Ross Johnson photo Boyd Graham and his Shoshone vocabulary chart.

Ross Johnson photo
Boyd Graham and his Shoshone vocabulary chart.

More than a decade into the 21st century, one local Shoshone is dedicated to keeping his native language alive.

Boyd Graham, who lives on the Duckwater Reservation in Nye County, commutes every day to work at the Ely Colony and teach at White Pine High School. Born in Tonopah in 1938, Graham grew up in Round Mountain first speaking his indigenous language, Newe.

“When I was young, my parents and relatives would gather and tell stories and legends,” Graham said. “Then radio and TV came in, and that all went downhill.”

The name “Shoshone” is derived from the Newe word for tall growing grasses, “sosoni,” which they at times used to construct their homes. American explorer Meriwether Lewis referred to them in his 1805 journal as “Sosonees or Snake Indians.” According to Graham, a Newe Indian probably tried to explain the population of his people as being as abundant as the surrounding grasses.

In 1940, the federal government established the Duckwater Reservation and assigned Graham’s parents an 80 acre parcel of land, where they started cattle ranching.

“I started as soon as I could get out there,” Graham said, “From sunup to sundown  working with the men. It was a good life. We made a living.”

But indigenous youth had few opportunities then.

“We had limited opportunities to do anything else,” Graham said. “Nowadays the young people have tremendous opportunities, but our only real opportunity was to go into the military.”

Graham enlisted in the U.S. Navy and spent almost 10 years on an aircrew, then worked in San Francisco for Trans World Airlines for three years.

“But once you’ve been away from talking to people for a while, you lose some skills,” Graham said. He continued to speak Newe with his parents, and his grandmother and great-grandmother knew almost no English.

Graham came back to Duckwater to allow his father to retire from cattle ranching. He supplemented his income by working at the surrounding copper and coal mines.

“I semi-retired about 20 years ago,” Graham said. “I had about 200 head of cattle at the time, and the Ely Tribe had an opening to teach in 2000.”

Graham then worked with trained linguists from the Duckwater Reservation and the University of Utah to develop a written Shoshone alphabet and language, which is entirely oral. He is certified by the Nevada State Department of Education to teach Newe at White Pine High School, and he also taught a twice weekly afternoon class at the Ely Colony Education Center, which is currently on hiatus. He now works as an assistant to the colony’s education director and will restart the classes once they hire a replacement for him.

Graham also works with the Shoshone Youth Language Apprenticeship Program, which publishes illustrated books based on legends and stories for beginners to learn the language.

“There’s probably half a dozen people in Ely that can still speak it,” Graham said.