Saving a dying language

Tribal member Stacey Oberly gives examples of how to revitalize the Southern Ute language, including documentation and early childhood education.
Southern Ute tribal elder, Pearl Casias discusses how introducing the Southern Ute language to the youth is crucial for revitalization.
Damon Toledo | The Southern Ute Drum
Damon Toledo | The Southern Ute Drum


In an aggressive effort of saving the Southern Ute language, tribal members met during a Language Revitalization and Documentation meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 18 to discuss the various strategies of keeping the language alive – which many have agreed is unfortunately deteriorating.

Dr. Stacey Oberly, Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy Ute Language Guide, gave a number of suggestions that were deemed beneficial in reviving the Southern Ute language, which includes working with younger age groups, recording songs in the Ute language, hosting camps, and creating partnerships with universities.

“We need to document every aspect of our language and we need to do it quick – we don’t have many elders left,” Dr. Oberly said. “I suggest we consider these [strategies] toward revitalizing our language while being honest with ourselves. We are doing this for the youth and the many youth to come.”

In a recent study provided by Dr. Oberly, approximately 566 tribes have been recognized by the United States government in 2015 – with around 200 native languages being spoken throughout the U.S. and Canada. With the ongoing decline of language revitalization, only 20 American Indian languages will be spoken by the year 2050. With the introduction of these new language strategies, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe is hoping to not fall in that number.

“There are many native communities who are doing programs in keeping their language alive,” Dr. Oberly added. “We need to join them in this effort.”

“There’s no doubting it, our language is dying,” stated tribal elder, Lynda Grove-D’Wolf. “If you want the children to learn, you have to capture their attention. What I learned as a teacher is that you can only teach those who want to learn. I taught Ute language to eight students last year, and only one was fluent by the end of it. If you want this language to survive, you have to form a committee of fluent speakers have them develop a plan while keeping it consistent.”

Tribal elder, Pearl Casias, stated that the youth must surround themselves with the education of their language as early as possible.

“When a young woman has a child, she must absorb herself with the language because the children hear everything around them. That child is already on their way to understanding. Our language comes from the creator, it’s sacred, and defines who we are as Southern Utes. To continue to speak it, you must, we must preserve it and relearn the customs, traditions, and history that makes a person who they are.”

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