Native Language: Pathway to Traditions, Self-Identity
Stacey Burns says a transformation has taken place within the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony from something as old as the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes themselves: their native languages.
Burns is the language and culture coordinator for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the governing body of the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone people of the Reno-Sparks area in Nevada. She says the tribal government has been investing in language preservation for the past 15 years, which has helped tribal members strengthen their identity and culture as Native people. Now there is a greater emphasis on teaching the youth.
“With our language is our culture,” said Burns, an Ongabe Tukadu (Salter Eater) Paiute and member of the Antelope Valley Paiute Tribe from Coleville, California. “With our language is the teaching of our medicines, of our morals, our respect levels and our values. The most important thing is just cultural identity.”
Across Indian Country tribes are working to sustain their language and culture, and that’s what Reno-Sparks has been doing since the year 2000. As a result, three public high schools in the Washoe County School District will be introducing permanent positions for Paiute language instructors beginning in the 2015-2016 school year.
Jillian Fillmore, Indian education coordinator for the school district, said that since 2007, Paiute language instructors have worked as independent contractors in the high schools. But now the instructors will be district employees, whose positions will be funded through the federal Title VII Indian education program.
Fillmore said the classes have been popular among Native and non-Native alike. The language classes first began at Spanish Springs High School and eventually expanded to include North Valleys and Reed high schools. She said the district hopes to have one teacher at each school, and each instructor would teach one class period of the Paiute language.
Paiute was chosen over the Shoshone and Washoe languages based on results of a survey, Fillmore said. She added that the language will be taught in the Pyramid Lake tribal dialect.
Burns, who previously worked as an independent contractor at North Valleys High School in Reno and Spanish Springs High School in Sparks, said the class fulfills the foreign language requirements for high school credit. However, the district changed it to a “world language” because, Burns said, “we are not quite foreign, are we?”
Working in the school district, Burns said she witnessed the impact the language had on her students. They learn about cultural traditions, such as the uses of native plants and customs regarding how to treat the earth and each other.
“There’s that self-identity that they have discovered in themselves to where they respect that plant they learned about much more, they respect a specific person for their struggle,” Burns said.
In her current role with the tribe, Burns coordinates three different Great Basin language classes: Paiute, Washoe and Shoshone. These classes cater to all age groups. Even though she teaches fewer high school students, she says she notices the impact the language has on the whole community. The transformation she has seen has been mainly in the area of self-identity, especially among young people.
“I always say the kids—they want it, they need it,” Burns said. “There’s so much that comes with learning the language that it’s what should be the most important to teach our kids. So it’s here, that pride is here and now it just needs to be revived … it needs to be reawakened.”
Ralph Burns, no relation to Stacey Burns, is an instructor who’s been teaching the Pyramid Lake dialect within Reno-Sparks for 15 years. He is a Kooyooe Tukadu (Cui-ui Eater) of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe. He lived off the reservation for a period of time, returned and eventually “relearned” the language. He said it took him a year and a half to regain what he had lost.
Since his return, he has helped establish the written language and also made CDs to keep the phonetics of the language intact and preserved. Much of his contribution can be seen in the high school curriculum.
Ralph says the language is important not only because of its close ties to tribal culture but also because it carries the history of the tribe in a distinct way. He says the language has existed for “almost 9,000-10,000 years.”
He calls it powerful.
“What you hear from the old people is that it’s communication with the Holy people,” Burns said. “It’s our identity.”
Burns said his experience of relearning the language, combined with the efforts of the school district, make him hopeful about the future of the language. He hopes the students who learn the language today will one day decide to further preserve it.
Tsanavi Spoonhunter, Northern Arapahoe, is a Native American Journalism Fellow for 2015-2016. She produced this content for the newsroom immersion program of the Native American Journalists Association at the National Native Media Conference in Washington, D.C. She is a sophomore at the University of Nevada, Reno.
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