Las Vegas Paiute boy given sacred mantle of song carrier

LAS VEGAS – 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 taboo.

"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, reported the Las Vegas
Review-Journal.

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.

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."

The moment

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."

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."