The Southern Ute language mirrors native dialects throughout the United States and Canada in that those who understand and speak it are dwindling.
A small group of tribal members gathered in Ignacio on Wednesday to discuss ways the tribe, with limited resources allocated from the Tribal Council, can revamp interest and understanding of the language.
That could start with the formation of a committee of Ute language speakers.
According to Stacey Oberly, an assistant linguistics professor at the University of Arizona, most of the languages spoken by the approximately 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States and Canada have been forgotten, and more continue to be lost.
In many cases, that is because parents or grandparents speak the language, but they do not pass it down to their children.
“When it’s spoken by the parents, the life expectancy is that of the parents,” Oberly said.
By the year 2050, only about 20 Native American languages will be spoken and understood.
“That is pretty serious,” Oberly said.
“The main goal of revitalization is to create a new generation of speakers. And we need to think about not just revitalization, but also documentation. We need to document every aspect of our language, and we need to do it quick so in 100 years, a tribal member can pick up what they need to become a fluent speaker.”
When discussing ways to revitalize the language, tribal members agreed that means promoting the Southern Ute culture as a whole. The key to that is persuading elders, who as one attendee pointed out, are “very quiet people who don’t like committees,” to come forward and teach the language.
Another component is build interest in younger generations.
“As a teacher, I have found that there are different ways of teaching, and I found that if you want the child to learn, you have to capture that attention,” said Lynda D’Wolf, a tribal elder who teaches the Native American language at Ignacio High School. “I also learned, too, that you can only catch the interest of the student if they want to learn. I always had to challenge them. That, I think, is the key.
“But it’s true: The Southern Ute language is dying.”
Last year, D’Wolf had eight students. By the end of the year, one was fluent.
Pearl Casias, a former tribal judge and council leader, stated the obvious: “To learn the language is to use it,” she said.
She also shared strong words for the tribe’s current governing body stepping up to preserve the native tongue.
“What the council controls is the purse strings, and if they are dedicated and committed enough to say, ‘I’m your leader,’ then put your money where your mouth is and put forth the money for this very important issue that is going to die.”