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Lecturer Phil Klasky attends to the recording equipment at the Riverside cemetery while Professor Melissa Nelson films a group of American Indians. A new film captures a long overdue American Indian Ceremony. Photo by Melissa NelsonSetting Spirits Free
In the late 1800s, the United States government opened several off-reservation boarding schools, intending to assimilate Native American children into mainstream society.

"It was a very dark period," says Philip Klasky, a lecturer in the American Indian studies department. "Indian children were taken from their homes and sent to schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language."

Among the children were members of the Southern Paiute Indian tribe sent to the Sherman Indian High School in Riverside. "Sherman was infamous for poor health conditions, and many children died there of tuberculosis," Klasky says.

Although the Southern Paiute children were buried in the school's cemetery, in their descendants' eyes they were never truly laid to rest. The family members the children had left behind weren't present to administer the tribal ceremony believed to set their spirits on their sacred journey -- singing a cycle of 142 songs.

Last summer Klasky and American Indian studies Assistant Professor Melissa Nelson gathered with tribe members at the Riverside cemetery to record the long overdue ceremony. The resulting film, "The Salt Song Trail: Bringing Creation Back Together," will stand as a record for future generations of the Southern Paiute people.

The project is one of many that Klasky and Nelson are working on through the The Cultural Conservancy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit with educational programs focused on native land conservation, cultural and ecological restoration, and traditional indigenous arts and spiritual values. This summer Klasky and Nelson will lead workshops in audio recording techniques at reservations in the South West so that American Indian culture won't slip through the cracks of history.

"Some tribal elders have whole dictionaries stored in their head, epic poetry, important traditions that might otherwise be lost forever," Klasky says.

"The Salt Song Trail: Bringing Creation Back Together" will premiere at The Cultural Conservancy's 20th anniversary celebration in September.

-- Adrianne Bee


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