Luce Fellow Spotlight: Reba Jo Teran

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a second year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded the inaugural 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. In 2021, we expanded the fellowship award to $75,000 and 13 new fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations. 


Reba Jo Teran, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, was born and raised on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. She has dedicated her life to protecting the Shoshone language. Teran’s parents, both fluent Shoshone speakers, raised their children to speak their ancestral language. Indeed, Teran did not even learn to speak English until she was 6 years old.

Over the past 20 years, Teran has recorded 20,291 Shoshone words, as well as 2,000 Shoshone phrases.

Teran views her ability to fluently speak her ancestral language as a privilege – one that is not afforded to many Shoshone people. “As Native people, we are born with gifts and an inner knowledge to do good things on behalf of our Creator. My gifts have led me down a path that enables me to preserve and perpetuate the Shoshone language and culture.”

Teran, a retired technology instructor, decided she could use her technological background to help her preserve and perpetuate the Shoshone language for future generations. She is currently using her computer skills to record and edit the Shoshone language in both print and oral form.

Since 2002, Teran and two Shoshone elders have been diligently recording words and phrases for a new Shoshone dictionary. They have compiled more than 20,000 words so far.

She began this language revitalization project in 2002 when she worked at the Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center. She records a female and male Shoshone speaker pronouncing each word in the Shoshone language, then edits and transfers the audio/video recordings into a digital file she can upload online.

With the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship, Teran continued to expand the print version of the Shoshone dictionary into an audio dictionary that will assist Shoshone language learners with pronunciation. The fellowship allowed her to purchase new equipment so she can finish recording and editing the language.

For Teran, these two resources are just the beginning. She hopes her tribe and other Shoshone bands will use this dictionary, in both its print and audio forms, to launch even more Shoshone language projects in their tribal communities.

Working daily to preserve an endangered language

The Shoshone language is an endangered language with barely 100 fluent language speakers. In 2002, the tribe conducted a survey indicating that only 103 Shoshone elders were still fluent in their ancestral language. When this survey was conducted, many of these speakers were between 50-100 years old. After more than 20 years and a pandemic, the number of fluent speakers is undoubtedly much smaller today.

Teran, her sister, and one other elder, Manfred Guina, Sr., who has since passed away, have spent two decades documenting and recording the Shoshone language. At the time, Teran used cassette tapes to record Haukaas and Guina speaking the language. She now uses a camcorder to record elders, but has recorded so many hours of video that her camcorder no longer works.

Over the past 20 years, Teran has recorded 20,291 Shoshone words as well as 2,000 Shoshone phrases. Additionally, she has recorded 30 Shoshone legends that she wishes to share with tribal youth. Teran has one letter left to record – the letter “s.”

She used the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship to finish recording this last section, which consists of more than 1,000 words. Additionally, she edited all her audio and video files (which have changed formats over the past 20 years) and transformed them to a digital format she can upload online.

“I edit every day,” says Teran. “Sometimes I complete 200 words a day. Sometimes I complete 100 words a day, but there’s still thousands of words to edit and clean up.”

Excited to share her dictionary with the world

Teran is not the first person to compile a Shoshone dictionary. In 1988, American linguist Wick R. Miller published one of the first Shoshone dictionaries. However, he was not a fluent Shoshone speaker and Teran found many of his translations difficult to read and understand.

This realization inspired Teran to create a new dictionary that is more accessible and relevant to her tribal community. The English alphabet is insufficient for capturing the Shoshone language because it does not capture all the sounds and nuances inherent in the rich and complex Shoshone language.

Teran aims to complete the Shoshone dictionary later next year and share it with the rest of the community.

Teran says she could always see the Shoshone alphabet in her head and tried to use a mouse to add new lines and symbols to the English alphabet to accurately capture the Shoshone language. Eventually, Margaret Tohannie, a Northern Ute tribal member and computer expert, helped Teran create a new font that allowed her to accurately document and record the language.

“It’s tricky assigning new letters to a keyboard,” says Teran. She and Tohannie are still finalizing the font and then will seek copyrights so they can “share it with the rest of the world.”

According to Teran, the community has been waiting patiently for her to complete the Shoshone dictionary. “They keep asking when I’ll be done,” she says. “This project is important. It will preserve our language for the future. We are going to put it on a server and make it available to the tribe and tribal school.”

Teran says her new dictionary will also benefit other Shoshone tribal bands, as well. “At one time, there were 64 Shoshone bands across California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and Oklahoma. I hope this project will help them remember their words.”

Teran hopes to share and disseminate this new Shoshone dictionary to the rest of the community. She hopes this dictionary is just the beginning of many other language revitalization projects, such as Shoshone flashcards and a new language curriculum that merges culture and technology.

“This dictionary will allow teachers and students to use the computer to create cultural lessons using their own creativity and ideas,” she says.

‘Grateful for this fellowship’

Teran has been working diligently on this project for two decades. Although she has received several small grants to assist her with this language revitalization project, the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship allowed her to work on the dictionary full-time.

Time is of the essence for this project. Teran observes they have already lost one elder while working on the dictionary. She continues to work with her sister to complete the dictionary over the next year; however, she observes that her sister is 83 years old and her health is fragile.

“I am grateful for this fellowship,” says Teran. “We are losing our cultures and languages. This fellowship gives us a chance.”

Teran is also grateful that the fellowship program provided her with a supportive network of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers. “We all have the same goal. We are driven to save our cultures and languages.”

She adds, “I am proud to be a part of this cohort. When I’m done with this dictionary, I will be proud to show the other fellows. I also want to show future cohorts that it’s possible to have a big dream like this and finish it.”