Respected Elder Devotes Life to Preserving Shoshone Language and Culture
FORT WASHAKIE, Wyo. — Eastern Shoshone tribal members gathered this week to honor the life of elder Roberta Rose Wesaw-Engavo, a fluent Shoshone speaker who dedicated her life to language and culture preservation.
Engavo died Thursday, August 1, 2019, in Fort Washakie, Wyoming, on the Wind River Indian Reservation. She was 84 years old.
A wake was held at her home on the North Fork of the Little Wind River on August 5. Relatives and community members gathered August 6 for the funeral at Rocky Mountain Hall and burial at Sacagawea Cemetery in Fort Washakie.
During her eight decades, Roberta Engavo worked to carry forward the Shoshone way of life by preserving traditional cultural knowledge and sharing it widely.
“Roberta’s passing is a tremendous loss for the Eastern Shoshone, but because of her lifetime of work, her legacy of keeping our traditions will live on,” said James Trosper, director of the High Plains American Indian Research Institute at the University of Wyoming.
Engavo’s expertise ranged from Shoshone language to crafts like shawl making and beadwork. She was an authority on Native American Church and Sun Dance ceremonies, and a singer of Sun Dance songs, Peyote Songs, and Comanche hymns.
She was also a noted powwow dancer with a distinctive style. She was active in the Southern Plains powwow circuit when she lived in Oklahoma working as a nursing assistant.
Born on the Wind River Indian Reservation in 1935 to noted traditional Shoshone doctor Allesandro “Tom” Wesaw and Helen Hill Wesaw, Roberta was later adopted and raised by Tibney and Addie Wesaw. The family spoke Eastern Shoshone at home, and Roberta mastered the language.
“As a child into adulthood, Roberta observed the elders and learned the ways of our people,” said Stanford Devinney, Shoshone Language and Culture Teacher at Wyoming Indian Schools. “Her father, who was a Shoshone Sun Dance Chief, taught Roberta about our sacred ceremonies. In turn, she has passed that knowledge to future generations.”
Eastern Shoshone is part of the Uto-Aztecan language family, which also includes Ute, Paiute, and Comanche. The languages are actively spoken today by Shoshonean peoples living in a vast region stretching from Mexico and California across the Great Basin to the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains.
Developed over countless generations, the Eastern Shoshone language gives voice to many unique expressions of human nature, philosophy, ecology, geography, and spirituality. This knowledge was greatly disrupted after the creation of Wyoming Territory and the start of the reservation system. Globally, the loss of indigenous languages and systems of knowledge is one of the greatest crises facing humanity.
“Roberta Engavo was one of our Eastern Shoshone elders and leaders who went to work to save our language,” said Ann Abeyta, curriculum director at Fort Washakie School. “It seems like a monumental challenge, but her life shows that individuals working together can achieve great things.”
As generations grew old and passed away, Engavo was counted among the last 100 remaining fluent speakers of Eastern Shoshone, as of 2012. She was often called to pray in Shoshone at important public events. On September 7, 2000, Roberta gave the closing prayer for the dedication of the Chief Washakie sculpture in the United States Capitol Rotunda. At this event, she shared the stage with Governor Geringer, Senator Craig Thomas, Senator Alan Simpson, and Representative Barbara Cubin.
View the statue dedication video here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4812174/roberta-engavo-prays-washakie-statude-dedication
Such events were part of Engavo’s dedication to language preservation, and making it her life’s work. For 25 years, she taught Shoshone to children ages two to five as an employee at the Eastern Shoshone Head Start Program in Fort Washakie. She touched hundreds of children’s lives in this role before her retirement in May 2016 at age 80.
In 2002, Roberta Engavo began working with Reba Teran, Beatrice Haukaas, and Manfred Guina as part of a team to record 14,000 Shoshone words and transcribe 9,000 of them. This was part of a larger language preservation effort described in a 2012 WyoFile.com article by Tetona Dunlap.
Engavo further contributed to academic research by the University of Wyoming and other institutions. When the University of Wyoming received a National Endowment for Humanities matching grant to study the role and connections of elk to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, Engavo was a major contributor to that research.
In 2017, Engavo provided her linguistic expertise to greatly improve maps of American Indian place names on the Wind River Indian Reservation and across Wyoming. The maps appeared in the 2018 book Wild Migrations: Atlas of Wyoming Ungulates, and are now available in the WyoHistory.org article “Before Wyoming: American Indian Geography and Trails.” These place names maps will also be used in the American Indian Education For All curriculum.
Engavo partnered with Fort Washakie School in 2009 to develop the Shoshone Core Values and contributed to culture night events. Most recently, Engavo was a linguist and voice contributor to the Shoshone Language app in 2018, recording many words before for the app released in January 2019. The app “Newe Daygwap” is available on Google Play and in Apple’s App Store.
“Working with Roberta on these projects was a valuable experience,” said Lynette St. Clair, Indian Education Director Ft Washakie School. “I was reminded of how important the responsibility is that we have to pass on the knowledge we each receive from our ancestors.”
Perhaps Engavo’s biggest legacy is in her family. With Thomas Chippewa Sr., she was the mother of ten children. After their divorce, she married Loran Littlecrow and lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Upon Loran’s death, she returned to Fort Washakie and later married Antoine “Tony” Engavo. In total, she had more than 160 grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, plus numerous adopted children, cousins, nieces, nephews, and extended family in the Shoshone way.
“Roberta Engavo humbly served her people, her state, and her country through her commitment to Shoshone language and culture,” Abeyta said. “Her individual dedication is a model for us all to follow as we continue the Eastern Shoshone way of life.”