He was born on the reservation. But his mother died the same day. Before his first birthday, Curtis Wilson was adopted by a white couple unable to have children of their own.

He grew up comfortably in a small town in Southern Utah. Now he is 40 and wondering what it means to be an Indian.A few summers ago, he was on the deck on a fishing boat near Alaska. It was the middle of a bright Arctic night. Everyone else on the boat was asleep. Wilson sat alone watching as a humpback whale circled the boat for a half-hour. "I was crying the whole time," he says.

He thinks the reason the whale lingered, "communicating with me somehow," and the reason he felt so moved have something to do with his being Indian. If so, it was the first time he's ever felt Indian.

This month he dropped in to hear one of the speakers at his college's Native American awareness week. He watched the dancers at the powwow, ate fry bread and wondered what, if anything, he could learn from his own ancient culture that would give meaning to his life in the modern world.

`It's a miracle that we are here," says Nola Lodge.

"It is fortunate that Indian people are patient, tolerant and hard-headed or we'd have been wiped out long ago. We weren't, and that's a tribute to our pride in who we are."

Lodge is an instructor in the graduate school of education at the University of Utah. Lately she has been speaking at an Indian awareness weeks. There was one last month at Southern Utah State College, last week at the University of Utah and this week at Weber State College.

The Paiute Tribe will hold its annual Restoration Gathering and Powwow June 8-12 in Cedar City.

Everywhere Lodge goes she meets young Indians who are nostalgic for a way of life, nostalgic for a harmony and a time they barely remember.

So, when she speaks, Lodge speaks about tradition.

"We have to be bicultural," she says. "We were once an independent nation with a social system that met our needs. But we didn't have the technology to resist the profound changes the white society brought.

"They were the victors. They made the laws and they told us they knew what was good for us.

"Still we mantained our traditional philosophy and religion as much as we could. And now there is greater recognition that our values are good."

During the powwows that go along with various Indian awareness weeks, anyone can watch the dancing and see the clothing. Anyone can observe the outward displays of the word "traditional." Understanding what tradition means is more difficult.

The same symbols in the ceremonies (be they certain colors, eagle feathers or cornstalks) were once such an integral part of tribal life that they never had to be explained. They were part of the rituals of dancing and dressing and also of setting up a home, harvesting corn and welcoming a new baby.

Sherman Tillahash, substance abuse prevention specialist with the Paiutes, believes young Paiutes must "somehow hit upon a way to live in balance" with two cultures. When they don't find that balance, he says, they turn to drugs and alcohol.

He is one of many Indians attempting to strengthen the tribe while at the same time helping their children become fully educated members of the Anglo culture. Daily, Native Americans face the challenge of defining the traditions they need to keep.

Most desperately want to hold on to the language.

The son of a Navajo medicine man, Roger Williams says, "The tradition that we are losing is our language. Even though the conversational language is being preserved, and written phonetically, the spiritual language is being lost. The Navajos had a very formal, concise, descriptive religious language - my father could say one word and it sounded like a paragraph. But too few people know it to preserve it."

To Williams, preserving the footwork and formations of a dance is much less important. "When we talk about tradition we aren't telling people to go backward. To some of us tradition is individual," he says. "The old people before they die tell us to be unique.

"They say, `Be Indian. Dance in your own way. As long as you keep in harmony with all things it is right. Every step in the dances is not exactly the same. But even nature is like that. Two birds may come from the same parents but they aren't alike. Make the ceremonies your way.' "

To Lodge "being traditional means showing respect for all creatures and for Mother Earth. Showing respect for all persons, but especially our elders. Being proud of being Indian.

"Being traditional is remembering that the hurt or honor of one is the hurt or honor of all."

Henrietta Whiteman talks about tradition, too. At the University of Utah Indian Awareness Week she spoke on the role of Indian women in maintaining the continuity of a people.

"We are spiritual. We are ageless. As women we have a sacred duty to keep the culture. Historically, as now, women have the important roles as giver of life and keeper of the home.

"The home has been our richest and proudest possession, where the life and the heart of the people rested, where children learned to respect the Creator."

Whiteman recalls that in her Cheyenne Tribe as soon as a woman knew she was pregnant she began her "timeless prayer for healthy children.

"We avoided touching certain animals, we avoided making fun of the handicapped . . ." Traditionally, mothers were expected to be of the highest moral character. Midwives, too, had to be good women because as they helped the new baby pass into the world the Cheyenne hoped they would help pass on the highest values of their people as well.

"We don't separate the medicine from the person who is giving it, both must be good for healing to take place," explains Whiteman. Or to say it another way, "Everything is a prayer." Lodge, who is from the Oneida Tribe, has the same belief, "Every action is a prayer to the Creator."

In order to understand what it is Native Americans want to hold in their hearts as they live and work in a white world, look at the circle. It signifies wholeness.

The circle is a symbol of life common to many tribes. Life in the Anglo culture is more often sybolized by a straight line, or a journey along a road that stretches between birth and death.

Williams says, "In this dominant white society everything seems to be cause and effect. With the Indians it's a process. When someone dies we don't look for reasons." Death closes the circle.

"When the eagle flies it's not straight up. He flies in circles. The higher he goes, the bigger the circle. Finally he disappears - but we know he is still flying, still making circles."

Lodge says, "I ask young people what being traditional means to them. `Does it mean being full-blood? A powwow dancer? Speaking the language?'

"My position is that being traditional is more than that. Traditional people have integrity, inner strength and are honest in everything they do. Even if it costs them.

"They care about Indian people. They give freely of their time and money to make the world a better place for their people."

When they live on a college campus, she knows, young people are separated from tradition. Whiteman agrees that contact with their elders is important. She urges Indians to go back to their reservation regularly, to participate in the life of their tribe, to renew themselves, to gain strength for life in the modern competitive world.

"That's why you see a celebration on every campus in the spring," Lodge says. "Even if we have only one day of awareness, it reinforces what it is to be a good Indian. This is as much for us as it is to share our culture with others."