and the university continuously seeks to connect with tribal communities.

“Indigenous belief systems are holistic and value harmony and balance with everything around us, including animals, plants, water and mountains,” said Jacob Moore, associate vice president for tribal relations at ASU. “Hayden Butte is a place of reverence and respect for our tribal communities.”

Video of Echo From the Buttes: The beginning of a new year

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Hayden Butte — also known as “A” Mountain — is sacred to local tribal communities, including the four southern tribes as the butte is a part of their ancestral homelands, Moore said.

Over the past year, the city of Tempe has removed a 30-foot communications tower, a broadcast house, foundation and a chain link fence from “A” Mountain in an effort to return the butte to a more natural state.

This year’s Echo From the Buttes will start at 8 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 24. It will include an opening indigenous blessing, a land acknowledgement and a kiosk of historical information and photos of the butte. Last year's event drew about 4,000 incoming freshmen.

“In collaboration with the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, we felt that the name ‘Echo From the Buttes’ was a better representation of the evolution of this event, while maintaining this storied tradition,” said Robert Drake, president of the ASU Student Alumni Association, which has historically been in charge of maintaining and preserving the butte. “'Echo From the Buttes' is a tribute to our fight song, and what better way to celebrate joining the Sun Devil family than by putting a fresh coat of white paint on our iconic ‘A’, symbolizing a new beginning.”

The ASU tradition has lasted for more than 80 years and represents the start of the new academic year. It’s one of the first things incoming freshmen do to feel ingrained in the university and into traditions at ASU. The “A” is painted gold again before the first home football game.

The Tempe Normal School class of 1918 was responsible for installing the first letter on the butte. When the school changed its name to Tempe State Teachers College in 1925, students retained one side of the “N” to form the stem of the “T.”

The school later changed its name to Arizona State Teachers College, and in 1938, the letter “A” was installed on the butte. In 1952, a bomb blast destroyed the letter. The present “A” stands 60 feet tall and was built of reinforced steel and concrete in 1955.

Thousands of first-year students are expected to attend the Echo From the Buttes event on Saturday, Aug. 24.

When the Alumni Association and AIP met, they had a goal to make sure that Sun Devils and the community knew the history, the traditions and the importance of making sure it’s taken care of.

“We didn’t want to take away anyone’s tradition, but Native peoples have had our own traditions way before ASU was ever a campus,” said Savannah Nelson, president of the AIP and a senior nutrition major with the College of Health Solutions. “Putting this into perspective for students is important because the campus and 'A' Mountain sits on ancestral lands. Now we all get to experience a new tradition together.”

Nelson has also drafted a document acknowledging and educating people about the history of the land, which she will read before the event’s kickoff.

AIP member Nazhoona Betsuie, a junior in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, said she was pleasantly surprised when the Student Alumni Association so readily agreed to the name change.

“We weren’t really expecting much and they gave this request great consideration, which really earned our respect,” Betsuie said. “They were willing to do something significant to address our concerns even though this is a signature event for freshmen.” 

If you go

What: Echo From the Buttes.

When: 8 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 24.

Where: Corner of College Avenue and Fifth Street in Tempe.

Details: eoss.asu.edu/welcome

Top photo: An Arizona State University freshman flashing an ASU pitcthfork on Tempe's “A” Mountain in August 2018. Previously called “Whitewash the A,” the freshman welcome event will now be called “Echo From the Buttes.” Photo courtesy of the Arizona Board of Regents.