Photo By dennis myers

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.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...