Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
June 17, 2000 - Issue 12

Ute Language in Danger of Withering Away
by Bob Mims Salt Lake Tribune

FT. DUCHESNE -- Venita Taveapont has an urgent message for her brothers and sisters of the Northern Ute Indian Tribe: "Kachak eech noomwe noowygyenay moohoohtee-ep." It means, in the Uto-Aztecan language of Utes, or Noochew, "Don't allow our way of speaking to be lost." That the majority of Utes would need English translation to understand her message underscores the importance of the warning.

In a tribe of 3,200 members, Taveapont, who also serves as the Utes Indian Child Welfare Act coordinator, is one of just 478 fluent speakers of the Ute language, Nooahpahgut. Estimates are that without a concentrated language education effort, the last of the fluent Ute speakers could disappear around 2025.

Most other Utes can recall a few phrases of their ancient tongue -- Mique Wush Tagooven (Hello, my friend), Tograyock (Thank you) or Pooneekay Vatsoom Ahdtuih (I'll see you again) -- but English has become the common, dominant language on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in eastern Utah.

"I was lucky; I learned the language from my grandparents, who raised me," Taveapont said. "It was done traditionally, with everything being done at home through the language. It was saying and doing, repetition every day."

The Ute language has always been an oral one, closely related to the speech patterns of distant cousins, the Shoshone, the Paiutes and other Great Basin tribes.

While the tongue's consonants are fairly stable, its vowels vary according to rules learned over generations both by ear and rote. Context is important to proper interpretation of words. The passage of time is also treated differently.

"In our language we have different times, whether it happened just yesterday or several years ago, or if it is happening now or it is going to happen," Taveapont said. "It's not an easy language."

Expanding what has been only a spoken language into a written one is the first step to ensure its survival. Toward that end, Taveapont last fall presented the Ute Language Revitalization Project to Ute elders for review.

At the project's heart is creating an alphabet. One is in the works, but Taveapont acknowledges it will probably be years before tribal linguists and the Northern Ute Business Committee adopt a standardized system of letters.

"We're keeping it on the back burner right now, but it's there. The difficulties arise in that we don't have a 'J' sound or a 'Z' sound, and we have had to add a few symbols of our own for sounds not in English," she said.

Another proposal being considered is a language immersion program for preschool Ute children.

Larry Cesspooch, director of audiovisual services for the tribe, envisions a low-power, Ute-run television station broadcast entirely in the tribe's language. Tribal officials plan to seek congressional support for a license application to the Federal Communications Commission soon.

Cesspooch is also pushing for improvements to the tribe's Web site ( that could include expanded language education resources in addition to cultural and historical information already online.

"They believe the hearts, minds and spirits of the Ute people today are the same as they were for the old people. Only the objects we use change," he said. "Yesterday, it was the bow and arrow, nowadays it's laptops, Web sites and video."

In the tribe's war for cultural survival, Betsy Chapoose is on the frontline. It is her job to preserve archaeological treasures left by the Utes' ancestors. With just herself and a secretary, the director of Ute Cultural Rights and Protection admits she can often be overwhelmed.

Chapoose's charge is to protect grave sites, ancient settlement sites and artifacts on the reservation, which stretches 4.5 million acres over portions of Duchesne, Uintah and Grand counties. Her responsibilities also include the plains, deserts and mountains the Utes once roamed throughout Utah and in neighboring Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico.

From that ancient home roughly the size of Texas, the Utes were steadily pushed into today's reservation by encroaching white settlers and soldiers. Broken treaties have proven the rule of Ute relations with the United States.

In 1863, in exchange for ceding Colorado lands east of the Rockies, the Utes were assured they were masters of what remained west of the Continental Divide. That pact lasted just five years, with the Utes next losing all their mineral rights. Gold- and silver-hungry miners moved in, and in 1873 representatives from Washington asked Ute chiefs to surrender more land.

Meantime, the Utes in Utah -- initially friendly to Mormon settlers -- were steadily pushed from their lush valleys. Less than two decades after the 1847 arrival of Brigham Young and his Mormon refugees, clashes with the settlers became frequent, finally erupting in open warfare.

From 1863 to 1868, the Ute warrior Black Hawk, occasionally joined by bands of neighboring Paiutes and Navajos, raided settlements and fought Mormon militia.

By 1869, driven by hunger and white retaliation, the Utah Utes chose peace in the form of exile to the inhospitable Uintah Basin. In 1881, they were joined by their Colorado relatives, driven at gunpoint onto Utah reservation lands.

Black Hawk died of natural causes in 1870 and was buried in the mountains near Spring Lake in Utah County. In 1911, miners dug up Black Hawk's grave and the bones ended up with the LDS Church's historical department.
In 1994, the long-forgotten remains were rediscovered and turned over to LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, which worked with Chapoose and other Ute officials to turn them over to Black Hawk's descendants. In May 1996 the warrior was reburied on a bluff overlooking Spring Lake.

It was the highlight of Chapoose's eight years as cultural watchdog for the Utes, but she sees her more routine duties no less important to protecting her people's heritage. One day may find her working with ski resort developers in Colorado to protect sensitive artifacts; another day may see her negotiating preservation of other,
less famous remains from an ancient grave site.

A long-term goal is reopening the Northern Ute Tribal Museum. The Utes have been without one since 1985, when a Thanksgiving weekend flood destroyed much of its extensive library and a collection of irreplaceable arts and crafts.

Tribal officials want a new cultural center, Chapoose said, but bare-bones budgeting in recent years has forced them to shelve the idea.

Northern Ute Indian Tribe

History of the Uintah-Ourah Indian Reservation

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