Ralph Burns was born at an Indian Health Service hospital in Nevada. He was raised on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation in Nixon, Nevada, by his grandmother. As a child, she had fled a boarding school where Native children were forbidden to speak their own languages. She returned home, where she was hidden by her family and never learned English. Growing up without television or radio, Burns was steeped in the stories he heard daily from his grandmother and other tribal elders in Numu, the language of the Northern Paiute people. After graduating from high school, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he worked as a house painter. He was drafted and served in a combat unit in Vietnam. He returned to the reservation in 1997 and found that only seventy-one of 1,700 residents were fluent in their native tongue — and that all or most of them were at least 65 years old.
After being away so long, it took Burns a couple of years to regain his fluency. Since then, he has dedicated his life to teaching the language and customs of his people. In his work at the tribal museum and cultural center on the reservation, he assists with collections and exhibits and shares Paiute language, stories and dance. He has also taught in public schools and at the University of Nevada. Working with a linguist, Burns developed a written Numu language. Though he received no formal training as a teacher, he has a gift for connecting with people of all ages and backgrounds, using humor and patience. He often leads sacred circle powwow dances and has given the blessing at events such as the 2011 inauguration of Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and the 2005 dedication in Washington, D.C., of a statue of Sarah Winnemucca, a nineteenth century Paiute activist, educator and author.
Among Burns’ numerous honors is the 2011 Nevada Heritage Award. He is among the subjects of a documentary, One Sky, that’s part of a permanent exhibit of the same name at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City.
Stockton, Jill. “Engaging the Native community: RSJ grad student’s film ‘Never to be Forgotten’ honored by Nat’l Endowment for the Arts.” Nevada Today, October 4, 2013. http://www.unr.edu/nevada-today/news/2013/native-storyteller-hpf
Vogel, Ed. “Paiute elder rescues language near extinction.” Las Vegas Review Journal, February 1, 2014. http://www.reviewjournal.com/news/paiute-elder-rescues-language-near-extinction
“NEA National Heritage Fellowships: Ralph Burns.” http://arts.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/ralph-burns
“Ralph Burns, Keeper of Paiute Culture,” Nevada Public Radio, October 14, 2013. http://www.knpr.org/son/archive/detail2.cfm?SegmentID=10578
One Sky, a documentary produced in 2002 by the University of Nevada Oral History Program. For more information, go to http://imedia.unr.edu/unohp/under_one_sky/about1.html
Ki Na Sumoowakwatu: Never to Be Forgotten, 2013, a documentary by Regina Revazova, a graduate student at the Reynolds School of Journalism.
Ralph Burns interviewed by Nicholas R. Spitzer, 2013 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Ralph Burns tells a creation story, 2013 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Ralph Burns talks about where he is from and the history of his tribe, interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Ralph Burns answers the question 'How did your tribe's name come about?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Ralph Burns talks about the different tribes in the United States and Nevada, interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Ralph Burns talks about the bands of the Paiute Tribe, interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Ralph Burns talks about the boarding school his grandmother was forced to attend, interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Ralph Burns talks about preserving his native language, interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Ralph Burns answers the question 'How did you start teaching the language?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Ralph Burns answers the question 'Do you also sing in the language?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013