Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 10, 2001 - Issue 29



Native Americans Rediscover Lost Languages


by Don Cox Reno Gazette-Journal


 art Coyote Head Study by Robert Bateman

Marlin Thompson fears time is running out on the language and culture of his Yerington Paiute tribe. “We have five elders fluent in the Yerington dialect,” said Thompson, an artist who tries to preserve tradition in his paintings.

“They’re all 75 or older. Once they’re gone, there will be no more Yerington dialect.”

American Indians throughout northern Nevada share Thompson’s concern about the loss of tribal languages, and they’re trying to do something about it.

Thompson was among the representatives from Yerington, Pyramid Lake, Walker River and other Indian communities who met in Reno last week to discuss the future.

Language is important because most tribal culture is oral. It’s spoken, not written.

“We’re slowly getting into it,” Andy Allen, a traditional storyteller on the Walker River Paiute Reservation, said of his tribe’s efforts at language preservation.

Other tribes are more advanced.

At Pyramid Lake, junior and senior high school students are learning their Paiute language in school. The teachers are tribal members. In Dresslerville, 20 students from pre-school age to eighth grade are learning subjects in their Washoe language.

“I remember bits and pieces of these (traditional) stories from my grandmother,” said Ralph Burns, a storyteller and language teacher at Pyramid Lake. “She used to tell them to me to put me to sleep.”

Before Burns could teach the Paiute language, he had to re-learn it. His dilemma is typical in northern Nevada tribes, where children don’t speak their native languages.

“We’ve got to get them back,” Allen said of the kids.

As a youngster, Burns knew his language. But he stopped hearing it and speaking it when he left the reservation, first to attend high school in Carson City and Fernley in the early 1960s, then to serve in the Army in Vietnam and later to work in the San Francisco Bay area.

When Burns returned to Pyramid Lake in 1997, he’d forgotten the language.

“I hadn’t spoken it since I was a freshman in high school,” Burns said.

But it all came back when Burns attended adult language classes at Pyramid Lake. He became a teacher and a storyteller, keeping the culture alive.

“I was pushed into [story telling],” Burns said with a smile.

Mostly, Allen and Burns tell about the old Paiute legends. They all involve animals, in particular the coyote.

“He’s very unpredictable,” Allen said of the coyote. “He can do anything.”

Traditionally, the stories are only told in winter.

“I went against the tradition,” said Thompson, who told a story out of season.

“I developed a cold for six months. You have to believe in the old ways.”

Thompson isn’t fluent in his tribal language. He tells his tales in English.

Burns recalled the consequences of telling one of his winter stories in spring.

“Forty minutes later there was a hail storm,” he said.

The tales were told on cold nights, as bedtime stories for children.

“The houses were small,” said Allen, who listened to the legends as a youngster.

“There would be beds all around. If you could stay awake long enough, you’d hear all the stories.”

As an adult, Allen visited Indian communities throughout northern Nevada, talking to tribal elders and recording their stories on tape. It helped Allen remember.

“The stories are right there in your head,” he said. “They come right back.”

Washoe tribal leaders don’t want their children to forget.

The language program is Dresslerville is called, “Washiw wagayay mangal.” That’s in the Washoe language. The English translation is, “House where Washoe is spoken.”

Students spend seven hours a day, from 8:30 a.m., to 3:30 p.m., learning traditional subjects — reading, writing and science — in Washoe.

The six-year-old program is voluntary. Parents in Dresslerville and other Washoe communities can send their children to it, or traditional schools off the reservation.

“Most families choose to send their kids to public schools,” said Laura Fillmore, the language project organizer in Dresslerville.

“This is an option.”

The Washoe school operates on about $200,000 a year in government and private grants. There is a bill in Congress that would provide regular funding for native language programs.

Dresslerville’s language school copies similar programs in New York and Hawaii.

“We didn’t make the road map,” Fillmore said.

In March, the Dresslerville students will spend two weeks studying at Lake Tahoe, the traditional center of the Washoe tribe’s world.

The kids will talk to scientists and members of organizations working to preserve the lake.

“We want to instill in our children that they are the inheritors of the homeland,” Fillmore said.

“This is a way to tie science and culture together in a way that makes sense.”

Paiute Language


For over 400 generations Lake Tahoe has been the home of the Washoe People.




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