Lynda Grove d’Wolf learned the Ute language from her grandmother, Bessie Blue Elk Grove, who raised her in Ignacio.
Few Southern Ute children nowadays have that experience, and few Southern Utes regularly speak the language.
D’Wolf, age 66, is worried about the language’s survival. Of about 1,500 tribal members, “there are probably 35 that speak it fluently,” she said.
D’Wolf, along with a Durango technology developer, has created a Southern Ute language application for smartphones. The app offers the Southern Ute translations for certain categories of words, including greetings, weather, animals and foods.
“The passion I have for the language is – the language is who we are,” she said. “It’s a gift from our creator. Without the language, we become paper Indians.”
D’Wolf studied Ute language and culture at Prescott College in Arizona, earning a master’s degree. She initially created some Ute language lessons on CD and posters before her adult children persuaded her an app would reach more users.
“I didn’t know what an app was,” she said. “I’m 66 years old, and I’m old school.”
Southern Ute is closely related to the Ute Mountain Ute, Paiute and Shoshone languages, d’Wolf said.
In Southern Ute, snow is Nuvu, fall is Yunant, while the Navajo tribe is Paga Wii-ci. A person with sexy eyes is Naa Sava Ciche, and a horse is a Kava.
D’Wolf brought her ideas to Robin Johnson, a Durango coder, who developed the app in only a couple of months.
“It was definitely different,” Johnson said. “I got to learn a little bit about the Ute language. For me, it was a fun little side project.”
The application can be downloaded from the App Store by searching for its name, Kavia Nuccie. It costs $4.99.
For those who want to learn Southern Ute, there are few avenues. The Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy teaches the language through sixth grade. The Southern Ute Cultural Center also offers reading and writing and conversational Ute classes.
KSUT-FM, the tribal radio station, airs a “Ute Word of the Week” every weekday morning. A recipe show, “Karen’s Kitchen,” airs in Ute, said Sheila Nanaeto, KSUT’s director for tribal radio.
D’Wolf has been disappointed that the tribe hasn’t embraced her language materials.
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” she said.
Native languages around the nation are slipping away because of English’s dominance, easy access to mass media and intermarriage between tribal members and English speakers.
Efforts to preserve native languages date back to Sequoyah, a Cherokee who developed that language’s syllabary in 1821.
The Southern Ute reservation stretches across much of southern La Plata County, but many tribal members live in and around Ignacio and Bayfield. Because of the tribe’s proximity to the two towns, “We have assimilated quite well into the white man’s world,” d’Wolf said.
Intermarriage with nontribal members also has reduced the number of Utes who speak the language, she said.
Some tribes, including the Navajo Nation and the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory of Quebec, Canada, have made partnerships with the language learning company Rosetta Stone. But d’Wolf said she’s not interested in selling her language materials to a for-profit corporation.
In contrast to the small population of Southern Ute speakers, Navajo is the most commonly spoken native language in the U.S., with 148,500 speakers, according to the UCLA Language Materials Project.
For the Southern Utes, a much smaller tribe, survival of the language is far more precarious.
Southern Ute is a descriptive language, d’Wolf said.
“When a bunch of us get together and speak it, it’s unique,” she said. “It’s pretty. It’s not a hard language.”