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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 12, 2003 - Issue 91


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Shoshone Reunion Celebrates Culture

by Brodie Farquhar Casper Star-Tribune staff writer

FORT WASHAKIE -- Serious fun was on the agenda last week for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe of Wind River Reservation, as they hosted a multi-day reunion for all Shoshone-speaking tribes.

Saving the Uto-Aztecan Shoshonean languages and cultures of Western tribes is serious business, involving classes in schools and coordinating a series of annual cultural reunions.

Academics around the world and here in Wyoming are concerned that native tongues and cultures are rapidly being lost. In North America, there are some 200 Indian languages, but experts say only about 50 have more than 1,000 speakers. The Uto-Aztecan Shoshonean tribes collectively have several thousand members, according to University of Minnesota research.

While teachers bring the language and culture to local schools and Central Wyoming College in Riverton, Reunion President Leola Nagitsy and members of the Shoshone Business Council planned the fourth Shoshonean Reunion, now in rotation among the Shoshone, Comanche, Shoshone-Bannock, Paiute, Ute and other tribes. Serious business, yet all know how to have fun while sharing language and lore among the tribes.

Story telling, historic tours, craft demonstrations, Indian dancing, games, singing, a style show of native dress and more filled the Rocky Mountain Hall and nearby Fort Washakie pow-wow grounds. A horse parade and some outdoor games and contests were cancelled due to summer thunderstorms.

A highlight of the reunion festivities on Wednesday was the energetic dancing and drumbeats of a traditional Aztec fire dance group -- "In Tlanextli Tlacopan" or "In the Splendor of Tlacopan" in English. Composed largely of members of the Tellez Family, from the Mexico City barrio of Tlacopan, the dance group puts on a spectacular show. Linguists and anthropologists believe the Shoshonean language split off from its Uto-Aztec roots about 2,000 years ago.

"Yes, this is an authentic dance," said a breathless Martin Tellez after a strenuous performance in a jaguar-headdress, dancing around and handling fire to the thunderous roar of drums. "We learned it from our forefathers and share it now."

Nagitsy said visiting tribes were pleased with the Shoshonean Reunion IV. "We had over 300 speakers gathered here," she said. While accents differ, everyone could understand everyone else. Highlights for her was simply the experience of speaking with other tribes and the giveaway and Chokecherry dances.

"It was really good," Nagitsy said. "People were hugging each other." Next year, the Shoshone-Bannock host the reunion in Elko, Nev.

Teaching is a full-time job for Standford "Butch" Devinney, 50, a Shoshonean language and culture instructor for Wyoming Indian Schools District 14 in nearby Ethete. "The children don't hear the language enough at home," Devinney said as he manned a booth exhibiting his paintings of native art.

Devinney has 31 students in his kindergarten through twelfth grade program. He teaches the little ones the Shoshone vocabulary and then builds upon that foundation in later grades, pulling in the tribe's history and culture as students become more and more fluent.

He and other teachers face an uphill battle. "Among our adults, those who are 45 years old or older still speak the language," Devinney said. Younger adults have often missed out on learning the Shoshone language because their parents didn't speak it at home. Memories of students punished by missionary teachers for not speaking English linger on the reservation and have created generational gaps in who can and cannot speak fluent Shoshone. Devinney and other teachers are playing catch up with the school-age generation, while more and more of their parents are seeking out elders for tutoring in the Shoshone language.

Devinney said his kindergarten students "pick up the language fast," absorbing Shoshonean vocabulary words. By the third and fourth grades, students are composing sentences. Devinney said he taps the cultural resources of the tribe, exposing students to bison and how important it was to the Shoshone.

Devinney credits the elders, and in particular one of his uncles, in helping bring back the language. "I go to him when I need help with a particular word," Devinney said. There are large gaps in his own background where he didn't hear the language, so he's constantly rediscovering his language and culture himself.

For help with lesson plans, curriculum development and teaching techniques, Devinney and other teachers have been helped by University of Wyoming (UW) professors Tim Rush, an early education specialist, and anthropologist Pamela Innes.

"I've really been impressed with the growth of the Shoshone language program and the enthusiasm and devotion of the teachers," Rush said. Under a federal grant, UW has helped develop a Shoshone immersion program for Head Start students.

Devinney's rediscovery of his Shoshone language and culture has gone hand-in-hand with his development as an artist. "I try to imagine what it was like back then and images come to my mind," he said. His paintings of warriors on horseback or the visions of medicine men show a love for strong colors and clean lines.

Devinney said his daily reward in teaching is the feedback from students in the Shoshone language. "When I hear them answer me, that feels good," he said.

Fort Washakie, WY Map

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