Ralph Burns, Keeper of Paiute Culture
Ralph Burns, of the Pyramid Lake Paiute bandin Northern Nevada, almost lost the tribal language he grew up using.
As a child he spoke Numu at home on the reservation because his grandmother hardly knew English. She had run away in her own youth from a federal boarding school, where young Indians were forced to speak only English. Her family then hid her to prevent authorities from sending her back to the school.
But Burns lost touch with Numu when he left the Pyramid Lake reservation after graduating high school. He learned a house painting trade in the Bay Area and then was drafted into the Army, which sent him to Vietnam where he saw combat in an Infantry unit.
It wasn't until 1997, when Burns moved back to Pyramid Lake in his early 50s, that he made an effort to revive his Numu. The Pyramid Lake band by that time had only only about 70 members still fluent in the language, most of them over age 65.
Burns didn't only reacquire his forgotten tongue. He now teaches Numu language classes, does ceremonial tribal dancing, works at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitors Center, and tells traditional stories in both English and Numu.
In September 2013 the National Endowment for the Arts honored Burns and eight other folk artists with National Heritage Awards.
Listen to Burns tell his own story, and a tribal story or two.
Ralph Burns, Pyramid Lake Paiute and 2013 National Heritage Award fellow