RENO, Nev. (AP) — The last time Ralph Burns was in Washington, D.C., it was to celebrate history.
When he traveled there in late September, he made a little history of his own.
Burns — a Pyramid Lake Paiute elder, storyteller and native-language specialist — was honored Sept. 25 with a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award. He was one of nine folk artists from around the country being recognized, and the only award recipient from Nevada.
The award ceremony took place at the Library of Congress.
"I didn't expect it," Burns told the Reno Gazette-Journal (http://on.rgj.com/1fIRBsy). "This is a national honor and, well, I just tell my little stories. I just really want to thank the people that nominated me."
The last time Burns, 68, was in the nation's capitol was in 2005 for the dedication of the statue of Sarah Winnemucca at National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. Burns gave a traditional Paiute blessing at the dedication. Sarah Winnemucca was a prominent Native American activist, teacher and author in the 19th century.
Burns, who was traveling with his wife, Maxine, and granddaughter, Bernai Osno, also planned to meet with members of Nevada's Congressional Delegation and visit some of the monuments in Washington.
"I'm excited for my granddaughter to be with me," Burns said before the trip. "She had to skip school (in Galt, Calif.) We're going to spend an extra two days there. Her class is all excited for her and she has to give a report when she gets back."
Burns grew up on the Pyramid Lake Paiute reservation, where he learned the Northern Paiute language and traditional stories from family members and tribal elders. Many of those stories, he forgot as he reached adulthood.
He served in the 1st Cavalry Division during the Vietnam War and spent some time working in California before returning home to Pyramid Lake.
He now is the cultural resource specialist for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Museum and Cultural Center. He also serves as a resource for the Paiute language program (which is taught in several schools in the Washoe County School District) and is constantly in demand as a storyteller or to give Native American blessings at events.
Burns said he hates to tell anyone no.
"It kind of goes back to when I was in the service," he said. "The creator God brought me here to do that thing. When anybody calls, I try not to refuse. I've done funerals, graduations, the governor's inauguration (for Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2011). I think the creator brought me back here to do those things."
For more than 20 years, he has taught the Northern Paiute (Numu) language to tribal students, high school students and community members.
Burns is also a traditional dancer who frequently leads the sacred circle powwow dances and has instructed groups at the Pyramid Lake Reservation and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
His stories of animals, land and people are part of the exhibits in the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. In 2011, he received the Nevada Heritage Award and was honored earlier in September at the University of Nevada, Reno for his commitment to Nevada and tribal traditions.
"Without the efforts of Mr. Burns, these traditional arts of the Paiute people and other Indian people would be lost," wrote Sherry Rupert of the State of Nevada Indian Commission in a letter in support of Burns' nomination.
Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com
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