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The Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah hope to preserve their heritage by saving their language

Pictured is Thalia Guerrero, the 2021 Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah queen. She is an enrolled member of the Kanosh band of Paiutes.
Courtesy Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah
Pictured is Thalia Guerrero, the 2021 Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah queen. She is an enrolled member of the Kanosh band of Paiutes.

During the kick-off meeting to preserve the southern Paiute language, attendees expressed regret over the loss of some of their speaking abilities. One man said there weren’t more than three people in the room fluent in Paiute.

“Once you lose that language, you lose your identity,” he said.

That’s why the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah hopes to revive the language through the Southern Paiute Language Preservation Project in collaboration with Southern Utah University.

“What we would like to do is work on preserving our southern Paiute language,” said Shane Parashonts, the tribal administrator.

But it goes beyond that, too.

“We would like to then, as we’re preserving our language, preserve our heritage and our culture,” Parashonts said.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, federal boarding schools forced indigenous children to assimilate to white culture and punished them for speaking their native languages. In 1887, the commissioner of Indian Affairs banned instruction in native languages. Over 100 years later, the Native American Languages Act finally established a federal policy allowing Native American languages as a medium of instruction in schools. Now, programs around the country want to revitalize language learning in tribal communities.

To preserve the southern Paiute language, the PITU plans to improve existing teaching flash cards, develop an in-house educational curriculum and create a Paiute dictionary with audio recordings of the language.

To preserve heritage and culture, the project will include a digital database. Parashonts described it as a tool that will help southern Paiutes reconnect with who they are.

Some ideas for what to put in include plant education –– like pine nut picking and basket weaving –– a cookbook full of traditional Paiute foods, games, dances, songs and information on hunting and hide cleaning.

Because the database will hold important Paiute cultural information, the project wants input from the tribal community on what should be shared publicly.

“We want to be very sensitive to that and recognize that this is really of high importance for us,” Parashonts said.

Members of the tribal community who have expertise in the Paiute language and culture, known as Knowledge Keepers, are also needed.

During the meeting, Knowledge Keepers stood and presented things they can share with the community. One man offered to help with teaching Paiute. As a retired educator, he said he has tools to help children learn. Another woman offered her knowledge of Southern Paiute astronomy, ethnobotany, the Sun Dance and Bear Dance.

Corrina Bow, the tribal chairwoman for the PITU, said the project welcomes positive feedback, input and support from the community.

“You’re not doing this for me or anybody on this panel. You’re doing it for our grandkids and our great-grandkids. And I believe that with all our input together that we can do this.”

Kristine Weller is a newsroom intern at KUER. She’s only been a journalist for a year but is excited to see what the future holds.
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