The Guardian Art program blends physical activity with language immersion to teach youth in Native American communities.
Southern Ute tribal member, Alex Pena practices Guardian Art, at the Nexus Headquarters in Fremont, Calif. on Friday, Jan. 18.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Guardian Art
Photo Credit: Courtesy Virgil Morgan | SunUte
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Ute language immersion through Guardian Art

A Native American based “ninja” gymnastics program aims to reinforce the Ute language through a unique and proven method of teaching.

“We are combining the language with movement,” explained SunUte Director, Robin Duffy-Wirth. “When you do that, there is a higher retention rate.”

“Eight of us went to California to explore the program,” Duffy-Wirth explained. The Executive Officers, Virgil Morgan, Elijah Weaver, Nate Hendren, Maria Archuleta, and Alex Pena. We spent two days at their gym — the Nexus Guardian Art Headquarters. “The team building was unbelievable. Watching the youth’s confidence build was a highlight of the trip,” Duffy-Wirth said.

Guardian Art was created by Great Owl Lightening, who hails from the Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation on Canada’s Manitoulin Island. He is a fluent speaker in his own language, which led him to establish three immersion schools in Canada to help other communities and tribes retain their individual languages. Through Guardian Art, we took a whole different approach to teaching and preserving culture and language, he explained.

The Guardian Art program collaborated with tribes and first nations whose population of fluent language speakers was estimated to be as low as 50-60 speakers. He estimates that the population of fluent Southern Ute speakers could be as low as 20. “To me the Ute language is on the endangered species list,” he emphasized. “It is a make it or break it situation — and our system has been proven to work.”

“I’m learning to speak Ute through our techniques,” Lightening said. “Working with [Lynda] D’Wolf to learn how to create immersion. It is strengthening a cultural value as well. We want to make this Southern Ute,” Lightening emphasized.

Cultural Education Coordinator, Hanley Frost is bringing in the Ute culture aspects, Lynda D’Wolf the language. Ute Language Guide, Dr. Stacy Oberly is networking between Guardian Art and the Southern Ute Montessori Academy.

“Our program is based on repetition, action and memory. It uses the body, and incorporates cultural viewpoints,” he explained. “There is no age limit on Guardian Art.” It builds unity between kids and parents — kids teach parents. Parents share the same challenges while bonding with their children.

“While you’re doing it, you’re saying it. Some kids are more hands on than visual, so they learn it through muscle memory — they are hearing the Ute language and doing it at the same time,” reinforced SunUte Recreation Manger Virgil Morgan.

“I believe this is an amazing program. This is the trial period,” Duffy-Wirth said. “We were gifted this project; to see if this is a viable program for the Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy and BGC.”

SunUte is working with SUIMA and BGC from March 18 — May 17. The program is funded through a grant from Tribal Health to pay for equipment and time.

“Not only will it promote the Ute language, it promotes self-esteem, body awareness. How to handle bullies, self-defense, plus it builds confidence — and it’s a blast,” exclaimed Duffy-Wirth.

Guardian Art founder, Great Owl Lightening is excited about the collaboration with SunUte. The three-month program will take place each week on Mondays and Fridays, plus an evening program in conjunction with Friday Family Fun Nights at SunUte. The evening program is open to everyone, the proceeds go towards funding the NaNa-Ma (Together) Giving Program, which provides memberships to students and families who would otherwise not have the opportunity to take advantage of SunUte’s facilities and programs.




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