IGNACIO – In an effort to preserve the Ute language, some 75 members of the Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Northern Ute tribes attended the first “Let us all wake up and speak Ute” linguistics conference last week in Ignacio.
Of the 567 recognized Native American tribes today, only about 20 are expected to have fluent Ute speakers in 2050, and all who attended agreed that their native tongue was in danger of extinction.
“It’s important that we revitalize the Ute language,” said conference moderator Arlene Millich. “If our language dies, then our souls die.”
Millich pointed out that an early indicator of linguistic extinction was already evident, adding that if Ute officials were forced to be fluent before taking office – a requirement recently overturned on the Navajo reservation – then the tribe would be left without governance.
More than one attendee was critical of tribal support for their language.
“I don’t think the tribal leaders care,” one woman said.
Southern Ute Chairman Clement Frost was the only tribal leader to attend the daylong conference July 31, but he left immediately after offering welcoming remarks.
To combat the problem, University of Arizona linguistics professor Stacey Oberly invited conference attendees to offer suggestions on how to protect and revitalize the Ute language.
About a dozen ideas were presented, including an annual language conference, utilizing Ute names for buildings and streets, giving children a Ute name, collecting and preserving stories from elders and greater general awareness among tribal members.
Teach your children well
“The best way to keep a language alive is to create new speakers,” said Oberly, suggesting that tribal members formulate language nests at the preschool level. “That’s the goal.”
Another suggestion was for all three Ute reservations to embrace their differences, especially their respective dialects.
Despite those nuances, Ute Mountain Ute elder Terry Knight reminded those in attendance that they should unite in helping to ensure that the language survives, adding that dialects helped to identify tribal members based on their location and environment.
“We’re all one,” the Ute elder said.
Southern Ute elder Linda Grove d’Wolf agreed.
“Our language is our identity,” said d’Wolf, estimating that only 30 of the 1,500 Southern Ute members were fluent today.
Traveling from Fort Duchesne, Utah, Northern Ute elder Jonas Grant said he feared the Ute language was in peril, adding that elders needed to ensure they teach the language to their grandchildren.
“Whenever the elders die, then the language could die,” Grant said.