Elder was fluent in Shoshone language

Story from KPVI Television in Idaho

An elder of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe who passed on August 1st received a short obituary. What wasn’t said was the fact that Roberta Engavo was among the last of the fluent speakers of the Eastern Shoshone Language.

Roberta Rose Wesaw-Engavo, one of the few remaining fluent speakers of the Eastern Shoshone language, was 84.

Engavo not only spoke her native language but also dedicated her life to preserving the language and culture, through her knowledge of crafts like bead work and shawl making and Native American and Sun Dance Ceremonies, according to a news release.

She also had a distinctive powwow dancing style when she was active on the powwow circuit and was an expert on Sun Dance and Peyote songs and Comanche hymns.

Engavo died Aug. 1. A Monday wake at her home on the North Fork of the Little Wind River was followed by a funeral the next day. She was buried at Sacagawea Cemetery in Fort Washakie.

“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,” James Trosper, director of the High Plains American Indian Research Institute at the University of Wyoming, said in the release.

In addition to her decades of work to preserve — and share for future generations — Eastern Shoshone traditions, culture and language, she often was asked to offer public prayers at important events. She even gave the closing prayer during the dedication for the Chief Washakie sculpture in the United States Capitol Rotunda in 2000, both in Shoshone and English.

“Whatever our needs are on the reservation, Chief Washakie will lead us in the right direction and allow (legislators) to communicate and compromise for what is right for the reservation,” she said then.

Engavo was born on the Wind River Reservation in 1935 to a prominent traditional Eastern Shoshone doctor and learned to speak Eastern Shoshone in her adopted home.

She learned as a child and as an adult by observing the elders, said Stanford Devinney, Shoshone Language and Culture Teacher at Wyoming Indian Schools, in the release. Her father, who was a Shoshone Sun Dance Chief, also taught Engavo about sacred ceremonies.

In 2012, she was among the last 100 remaining fluent speakers of the language, according to the release.

Like many Indigenous languages, Eastern Shoshone speakers declined with the start of the reservation system. But through elders like Engavo, who retained knowledge of traditional culture and language — and through efforts like immersion schools — many tribes are working to ensure that their traditions are preserved and practiced.

“Roberta Engavo was one of our Eastern Shoshone elders and leaders who went to work to save our language,” Ann Abeyta, curriculum director at Fort Washakie School, said in the release. “It seems like a monumental challenge, but her life shows that individuals working together can achieve great things.”

This article originally ran on trib.com.