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Salt songs cycle makes award-winning film

February 8, 2006

Photo of American Indian studies faculty Philip Klasky (left) and Melissa NelsonWhen a group of Southern Paiute people met with American Indian studies faculty Melissa Nelson and Philip Klasky four years ago to record a 142-song cycle, they had no idea that their dedication to native traditions would evolve into an award-winning film. But "Salt Songs Trail: Bringing Creation Back Together" took the top prize for documentary shorts at the 2005 Native American Film Festival. Since then, Nelson said, "we're getting requests to screen it all over the country."

"We began with the goal to record the songs and make the recording available for Paiute generations to come," said Nelson, an assistant professor of American Indian studies and a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa Indians. She is also the executive director of the Cultural Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that helps native people to maintain culture and traditions. "Then we decided to make a short promotional video about the project and the next thing we knew, we were looking for a filmmaker and more funding."

Salt songs were performed by the Southern Paiute after a death and sometimes in memory of one. The Southern Paiutes believed that the departed could not make the journey into the next life if the songs were not sung. Shared among the 13 bands in the Southern Paiute nation, the salt songs cycle was also sung during travel throughout Southern California, Nevada, Utah and Northern Arizona to gather essential supplies like salt.

"Each generation that learns and sings the cycle is not only honoring a sacred tradition, it is helping to keep the nation's language alive," said Vivienne Jake, a Kaibab Paiute who with Matthew Leivas Sr. of the Chemeheuvi band originated the project.

Photo of Southern Paiute people performing salt songs at the Sherman SchoolIn the film, Jake, Leivas, other salt songs singers and supporters traveled to the site of the Sherman School in Riverside County, one of the Western U.S. boarding schools where Native American children were sent beginning in the late 19th century. Children who died while attending the school are buried in an adjacent cemetery. The salt singers performed the songs in the cemetery with the hope that the tradition would finally allow the children's souls to peacefully pass into the next world.

"This project fit perfectly with SFSU's mission to combine academic research and community," Nelson said. "This was a project in community revitalization."

Footage of the ceremony and interviews with the participants make up the bulk of the film, directed and edited by Esther Figueroa. Music was provided by Colin Farish and flautist John-Carlos Perea. Copies of "Salt Songs Trail: Bringing Creation Back Together" are available through the Cultural Conservancy Web site or by calling (415) 561-6594.

-- Denize Springer


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Last modified February 8, 2006 by University Communications