Updated November 14, 2021 - 12:25 am
Growing up in the Las Vegas Paiute tribe, part of the Southern Paiute Nation, Kenny Anderson didn’t give much thought to learning Nuwu, the Southern Paiute language. Neither did other kids he knew. “A lot of people don’t speak the language because they never learned,” he says. “Their parents never taught them.”
Today, Anderson is 63 and knows his native language. As a Las Vegas Paiute tribal council member and cultural representative, he also organizes weekly language lessons for members who learn more about their native culture and identity while helping to save an endangered part of it.
Each year, the advocacy and education group Preserve Nevada identifies the state’s most endangered historical resources. Typically a roundup of buildings or sites, this year’s list includes Nevada’s Indigenous languages, citing estimates that about 40 percent of the planet’s 7,000 languages “are in danger of disappearing.” Among them are Nevada’s Northern Paiute, Southern Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe languages, according to Preserve Nevada, adding that “the more we can do to encourage the teaching of these languages to current and future generations, the better our chances of preserving these important parts of the cultural heritage of these people, and of Nevada.”
Alfreda Mitre, a Las Vegas Paiute tribal council member, notes that for more than a century Native American languages were targeted for elimination by the U.S. government. Starting in the 19th century, “it was policy to enact assimilation through the boarding school concept,” Mitre says. Native American children were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools where English was mandated and the use of Indigenous languages — as well as the observance of Native American religions and cultural practices — was prohibited.
The effects rippled over generations, Mitre says. Besides robbing children of the ability to learn their native languages, “their whole way of life changed. You’re creating misfits in your own society.”
(Ironically, another entry on Preserve Nevada’s 2021 list is the Stewart Indian School, near Carson City, which opened in 1890 and was, according to the list, “one of the many boarding schools designed to educate and force a different culture upon Native Americans.” It didn’t close until 1980.)
William Bauer, program director of American Indian and Indigenous Studies at UNLV, said the rise of the Native American rights movement during the ’60s and ’70s helped foster a renewed emphasis on preserving Indigenous languages, and “one of the things that has produced is many universities offer courses in native languages.”
In addition, government policies now promote the preservation and teaching of those languages. “Not only is there a willingness to learn and a willingness to teach but also we can do it openly,” Mitre says. The University of Nevada, Reno unveiled a course in Northern Paiute in fall 2019. Bauer says talks about offering a Southern Paiute language course at UNLV were curtailed by the pandemic. “A lot of students were asking for it,” most of them Native American students, says Bauer, himself a citizen of Northern California’s Round Valley Indian Nation. “We need to get back to those conversations.”
The Las Vegas Paiute tribe has offered language lessons to its members for more than a decade. The lessons usually draw about 15 people, Anderson says. “Besides language, we did a lot of cultural stuff — the reason for this, the reason for that — and stories. That’s the way you’re supposed to tell stories, when everybody gets together.”