Local tribal elders have often expressed concern about survival of the Northern Paiute, given the reluctance of some younger tribe members to learn it. One who did is Christina Thomas of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony, who is of Paiute, Shoshone and Hopi descent, and who goes by the nickname Native Songbird. Learning the language was part of a broader effort she makes to learn and make known the heritage of Native Americans. Now a university student, she competed in the Miss Indian World Pageant and performs as a singer and storyteller.
How did you get into what you do?
Well, I grew up on the [Pyramid Lake] reservation, and I never really realized the importance of learning the language or learning these traditions. I just took it for granted, and then when I got older I realized that was something that if we don’t do something about it, our language can go, it’s going to be an extinct sort of thing. It’s something you have to take initiative to learn it. And like I said, there’s not too many people my age, older, little kids—the language and our traditions are not being handed down. So I just started asking questions of my Paiute teacher, and I started going to language class every Monday. And I actually was the first student at the University of Nevada to take Paiute and earn a university credit. … So I just really got into it and kind of found what I’m really passionate about. That’s pretty much where it all started. And I’ve always been a singer, so I wanted to learn traditional songs, so I got with elders who’d give me CDs. And I’ll sit with them and ask them if I’m singing the words right or what they mean. I’m just really adamant about learning it all before it’s gone.
What does it do for audiences?
When I go to school, a lot of the kids, they’re just so—“Christina’s an Indian!” They’re not really getting taught a lot in school [about Native Americans] but even when I go give a presentation like at the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] or the Sparks Library, people, they just see what they see on TV and they have no idea that there’s over 581 different tribes and over 581 different languages, different traditions. So when they see how we live here versus something else, and they get a chance to ask questions and break stereotypes or things like that, [that’s] why I like giving presentations to people, to educate them and to let them know that we’re not all the same, we’re different, that we’re still here, we’re still trying to learn our language.
My best friend’s [white] daughter attended a week-long religious event at Pyramid. When we picked her up, we stopped at an elderly tribal member’s home, and she greeted him in the tribal language. He was really tickled and said, “Our kids sometimes don’t know it.” Have you been able to convince people your own age to get into it?
Not my age, necessarily, but like my family, for one. … I encourage them to go to language class, so I have brought almost all my family to come to language every Monday. And then a lot of the little kids that see me out doing things, they see me on TV when I’m singing somewhere, they come [to class] because I’m coming, so that’s a good thing, to help get the little ones there. They actually learn it faster than we do.