562 BLOG

Finding Light & Hope in Paiute Country

A few weeks ago, Project 562 journeyed to The Great Basin Desert to learn a few major lessons from the Numu people.

  1. We learned to see resilience in the desert; desert flowers and medicines are able to flourish, even in the harshest of environments.
  2. Despite the greatest odds, our people have the strength to endure.
  3. One person, one love story, one song at a time, our communities can heal, flourish and grow.

As the journey continues, we continue to meet inspired carriers of Native culture and identity; and that is who we met in Lovelock Paiute- Patty, Birdman, Helen and a treasure trove of adorable singing Paiute kiddos.

Patty and Birdman are the kind of people that greet you in the driveway. They come out, and wave, and open your door, and help you carry in your suitcase, and immediately feed you wholesome treats. It’s traditional hospitality. The kind that makes your spirit feel strong because you feel nurtured, something us Indians refer to as “good medicine”.

They kindly shared their story with us. And although they are not the kind of people that seek the limelight (and have even asked me to not talk too much about them) I can’t help but feel inclined to praise their story.

Patty and Birdman met on a “spirit walk” in Yosemite and fell in love. They eventually moved back to Lovelock and soon realized the dire need for cultural resurgence in the community. Like most of our tribal communities, Lovelock Paiute endures the harshness of Rez life, suffering from endemic social ills of poor communities, oftentimes making it difficult for communities to fund programs dedicated to cultural revitalization. Patty explained, “When we arrived, kids on the reservation didn’t have formalized access to their traditional songs, or Paiute language. So we put our money together, and with support from tribal council, we began teaching the kids. Every week, Bird teaches the kids hand game songs and we take them for treats afterward. Eventually, we were able to bring them to handgame tournaments; but most important of all, we host weekly language classes with the last Paiute language speaker in Lovelock, Miss Helen.” Of course, the kids love Patty and Birdman! There are little notes all over their house expressing their love for these wonderful teachers and advocates.

That same afternoon, they take us over to meet Miss Helen for her weekly language class. Miss Helen is blind, barely 95 pounds, and can’t hear out of her left ear. About eight women and four children are gathered there. They apprehensively try to figure out what I’m doing there, aunties inquire, “What are your motives?”, “What will you do with the pictures?” I do my best to explain that Project 562 is an effort to change the way we see Native America so that our children can have a different experience, so that the old stereotypes about Indians will go away, until finally, the Auntie tells me to sit down and join the potluck. Home made bread and margarine. Bean soup. Potato salad. Salmon. Rice. Pink frosted cake.

Eventually we gather around Miss Helen. She’s wrapped in her Pendleton blanket, fuzzy socks sticking out of the bottom of the blanket, eyes fixed on the blind distance. Miss Helen tells us compelling story, after compelling story. She tells stories about red-headed giants, water babies, how to harvest pine nuts, how to find water in the desert, she tells us about the intricacies of Numu life, she tells it as if it all needs to be told before it’s too late. Sometimes she repeats herself.

Before we leave I ask her if can come back over the next day to take her picture. She laughs loudly at me, “Why would you want to take my picture?”

“Because Miss Helen, everybody in Paiute Country told me about you, they told me that you are the last carrier of the Lovelock Paiute language and it would be my honor to take your picture”.

Tears begin streaming down Miss Helen’s face. She says, “It’s true, I am the only one left here that I can talk to”.

I can’t help but cry.

Helen says no. “I’m not that important, find somebody else”.

And her nephew, Mystical Myron says, “Auntie, please, we want you to represent our people.”

And so, Helen agrees.

The next morning we go over to her house early. She says that she’s been waiting for us all night. We get her dressed, put a little lipstick on her and talk her into going outside to take her photo. The sun is shining at a perfect 70 degrees.


Birdman and Patty show up with an enclave of rez kids armed with sticks. They are going to sing Miss Helen some Paiute songs.

Patty and Birdman, the children, and Miss Helen taught us that it is never too late. It is never too late to invest in our children. It is never too late to revitalize our language. It is never too late to make time for our elders.

Rez life is hard and it’s real. The truth is that in some of our communities, as a result of the brutal colonial oppression our people have endured, we are faced with feelings of desperation. Sometimes it seems hopeless. Sometimes it seems like nothing can be done. Sometimes it seems like our rich indigineity will be gone forever. But it’s not true. We can hold on. We can remain. And we shall. One family, one love story, one potluck at a time, we will restore our communities.

When we left that afternoon, I called home and explained what I’d just witnessed. He said, “It makes me feel like I can never do enough”, he said he’s working on a mural and spraying across it, “You want our beauty, but you don’t want our struggle”.

I had to pull over to weep. I sobbed out there in that desert.

The thought of losing Miss Helen, and the beautiful language she carries, and the resilient stories she tells, and the beautiful songs they sing, or the idea of those beautiful children losing Miss Helen, or us losing those children to rez cycles… it was just too much for me to hold in at that moment.

So I gave it all to the desert. I gave it to the Creator.

And now I’m giving it to you.

We need allies. We need people to shift their attention (and pocketbooks) toward programs like Patty and Bird’s. We need to save our indigenous languages.

I finally was able to start driving again. I drove through the desert with a desolate feeling, not because I was traveling down a desert road, in what felt like a road to nowhere, but because I had the realization that I was in the middle of somewhere satiated with ancient indigenous knowledge.

I realized that I’d driven through these places a thousand times and I’d never known what to look for. Around me was abundant desert medicine. Sage, tsudupe, petroglyphs, jack rabbits, desert cactus flowers, pinon, songs in the wind, history in the rocks. We may not always realize that life that surrounds us in the desert (or anywhere), but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. With proper nourishment, we can see an explosion of life that has existed all along, however camouflaged at first glance.

We’ve believed fairy tales about the American west. Tales told that it was “unsettled”, “uninhabited”, “open for grabs”, that Indians were “extinct”. But out here in The Great Basin you are in Paiute Country- an abundant desert with rich culture and an indigenous history worth knowing; you are on indigenous land. Numu land.