Preserving Native language

The house was packed with people attending a cultural program about the Paiutes of the Great Basin at the Bartley Regional Park Saturday.

Ben Aleck and Ralph Burns from the Pyramid Lake Visitor Center spoke about the history of their people. Paintings by local artists Seth Johnson and Loren A. Jahn, both of Reno, added more flavor to a night of Nevada heritage.

Aleck, the collections agent for the Pyramid Lake tribe, started with a brief description of the Visitor Center, which opened in 1998 in a building that had been vacant since 1976. He provided a quick history of the Paiutes in the Great Basin.

“In 1844, it was the first time that the tribal people out at Pyramid saw a non-Indian, and that was John C. Fremont,” said Aleck. “He was surveying Northern Nevada on his way to California.”

Gold was discovered in 1849 in California, and thousands of people came through Nevada to get to it. Then the 1860 Comstock discoveries brought people to the eastern slope of the Sierra.

“The tribes in the Great Basin were classified as hunters and gatherers,” said Aleck. “In 1860, there were conflicts between the Paiutes and the settlers,” due to the interaction between the two groups. The 10 years that followed were filled with fighting and unrest, leaving many tribes to migrate north, some as far as Yakima, Wash.

In 1873, the U.S. government began surveying the land around Pyramid Lake for the reservation. The tribe was then federally recognized, starting a government-to-government relationship between the Paiutes and the United States.

In 1905, Derby Dam on the Truckee River made reclamation possible in the Fernley and Fallon areas (reclamation is conversion of desert land to agricultural use). The effort is now known as the Newlands Project.

“It began another conflict and set of issues that affected the tribe, and that was water rights,” Aleck said. By diverting water to Lahontan, Derby Dam caused the water level of Pyramid Lake to drop by 80 feet. As a result, neighboring Winnemucca Lake dried up completely, eliminating the natural wetlands east of Pyramid. The dam also impeded upstream spawn, and the lake’s cutthroat trout population—which had once been shipped by tons to mining camps and attracted sport fishers from around the world—died out.

“Now the tribe is in a position to continually fight for water rights for the Pyramid Lake fishery,” Aleck said. “To give you an idea of the time frame, my grandma lived to be 110 years old, born in 1844, and she lived through World War II, so a culture that has existed for 10,000 years had to change.”

In 1990, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid took the water rights out of the court system into a negotiated settlement.

“It allowed the tribe to maintain the level of the lake to protect the fish—the Cuiui and the [replanted] Lahontan cutthroat trout. … We’ve had a long past of adjusting in a short time,” Aleck said.

Burns, a language and culture expert, works with tribal members to preserve the Paiute language. A 1996 survey reported that 1,600 people lived on the reservation, but only 61 spoke the language fluently. The speakers were all more than 65 years old, and the survey projected that in 15 or 20 years, if precautions were not taken, the language would disappear.

A language program is in place, but the difficulty lies in the existence of 23 different tribes, each contributing several dialects. Thus, a unified language doesn’t exist even now. The language program goes into Head Start, preschools, elementary, middle and high schools, as well as the community.

“There’s a lot of words that I don’t know,” Burns said. “I don’t go up to the elders and ask because I’m the teacher. So I use a certain technique to, in a roundabout way, ask what words mean.” Burns has been with the language program since he returned to the reservation in 1997. That year, the language program began to develop a written form. Historically, the Paiutes were an oral culture; stories changed between tribes, bands and even families."One of the assignments [in the language program] was to write down a story in the language, and mine was only two sentences long,” he said. “Now it’s about three or four minutes long,”

When miners came across the desert during the ‘49 gold rush, they encountered the Paiutes. They couldn’t talk because of the language difference, but the miners made gestures for water. “And our name for water is ‘pa', and when you say ‘this way’ you say ‘ute.’ So they said ‘pa-ute,’ telling the miners that the water’s this way. But the miners turned and said, ‘Hey, this is a Paiute.'”