Southern Ute elder Hanley Frost is dedicated to keeping the Ute language alive
In the heart of Ignacio, Colorado, in the air-conditioned Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum, a group of curious tribe members, tribal employees, and members of the public gathered for the Ute Language Summer Series.
Hanley Frost, a Southern Ute elder who has taught classes at the local Montessori Academy and worked on translations for a Ute dictionary, led the classes. Frost’s lighthearted attitude captivated the students, and they recited back the words of their ancestors that Frost taught them. Frost read a list of words he prepared, with phonetic transcriptions of Ute words for food items and kitchen objects.
Ute translations adapted from Frost’s worksheet
Cup — ‘ivi- ‘agho-chi
Coffee — kapi
Spoon — chi’i- ‘napu
Soup — uvavu
Frost works for the southern Ute tribe as the Elder Services Manager. He feels fulfilled as a teacher of the Ute language.
“Sitting with individuals, saying words and sharing laughter, because sometimes we make mistakes. But that's all part of learning. I want to save the language. I like talking with people. I'm not shy. I talk to everybody. Sharing what I learned, it's a gift,” said Frost.
His grandparents instilled the importance of learning and sharing the Ute language from a young age. His upbringing informs his passion for the language.
“I was raised by my grandparents, and they were fluent speakers. And that's all we were allowed to talk. When my grandfather was there, we talked Ute because he made it very clear that that's our first language, and that's what we're going to talk,” said Frost.
Hilda Burch, a Southern Ute elder, attended the class to brush up on her language skills and help her nieces and nephews when they ask her for Ute translations.
“To get the feel and to hear the words again, because it seems like language has kind of dissolved now that the elders are gone. But now, being an elder myself, I’m trying to pick up the different dialects of the three different tribes,” said Burch.
Fewer and fewer elders can pass the language on to younger generations. Historically, Ute people learned the language through conversation. Since the 2010s, the tribes have been developing apps, publishing updated dictionaries, and emphasizing phonetics so that new speakers have plenty of non-verbal resources to help them learn.
Izabella Cloud works for the Southern Ute’s Cultural Education Department. She says in addition to this summer class, the tribe has many other language resources.
“There should be about three coloring books coming out sometime soon. Also, a language app that will consist of some immersion lessons, as well as a dictionary. Hanley, he's a great teacher, and he's always willing to work with us,” said Cloud.
In some cases, Frost teaches people who have never heard a fluent speaker. He wants to share the magic of the language with anyone interested in learning.
“It's a gift that the Creator gave to us, so we can talk amongst each other. And it's the gift of praying to Him in our own language, directly to him, so that way, he knows what we're talking about,” said Frost.
This story is part of Voices From the Edge of the Colorado Plateau, a reporting collaboration between KSUT Public Radio and KSJD Community Radio. It seeks to cover underrepresented communities in the Four Corners region. The multi-year project will cover Native, Indigenous, Latino/Latina, and other communities across southwest Colorado. Explore other stories from the project.