Thornes Helps Burns Paiute Tribe Preserve Language

For more than a decade, Tim Thornes has worked with members of the Burns Paiute Tribe to revive its language for future generations.

Thornes, assistant professor of linguistics in the Department of Writing, has interviewed elders from various tribal communities in an effort to document and preserve the Northern Paiute language.

Northern Paiute is an endangered Native American language spoken by just a few hundred people with most of its active fluent native speakers over the age of 50. The tribe resides mainly in northern Nevada and eastern Oregon.

“So much cultural knowledge is lost with the loss of the language–whether it be the medicinal uses of certain plants, relationships to places and environments, or philosophies, spiritual practices and world views,” Thornes said. “How much less rich will our world be without the expression of that knowledge? And languages are disappearing at an alarming rate–one every two weeks, by current estimates. That’s an unprecedented global heritage crisis, in my view. If I can help in some small way, so much the better.”

The project’s focus is the publication of oral literature of various genres – traditional stories, ethno-histories, autobiographies, procedural narratives, legends, and conversation – in the Northern Paiute language. The final product will include literature printed in both the original language, using a writing system developed for the language with members of the community, and its English translation.

The project also includes CDs containing the original recordings in Northern Paiute, a brief grammatical sketch of the language, and a glossary of terms that appear in the narratives.

Ruth Lewis, a Burns Paiute elder, serves a translator for the project. She assists Thornes in recording the stories of the tribe’s elders that have been passed down by their parents and grandparents.

“I think that a lot of tribes are losing their language and our language is disappearing too,” Lewis said. “Most of our people speak English all the time. It is hard for the young people who have grown up and do not understand any of the Paiute language. We used to have a summer program where I helped the children ages 6 through 12. They closed the program on account of the budget. The university is recording the stories and doing everything that needs to be done to preserve the language. I am enjoying working with Tim.”

These publications and recordings will serve primarily the Northern Paiute communities by providing materials in the heritage language for cultural and historical education.

“I hope this project will be just one of many dedicated to helping preserve and disseminate information regarding the history and culture of a group of people whose lives have dramatically changed as the result of the conquest and settlement of the country,” Thornes said.

Thornes began his work with the tribe when he was a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Oregon nearly 16 years ago. He spent time with the last known speaker of one of the dialects of Northern Paiute and was later invited to an elders’ potluck on the Burns Paiute reservation.

“The work I did with the first speaker I met laid the groundwork for my understanding of the sounds and grammatical structure of the language and impressed upon me the importance of producing something of use to the community,” Thornes said.

For many in those communities the language is tied to their identity as Northern Paiute people.

“Many see the loss of the language as a loss of identity at the level of, say, the loss of a set of religious beliefs or practices,” he explained. “Imagine if everyone around you stopped speaking the language you knew as a child–the language you learned to tell stories, sing, and pray in–and you might have a slight understanding of the personal aspect of what is lost when a language falls silent.”