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A sleeping language awakens

A sleeping language awakens


In 2019, La Titia Taylor, Education Department director for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Southwest Colorado, gathered data on how many SUIT citizens spoke the Ute language fluently. The data reflected that of the 1,500 tribal members, only 35 fluent Ute speakers remained, a number that continually decreases as elders die. For a culture carried by the spoken word from generation to generation, the disappearance of the language means more than diminished vocabulary. It’s irretrievable Indigenous history.

“We’re a unique group of people, one of the few tribes who say our creation story is here on this continent,” Taylor said. “We’re still here, and we are part of Colorado’s history and its future.”

Taylor and her team connected with Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute elders to discuss how to build a language program. The research helped the SUIT earn a $1 million language preservation grant from the Administration for Native Americans. The grant funded the creation of the Southwest Indigenous Language Development Institute in collaboration with the SUIT’s Culture and Education departments and Fort Lewis College’s School of Education.

Jenni Trujilla stands with Ute language students, as they present their language teaching projects.

“Your identity is so tied to the first language you learned as a baby; it’s who you are,” said Jenni Trujillo, dean of FLC’s School of Education. “Ute is one of the languages of Colorado. The language is asleep, and it’s just a matter of waking it up. How can we activate it and share it with others?”

Over the last three years, Taylor and 29 other students have been patiently regenerating the Ute language, or nύu-‘apagha-pi, through SILDI. The three-year program primarily hosts members from the three Ute tribes: the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Ute Indian Tribe from northeastern Utah. Some students come from as far away as Hawaii. The class meets for four hours on Saturdays in a hybrid online and in-person format. Nationally renowned guest speakers, local experts, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous professors from colleges around the Southwest share tools, readings, and teaching practices to help keep languages alive.

"Language and culture go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other."
— Emeline Root, Ute language culture & curriculum coordinator

“There are at least three different dialects between the three [Ute] tribes,” Taylor said. “That can get hairy, so we must be patient, listen, and try our best to make it all fit.”

Most students didn’t speak the Ute language before the program began, so contextual coursework blends language practice with learning how to teach and design lesson plans. Students learn Ute prayers, songs, blessings, and stories, and each semester, they complete creative projects and present their work to the class.

For her Fall 2022 project, Taylor made 30 flashcards with Ute words depicting life and water and then crafted a lesson around that vocabulary. Each semester, new material, like Taylor’s flashcards, adds to the developing resource cache tribal members can access beyond the program.

With students ranging from 20 to 80 years old, Ute elders advise the syllabus and serve as mentors throughout the course. One of these elders is Emeline Root, a citizen of the Ute Indian Tribe on the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation in northeastern Utah, the second largest reservation in the United States. Her first language is Ute.

A Ute language student presents her project, a 3-panel board with cut-outs of colorful images, headlines, and data.

“Growing up, everyone spoke it–at the store, tribal meetings, in powwows, at home,” Root said. “Now, when I go to Walmart, it’s all English, even from the elders.”

Though she never received a formal education credential, Root has worked in the reservation’s schools for nearly 40 years, teaching the Ute language. Root said that many elders believe that the Ute language should be learned at home and not taught in schools.

“[The elders] didn’t consider that hardly anyone was passing it down,” Root said. “They felt it would hold back their children and grandchildren if they learned [Ute]. They needed to be proficient in English to succeed in life, so they made a conscious decision not to teach their kids.”

"The language is asleep, and it’s just a matter of waking it up. How can we activate it and share it with others?"
— Jenni Trujillo, dean of FLC's School of Education

Root, 64, is now the Ute language culture & curriculum coordinator at the reservation’s charter high school. She applied to SILDI to deepen her knowledge as an educator.

“It’s never too late to learn, so I’m here to learn the teaching part,” Root said. “It’s been wonderful applying what I’ve learned to the practical side of my teaching. It’s also validated what I’ve already been doing.”

The Ute people represent a small percentage of Indigenous Peoples who have experienced the disappearance of their languages over the last century. Root recalled a National Indian Education Association conference in October 2022. A presenter shared her belief that many of these languages were lost “because of love.”

A Ute language student presents her project to other students, a drawing of various aspects of Ute life, an outline of the mountains, and blue stars.

“Our grandparents and parents are the boarding school generations and remember the severe punishments they would receive for speaking their native languages,” she said. “They loved us so much that they didn’t want their children and grandchildren to go through what they did. They wanted to protect us from those traumas because of love.”

In May 2023, the first SILDI students will graduate as certified Ute language instructors. Like Root, most students are already teachers in their home communities and use the program in their current roles. They’re also helping family members learn Ute. For Root, reawakening the language ensures the Ute people will continue to thrive.

“Language and culture go hand in hand,” Root said. “You can’t have one without the other. I believe language is the foundation of our identity as Ute people. The language comes from our creators. It’s sacred to us. We must now speak and keep it going. We can’t let it go; we can’t let it die. It’s crucial to our future that we continue.”

The Southwest Indigenous Language Development Institute

The Southwest Indigenous Language Development Institute is more than a way to preserve Ute culture; it’s a step toward healing. As a Native American-Serving Non-Tribal Institution, Fort Lewis College is proud to serve as the future home of SILDI in its Center for Indigenous Research, Culture, and Language.

“With the institution being on Ute lands, we want to acknowledge how much the Southern Ute Indian Tribe has done for Campus,” said Jenni Trujillo, dean of FLC’s School of Education. “[SILDI] is an action-oriented path that FLC is taking around reconciliation and healing as we think back on our past and as we look ahead. Language was ripped away and stolen from people. This initiative is a way to do something, to be actionable about healing.”

Top photo by Rhyler Overend.

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