Pyramid Lake Paiute elder Ralph Burns is a revered storyteller and native-language specialist. Burns grew up on the Pyramid Lake Paiute reservation in Nixon, Nevada, where he learned the Numu (Northern Paiute) language and traditional stories from his family and community members. After serving in the 1st Cavalry Division during the Vietnam War and subsequent years of working in California, Burns returned home to the reservation to devote his life to spearheading native-language revival and revitalization among the Northern Paiute.
At the Pyramid Lake Paiute Museum and Cultural Center, Burns is the cultural resource specialist, serves as a resource for the Paiute language program, and is a frequent storyteller. Burns is also an accomplished traditional dancer who frequently leads the sacred circle powwow dances and has instructed groups at the Pyramid Lake Reservation and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. For more than two decades, he has taught the Numu language to tribal students, local high school students, and community members, and developed a language curriculum to teach both Native American and non-Native American people. "Without the efforts of Mr. Burns, these traditional arts of the Paiute people and other Indian people would be lost," wrote Sherry Rupert of the State of Nevada Indian Commission in a letter in support of Burns's nomination.
Throughout the region, Burns presents the history, culture, and traditional stories of the northern Paiutes to his community, other tribal communities, and non-Native American audiences. Burns uses storytelling as an integral tool when teaching the language, since traditionally the Paiute language was passed on orally. Catherine S. Fowler, professor of anthropology, emerita at the University of Nevada, Reno noted, "[Burns] never neglects with these audiences to stress the significance of the stories in the Native language as a further show of respect for the language as well as a way to illustrate for non-Native people the beauty and fullness of the language."
Frequently sought-out, Burns has performed blessings and offered Paiute tribal stories at both state and federal ceremonies, including the 2011 Nevada State Governor's Inauguration and the dedication of the Sarah Winnemucca statue at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. His stories of animals, land, and people are part of the exhibits in the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. In 2011, Burns received the Nevada Heritage Award for his contributions to the many people and cultures of the state.
["Stone Mother" video used courtesy of the Nevada State Museum and producer, JoAnne Peden.]