Capturing Native Languages Before They're Lost

Jun 30, 2015

Florence Millet teaches Shoshone language classes for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Only a handful of colony elders are fluent in the Great Basin languages of Shoshone, Washoe, and Paiute.
Credit RSIC Language and Culture Program

Like many Native American tribes across the country, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is in a critical state of language loss. Only a handful of colony elders can speak the Great Basin languages of Paiute, Washoe, and Shoshone.

For our series “Taking Back History,” Reno Public Radio’s Michelle Bliss looks at how the colony is trying to save these languages and why they haven’t been passed down. 

 

For the last three years, Florence Millet has been teaching a handful of students how to speak, write, and read her native language of Shoshone. She’s a bubbly teacher and makes class fun, but the work is tough. 

“My students are having a hard time," Millet says, "because some of the words are so long. Look how long that word is--the word goes clear across the sheet of paper.”

Millet says she sometimes struggles with the language, too, but she’s committed to sharing what she knows. As a little girl, Millet was sent to the Stewart Indian School in Carson City where, early on, the school’s mission was to assimilate Native American children. Millet remembers being punished by her teacher for speaking Shoshone. 

Florence Millet reviewing Shoshone phrases with a handful of students for her community language class in Reno.

“She would have a ruler or a little willow," she says, "and just hit, hit anywhere for saying it in my language, and I didn’t know how to say it in English. It’s sad. It’s emotional; I get real emotional.”

Stacey Burns is the colony’s language and culture coordinator. She says the trauma of the boarding schools caused many of today's elders to remain silent instead of passing along their native languages. 

"That is where it skipped a generation," Burns explains, "so my grandmother didn’t teach my mother, so my mother’s generation didn’t get any of that teaching. My generation is who is bringing it back.” 

Burns works closely with Millet to run these community classes. She’s also taught Paiute to high schoolers in Washoe County, and she’s worked with tykes in pre-K programs. Despite all of the colony’s outreach efforts, with so few native speakers still alive, she’s worried.

“It’s a huge concern for us," Burns says, "because once an elder passes, it’s like a whole library that’s closing down.”

And it’s not just vocabulary words being lost and forgotten. Burns says each word carries a specific cultural meaning that cannot be understood without greater historical context. Take this word, for instance:

That word is a type of bread but not just any bread; it's a traditional recipe that's baked in the ground. 

“You dig a hole in the ground," Millet explains. "You put some coals and rocks in there. After the fire goes down, lay your bread on top and turn it until it turns nice and brown. It's better than a loaf of bread from the store.” 

Along with preserving the past, language revitalization is also about bettering the future. 

One of Millet’s students is Marissa Weaselboy. She’s studying linguistics at the University of Nevada, Reno, but she’s been learning Shoshone since childhood. Weaselboy is the first in her family to graduate high school, a success she attributes to language. 

“It’s strengthened me. There’s no way that I would be this far," she says. "My sisters were all into drugs and had kids young and my mom’s raising their kids now. I’m the first to not do that. That’s how I know how powerful language is because I am so different from my siblings.” 

Teresa Melendez, who currently directs the colony’s powwow club and describes herself as a language activist, says having a sense of cultural identity is directly tied to self-esteem and confidence. 

“All the research shows that native youth that are grounded in their traditional songs, ceremonies, languages, and culture, that they are more grounded in who they are," Melendez explains, "so they can make better decisions for themselves.”

Without that confidence, Marissa Weaselboy says it’s easy for young Native Americans to get lost in the modern Western world and turn to self-medicating.

“Because what is alcohol and drugs?" Weaselboy asks. "It’s something to crawl into and hide away from the world. I mean, that comes from our identity loss, and not knowing the language, doing the ceremonies, and living right—that’s what it’s leading to.” 

Saving these languages can be a painstaking process, but for students like Weaselboy, the benefits far outweigh the work.