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Honor and Heritage

How a Nevada Mining Company is Helping Preserve the Language and Culture of Native Americans

By Rob Kachelriess

“American Indian languages are either extinct or on the verge of extinction.”

Sam Broncho is helping to preserve his heritage and keep the language of the Western Shoshone alive in Northern Nevada. The 26-year-old is the lead instructor for the Shoshone Community Language Initiative (SCLI), a four-and-a-half week long summer course at Great Basin College in Elko. It offers high school students not only an opportunity to learn about the language and culture of the Western Shoshone, but to also experience an early look at college life by living on campus. Seniors, Juniors and Sophomores affiliated with eight Shoshone tribes were encouraged to apply.

“We’re going to have them for six hours a day,” says Norm Cavanaugh, who is teaching the course with Broncho. “They’re just going to be immersed in the language and the culture.” Cavanaugh is the program director for the Great Basin Indian Archive. He’s spent years recording Shoshone elders out in the field, compiling a wealth of knowledge and information that will be invaluable to the SCLI students.

The mornings will focus on the language itself, which comes with its own challenges. “Our language is oral. There is no standardized orthography,” Broncho explains. “We look to our elders for advice in every aspect. In teaching the written language, it’s almost a split down the middle. Some people hate it. Some people love it. Those who love it look to the future and see the benefit in preserving the language.” Numerous regional dialects are also a factor. “My job is to facilitate all those various dialects while respecting them as well,” he adds.

The afternoons will feature elders from different areas offering presentations on a variety of cultural elements. For example, students may learn about the healing powers of native herbs or the importance of tribal music and dancing. Weekends will offer field trips, including one to a site in Ely where Shoshone people were massacred by U.S. government forces. “When people are killed in that manner, the belief in the native culture is they’re never at rest,” says Cavanaugh. “They’re caught in-between this world and the spirit world.”

Broncho himself spent five years in a previous version of the program, the Shoshone Youth Language Apprenticeship Program (SYLAP), when it was offered in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah. He grew to become fluent in the language and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in linguistics from the university. He now teaches Shoshone at Great Basin College during the regular school year and tutors Elko youth in afterschool programs.

Broncho’s journey was supported in part by a scholarship from the Barrick Gold Corporation, whose success was built on the 1987 purchase of the Goldstrike mine northwest of Elko. “That turned into one of the most productive mines in the history of the world,” says Tim Buchanan, who represents Barrick as Director of Corporate Social Responsibility in North America. “That was the foundation for the company’s growth. In a period of 15 to 20 years, we went from being a very small player to the largest gold mining company in the world.”

The Nevada operations, which also include the Cortez and Turquoise Ridge mines, produced 2.4 million ounces of gold in 2016, along with about $3 billion in revenue. Barrick has about 4,000 employees in the state, including members of Native American tribes.

Among them are Brian Mason, who leads Western Shoshone recruiting efforts as Manager of Native American Affairs. After graduating college in 2006, he started at the company with a position in the environmental department. “It was an opportunity for me, as one of the educated Western Shoshone, to get involved because mining on Shoshone territory was controversial.”

Mason connected Barrick with tribal leaders, who were seeking help in preserving their language. “Barrick was looking for an opportunity to do a social corporate responsibility program with the tribes,” he says. “I happened to know a lot of tribal members.”

Barrick signed a formal document, known as The Collaborative Agreement, with eight Western Shoshone communities, laying out a framework for operations on what was traditionally tribal territory. “The key point was to discuss our operations and gather the input of the Shoshone people in a proactive fashion,” says Buchanan. “Another key aspect was the sharing of benefits.”

Barrick has contributed at least $8.4 million to the Western Shoshone Scholarship Foundation over the past nine years. “The scholarship program is not just for kids,” says Buchanan. “As long as it’s career-related, somebody in their 30s, 40s or 50s can benefit from it.”

The company also funded SYLAP and is now eager to support SCLI. Cavanaugh is excited about the evolution of the summer youth program, saying Great Basin College is a much better fit for it than the University of Utah. “The tribal leaders were frustrated,” he explains. “The focus was on academics and language. The culture part was being left out. And the tribes felt you can’t teach language without culture.”

Buchanan agrees: “They had the talent and the capability to put the program on in Elko and run it themselves. It had come full circle and now the community wanted to take control of it - and make it easier for elders to be a part of the program.”

Cavanaugh says efforts to preserve the Shoshone heritage have a bright future as Broncho and others who are part of a younger generation continue to get involved. “I’ve retired a couple of times,” he laughs. “I’m in my 60s. It’s really rewarding to see Sam picking up the program and going forward with it. He’s such a good role model and young people can relate to him.”

For his part, Broncho says the emerging era is a stark contrast to a time when his parents were discouraged from speaking Shoshone in order to assimilate into the general public. “I think our generation of learners and speakers are at a point where we’re really trying to make a cultural shift in how we present ourselves, what kind of education we get and how we tackle the language,” he says.

As long as that engagement continues, Barrick promises to continue its support. “There’s no greater social responsibility program one company can have other than the retention of a culture,” says Mason. “And you can’t retain the culture without retaining its language.”

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