July 2, 2016 - 3:00 pm
The elders of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe have always told stories of the song carriers — the ones who would continue to carry on the sounds of their sacred Salt Song ceremonies.
But they were quite surprised when the responsibility — and the songs — chose 9-year-old Tobyas Spotted Eagle.
“His innocence or maybe a combination of things,” said his father, Chris Spotted Eagle, spiritual leader for the tribe. “I like to believe that the songs were actually calling out to him, and that’s the way it’s been told to me by some of the elders.”
To have a person as young as Tobyas — now 11 — perform the Salt Songs was unheard of, and, almost
“We didn’t know how the other elders were going to perceive it or accept it, with him sitting with us,” Chris Spotted Eagle said. “We were really leery. We didn’t want to offend.”
He first joined his father and other members of the tribe in performing the ceremonies two years ago.
In question was his level of maturity, as the dusk-to-dawn ceremony is performed over the departed body of a tribal member who has passed.
The singers are tasked with performing a collection of about 140 songs in a sacred ceremony that prepares the spirit to cross over to the other side.
“Because of the consciousness, because of the heaviness of the responsibility, we were a little reluctant and reserved on if he was going to mentally have the stability to handle what these songs are about and what they’re able to do,” Chris Spotted Eagle said.
The songs are sung in accordance with where they were gathered along the Salt Song Trail, which travels north along the Colorado River to the Kaibab and Colorado Plateau, into Southern Utah, and then west to Mount Charleston. The trail moves farther west into the Pacific Ocean, laps back east through the Mojave Desert, and ends at the Grand Canyon.
“That spirit is running, running and running, and right at the end, at dawn, they make the leap over the Grand Canyon in our spiritual area,” said Chris Spotted Eagle. “We’ve got to make sure they ain’t stumbling along the way, or they’ll fall into the river.”
The songs build momentum as the evening progresses, and the night sky darkens, and when the voice of Tobyas cuts through, any trepidation about his maturity falls quickly away.
“He’s done better than we ever thought,” Chris Spotted Eagle said. “He belts it out with all of us. Sometimes when you hear that youth voice, it actually wakes up these elders. It makes us so much more powerful. It’s amazing to see it.”
Chris Spotted Eagle first noticed his son’s strong spiritual connection as an infant.
“He was starting to sing them in his sleep,” he said. “And he was starting to sing them randomly, and he had never really heard these songs before, because we don’t like the children around the ceremonies.”
The pivotal moment manifested itself two nights after Chris purchased Tobyas a gourd rattle, thinking of it as a novelty item lacking any sort of spiritual content.
“I sang one night, but I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t know you couldn’t sing them at night because they are really powerful songs,” Tobyas said. “I just felt a mixture of the good and evil spirits. I also felt my grandpa who passed on.”
When father and son met with elders to get to the bottom of what happened, they expressed their excitement about his progression.
“He was able to tap into it, like plugging it into the wall,” Chris Spotted Eagle said. “It was that powerful.”
At his first ceremony, Tobyas said he wasn’t sure he’d be able to go all night. As a 9-year-old with a routine bedtime, staying up and energized into the early morning hours is no small feat.
Learning all of the songs, each sung in the native language, is not easy either.
“When I was there for the first one, they whispered in my ear and told me what the next song was going to be,” he said. “They kept doing that and doing that. It helped me a lot. Now I know most of the songs that they sing.”
His father said his son responds to the songs like “a fish to water.”
“I’ve heard these songs my whole life, and I struggle with some,” Chris Spotted Eagle said. “It’s almost like breathing to him.”
Eighty years ago, each band used to have about 10 to 15 singers. Now, Chris and Tobyas are among the core group of about 10 to 12 singers who perform the ceremonies.
In number of participants, length and location, and the clothing worn, the ceremonies have changed over time. The number of participants has dwindled, the ceremony shortened from three or four days to one, and the singers now don modern clothing in climate-controlled buildings.
“The way one of our elders told us, it’s giving her a little bit of peace of mind that it’s going to continue,” Chris said. “Not everyone is doing it anymore. There are just a handful of us who are singing these songs.”
SHOES TO FILL
Tobyas is following in his father’s footsteps just as Chris followed in the footsteps of his father, Leroy Spotted Eagle, who served as the spiritual leader for the 56-member tribe before he passed away nearly five years ago. A person becomes a member once he or she reaches the age of 21.
“A lot of people, they see my dad in me, they hear my dad in me, our mannerisms are the same, our speech is the same, we even look the same,” Chris said. “I think a lot of it was, ‘Hey man, you’re it because you look like him.’ But I like to think that now I’m kind of treading my own way now.”
As spiritual leader, Chris doesn’t view what he does as a religion.
“Religion has boundaries, rules and politics that govern it,” he said. “It’s unfortunate because it creates barriers. It creates a level of supremacy. Each one thinks that they’re the best and better than everyone else, and that they’re the only way. Whether it’s Christianity or Hinduism or Islam, I don’t refer to them as religions, I refer to them as spirituality. If you practice it at the origin, all of those, there’s good in it.”
And he believes getting back to the origin is key for the survival of future generations.
“In essence we need to get back to being caretakers of this Earth and loving each other, regardless of our skin color, our creed,” he said. “We need to get back to that, or the creator is going to say, ‘I’m going to take this back and give it back to the dinosaurs.’”
Chris believes the Creator will give human beings a generation or two more to get it right, and it’s children like Tobyas who will make it happen.
“I feel the creator is saying, ‘I’m going to plant these kids strategically in these certain areas, and it’s up to you guys to cultivate them and give them an environment where they will thrive, and that will magnify, and help this earth out,’” he said. “We need to wake up, and we need to start being observant of things outside of us.”
What Tobyas and Chris are trying to do takes commitment.
They both love football and the Pittsburgh Steelers. And Tobyas has earned straight A’s throughout his tenure at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, and hopes to continue the trend at Leavitt Middle School this fall.
But spiritual duties, including the Salt Song ceremonies, trump everything else.
“I didn’t choose this, it chose me,” Chris Spotted Eagle said. “For some reason, I don’t ever question, it seems to be very strong for our bloodline. That’s why I want to build on my son. I want him to take it to a level that’s never been.”
“I’ll learn how he (my dad) does it, how he prays for people, and I’ll carry that on once he passes,” he said.
Contact Natalie Bruzda at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3897. Find @NatalieBruzda on Twitter.
Those who want to learn more about the Southern Paiute Tribe can meet members of the tribe in person for a cultural sharing event each Saturday in August and October from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Springs Preserve OriGen Museum. Members of the tribe will bring traditional crafts, basketry, beadwork and medicinal food plants and be on hand to discuss their culture with those interested.