Translated on the pages of a digital dictionary downloaded to
the computer desktops of government workers for the Southern Ute
Indian Tribe, the sentence means, "The Ute language is disappearing."
Experts and tribal leaders say culture is a critical component
of American Indian life, affecting tribes' interactions with
government, family, the environment and their neighbors. But some
say the practices and teachings of their heritage are fading within
the Ute Nation's tribal membership, and it could have painful
effects for both the tribes and their neighboring communities.
As tribal members and leaders work to preserve the rites, spiritual
beliefs and daily practices that make up their culture, many say
the first place to start is by preserving the language. It is at
the heart of the tribes' culture and spiritual songs. And for
centuries, it was the only way through which their traditions and
rituals were passed down.
"The language identifies who we are," said Lynda Grove
D'Wolf, who teaches workshops on language and culture for Southern
Ute tribal members. "If we lose the language, we lose our identity."
With each generation, fewer tribal members are fluent in the
Uto-Aztec language passed on by their ancestors, tribal members
"We don't want it to become a dead language,"
said Pearl Casias, Southern Ute chairwoman.
When Casias was sworn in to office last year, tribal members
celebrated the inauguration of a leader fluent in the language.
The language once was at the root of Ute teachings covering
everything from spiritual practices to medicine and hunting. Knowledge
was passed down generationally through a strong tradition of oral
But those days have fallen to the wayside, tribal officials
said. And as the tribes' critical oral traditions die, so do
many of the practices once taught through the native tongue.
Southern Ute Culture Department Director Stacie Oberly estimates
that only a small percentage of the tribe speaks and understands
the language. Even fewer, just a few dozen, are fluent in it, she
"It's a dire situation," Oberly said. "Language
is really central to the culture."
The number of fluent speakers is higher in the Ute
Mountain Ute tribe, where the reservation isn't dotted with private
non-native landowners, said Manuel Heart, Ute Mountain Ute council
member. Still, fluency numbers are dangerously low and falling,
he said, with less than a quarter of the tribe's 2,100 members fluent
in the language that's largely similar to that of the Southern Ute
"We're really concerned about our language and culture,"
Loss of the language led the Northern Utes to build a school
for high-school-aged children that includes language and culture
as part of the curriculum. And the Southern Utes built a school
with the same philosophy and goals for preschool and elementary
The Ute Mountain Utes hope one day to open a middle school that
could close the instructional gap for the Ute Nation's youth,
ensuring the teachings are lifelong through their education, Heart
said. It could take a decade or more to make it a reality, though,
In the meantime, the tribes are working with school districts
to gain more instruction on native language, history and culture.
They face challenges, however, because so many tribal members
who speak the language fluently are not officially qualified to
teach in Colorado's public schools, Heart said.
But there's hope as efforts spring up locally and around
the country to save and document dying languages.
Initiatives such as the 2011 National Native Language Revitalization
Summit this summer on Capitol Hill are encouraging collaboration.
The White House is considering an executive order on Native American
language revitalization that would officially recognize the historical
damage the federal government inflicted on Indian tribes and would
seek to develop federal plans, committees and collaborative efforts
with tribes to revitalize and protect tribes' languages. And
many organizations and tribes are infusing the efforts with grants
and other financial help to create language-preservation programs
for tribes that cannot afford to fund their own initiatives.
But programs alone won't be enough to save the Ute language,
Oberly said. The teaching efforts will require consistency in the
home and the community.
"This type of work requires a high degree of commitment
from the families and individuals in the tribe," Oberly said.