Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 13, 2001 - Issue 27



A Unique Academy Preserves


Indian Culture

IGNACIO, Colo. -- Next to the old, brick former boarding school where Southern Ute Indian youngsters once had their mouths scrubbed with soap for speaking Ute, Georgia McKinley, 57, now teaches the nearly lost language.

The newly opened Southern Ute Indian Academy stands on the ground of the boarding school's long-vacant girl's dormitory, where in the '50s McKinley and her classmates had their braids shorn to abolish evidence of their Indian heritage.

Today, in a new copper-roofed classroom, McKinley teaches young Utes about their culture.

"When I was little, I went to the boarding school here," McKinley said. "But in the summer I spoke Ute with my parents and grandparents. They taught me about being Ute.

"And here I am today, teaching Ute where I once wasn't allowed to speak it. Isn't that something?"

In the big-windowed classrooms, the 60 children in prekindergarten through third grade learn reading, writing, geology, history, math, and the Southern Ute language and culture under the Montessori teaching system.

The academy is a bid by the 1,350 Southern Utes to reverse a century-long cycle of cultural dilution and federal attempt to extinguish Indian identity.

It will be a long road back, even at the nation's only tribally funded school.

For instance, although enrollment at the academy is limited to Southern Ute tribal members and their direct descendants, there are Hispanic, Anglo, black and Southern Ute youngsters in the classrooms.

"I don't think there's a child here who is full-blooded Southern Ute," said former academy director Diane Millich-Olguin, who is part Spanish and Southern Ute.

In the language classes, Southern Ute ways prevail. Take learning the word for coyote: YOG-ovu-chi. The Southern Utes view the lithe predator much like Wile E. Coyote of cartoon fame, forever suffering from his own errors.

"The coyote is a trickster," McKinley said. "He has a moral for children: If you do like the coyote, you will not be successful."

In some of the classrooms, the book Buffalo Dreams tells of the rare, white buffalo calf named Miracle that has drawn thousands of visitors to a Wisconsin ranch. Indian lore tells of a white buffalo that unifies the world in peace.

"It's a story about Miracle. It makes me happy," 7-year-old Renita Tabbee said.

Each classroom has a Montessori-style peace table where children go to settle fights.

Jessica Ross, 8, explains the peace table's rules: "You say something nice to them. They say something nice to you. And if you don't have something nice to say, don't say nuthin."

So, the Southern Ute Tribal Academy is far more than a Montessori school with a unique language requirement. It's a reassertion of a heritage, evidence of the Southern Utes' commitment to educational excellence -- the school's budget is $2 million a year, paid entirely by the tribe -- and a way to educate culturally diverse tribal members to the Ute world view.

"My daughter, Kelsey, 7, learned to read the first week of school," said Wahleah Frost, who went to the public school in Ignacio. "She's excelling far more than I expected. I wish I had come here. When you lose your language, you lose yourself.

The Southern Ute sense of self harks back to when the Utes were known as the Blue Sky People, long before Europeans arrived. The Utes lived throughout Colorado and into New Mexico and Utah. Extended families followed the buffalo herds and traded with Plains Indians and neighbors to the south.

"Ute is not spoken in many homes," Jefferson said. "Soon, all the elder Ute speakers will be gone. There will be no one to explain what the words mean on all levels. Without this kind of school, we could lose our culture." For many of the children and their teachers, Southern Ute is their third language after English and Spanish. McKinley, a certified teacher and a Ute elder, is the only person at the academy who is fluent in Ute.

The other teachers who weren't raised in the traditions or language take a Ute language class after school each day.

"I wish the school had been here when I was young," the academy's principal, Carol Olguin, said. When she was a child, she went to the public school in Ignacio. "I would have known who I was. It would have made me stronger."

And, just like at any school, the academy has its opponents.

There were two petitions to stop the project, both backed by Southern Utes who worried that the academy's budget would drain tribal finances, that the school was elitist and that elders weren't part of the daily routine.

"There's more to being a Southern Ute than learning Ute words," said Dorothy Naranjo, 55, an elder who has taught Southern Ute to classes at the local public school and summer camps.

"We elders are so willing to be there to help. We don't want it to die. But they don't trust us because we don't have teaching certificates," she said.

Millich-Olguin said she wants tribal elders to talk with students, passing along the Ute ways that only they know.

"We can succeed, and we will, no matter how much we get picked on," McKinley said.

The school year falls during the time when Southern Utes traditionally gather inside a tepee or other dwelling to hear elders tell stories that define the tribe.

So it is in McKinley's classroom when the first snow swirled, signaling the Southern Ute tradition of telling animal stories only in winter.

"I am sharing the Ute I grew up with," McKinley said. "I am put on the Earth for a time, and I can't leave what I know, so I am sharing what I know with the children."

Southern Ute Homepage

History of the Utes




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