“We wanted the program to be inclusive,” said Lynn Manning, Indian education program coordinator for the school district. “The sharing of cultures goes both ways. If we’re going to have cultural understanding, then there needs to be that exchange.”
John Van Valen, a senior in the language program at Spanish Springs High School, embodies the importance of cultural exchange. Though he has no ancestral connection to the Numu (“the people”), Van Valen has embraced their culture with robust sincerity.
“It’s a dying language and I want to do something to help save it,” Van Valen said, adding that he has founded a student language club to extend learning beyond the classroom.
Past, present and future of the Paiute
The Numu have inhabited the Great Basin region of Nevada, California and Oregon since time immemorial. Distinguished from the Southern Paiute tribes by the consonant grades of their language more than by geography or custom, the Northern Paiute total an unknown number today. Mixed bloodlines and interwoven tribal affiliations are commonplace among today’s American Indian populations.
The Northern Paiute language belongs to the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan family tree. Whereas many Native American languages can express full English sentences with the use of a single, morphologically complex word, Northern Paiute does not retain this feature. It employs instead a subject-object-verb word order, wherein distinctions between subjects and objects are expressed through unique forms of pronouns while suffixes adjoining modifiers relay information about who is doing what in a sentence.
Some 13 dialects of the Northern Paiute language are spoken among numerous tribes and bands and within both the reservations and urban centers that thousands of Numu call home today. But optimistic estimates place the number of fluent speakers at a paltry 400 to 500, “although I suspect the number may be even lower,” said Tim Thornes, a linguistics expert and professor at the University of Central Arkansas. Thornes’ interest in the Northern Paiute language began in 1994 when he volunteered to work alongside the very last speaker of an undocumented dialect.
As the well of fluency runs drier with time, so too does the Paiute sense of identity.
“Every time an elder passes on it’s just like closing down a library,” said Ralph Burns, an influential member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.
Of the more than 3,000 members of his tribe, only a few dozen are considered fluent.
“We can’t call ourselves Numu if we can’t speak the language,” Burns said.
For more than 10 years, Burns has dedicated himself to resurrecting his tribe’s Northern Paiute dialect. His assistance translating the language into a student workbook using the Wycliffe writing system has been paramount in the education of students across Washoe County. He has recorded a three-CD set of lessons that permanently document the language and provide a valuable resource for future generations. Burns also teaches classes for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony language program in the hopes of preparing participants for possible teaching posts in the public school program.
The short list of qualified teachers presents one of the greatest challenges to the success and survival of the Paiute language program. It is unknown how long the current teachers will continue in their roles as county-certified instructors. At 77, Reynelda James, language instructor at Spanish Springs High School, says she is committed to her students for as long as her health allows.
Reviving the Northern Paiute language ultimately rests with students like Desarae Mascarena, a 2010 graduate of Spanish Springs High School. Of mixed Paiute, Chuckchansi, Miwok and Lummi heritage, Mascarena believes that learning the language is fundamental to connecting with the Numu cultural and spiritual identity. She wishes every student in the school could understand this sense of purpose.
“They kind of mock it a lot,” Mascarena said.
The need to belong, to feel a part of something larger than oneself, motivates many of those involved in the language program. Theirs is a journey of self-discovery.
“So much of our culture exists in history,” Manning said. “We’re missing 120 years at this point and that’s why it’s important that we are represented in the school district.”
The program curriculum explores a wider mission by examining language instruction through a broad cultural lens. Students learn history by reading Sara Winnemucca’s autobiography, “Life Among the Piutes.” Numu art projects are common assignments and traditional medicinal remedies are studied. A youth conference is held every year where native music, health education and a language bowl quiz encourage student camaraderie.
Beyond the cultural necessity, there also exists a practical benefit to reviving the language. Students studying the language today might find a career as a teacher instructing a new generation of speakers. Or they might find a career in higher academia and scholarship. Or maybe, one day, they will represent their tribe as official spokespersons.
There is recognition, however, that public education initiatives represent only a beginning.
“I think language programs need always to have a community component that extends its commitment into the home where natural transmission takes place,” Thornes said. “No language I know of has been fully revitalized — in the sense of producing a generation of new fluent speakers — in the classroom context alone.”
If Jesse Phoenix is any indication, then it is clear that despite the scarcity of fluent speakers, the devotion needed to revitalize the Northern Paiute language runs deep in the hearts and minds of today’s Numu.
“I want to be a part of my family,” said Phoenix, a sophomore in the language program at Spanish Springs High School whose ancestry is a blend of Paiute and Kickapoo. “I want to bring our culture back and I will continue to learn the ways of my ancestors by learning their language.”
Only time will tell if his thirst can be quenched.