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All of the information which we now have about the Tepa language is contained in the journals of Alma Walker (1850-1943), a missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Mormons”) who was called to preach to the Utes, Paiutes and Navajos who lived in southeastern Utah. During his mission, which extended from 1869 to 1873, Walker made the acquaintance of an elderly Ute Indian whom he called Brother Joseph (his Indian name is no longer known). Brother Joseph had embraced Mormonism and was eager to provide Walker with assistance and information.
As a young man, Brother Joseph was very well acquainted with the Tepa, having spent several years with them. He often accompanied trading expeditions to the Tepa and at one time even had a Tepa wife. She died during the birth of their first child, who also did not survive. As a result of his frequent and prolonged contact with the Tepa, he learned their language and participated in their community life until the death of his wife and son, after which he moved back to live with his own people.
Brother Joseph was reluctant at first to talk about his experiences among the Tepa, since they were bound up with the memory of the death of his young family. But soon Walker had gained his trust to the point where Brother Joseph would talk readily and freely about what he remembered of his former life. The small Tepa community did not survive to the twentieth century; it was severly decimated by a smallpox epidemic, which was ironically most likely carried to their pueblo by Brother Joseph himself. The few survivors moved to neighboring Ute, Paiute and Navajo communities and soon forgot their former language and way of life. The location of the last Tepa pueblo is now unknown. It was most likely located on one of the tributaries of the Colorado River, but it is presumably submerged beneath the waters of Lake Powell, which was created when the Glenn Canyon Dam was built.
In recording his own thoughts and experiences in his journals, Walker made sporadic use of the Deseret Alphabet. He was, however, consistent in its use for transcribing the sounds of Tepa as they were reported to him by Brother Joseph. The Deseret Alphabet was designed to accurately represent the speech sounds of English, but by adding a single diacritic to two of the characters, Walker was able to adapt this alphabet for use in transcribing Tepa.
Walker carried his journals back to Salt Lake City, where they remained in his possession until his death in 1943. After his death, his family donated all of his writings to the University of Utah Library, where they were kept in storage to await cataloguing. Due to budget cuts at the University of Utah, Walker’s journals remained in the library’s warehouse (along with many other materials of similar historical value) and were never catalogued or properly archived. When the Mariott Library added its new wing in 1995, many of the items stored in the warehouse were finally brought to light, including the Walker journals containing the Tepa material. The Linguistics Program at the University of Utah was made aware of the Tepa materials, and the program director notified me of their existence. I was fortunate to have access to the journals, which I used to prepare the following grammar of Tepa. At a later date I hope to be able to edit and prepare Elder Walker’s journal for publication, as it contains material of interest to the LDS historian, as well as to anthropologists and linguists concerned with this period of white-Indian contacts.
It should be stressed here that all of the information we now have about the Tepa language comes from a non-native speaker. There are doubtless many linguistic riches which are irretrieveably lost. However, I feel that the information that we do have deserves to be brought to light, even in this sketchy and incomplete form.