It is 3:30 p.m. in Wašiw country, and language class is in session. Two young girls sit side by side at a small table in a tribal community recreation center in Carson City, Nevada. They take turns responding as their teacher, Mischelle Dressler, holds up flash cards displaying words in the Wašiw language. When a phrase pops up that one can’t decipher, the other whispers the answer in her ear. “We call that being a ‘language angel,’” Dressler explains. “It’s a way of supporting each other and creating safe spaces to learn.”
A language unique to the some 1,500-member Washoe Tribe, Wašiw is now spoken fluently by fewer than 20 people. The tribe’s focus on language is not new; Dressler is part of a team of teachers who are striving to carry on a legacy of preservation and respect for all aspects of their culture, including Wašiw. (“Wašiw” is the spelling often preferred by Native speakers; the tribe used “Washoe” officially for the name of the tribe when incorporating in 1934.)
The People of "DaɁaw"
Members of the Washoe Tribe live in four federally recognized communities: Carson, Dresslerville and Stewart in Nevada, and Woodfords in California. They occupy a landscape that changes abruptly from high desert to woodlands, and just over the massive Sierra Nevada mountain range to the northwest lies Lake Tahoe. This lake, which the Wašiw people refer to as “DaɁaw” (the lake) or “DaɁaw Ɂaga” (the edge of the lake), is the center of the Wašiw world; Wašiw creation stories say they have always lived there. Stories handed down from one generation to the next describe the lake’s many sacred sites and how the waters “breathed life” into the land, plants, fish, birds, animals and people around it.
Only in recent years, however, has the tribe regained access to portions of its original homelands around the lake; more than a century of mining, logging and real estate development had driven the tribe away. A massive influx of settlers in the mid-19th century transformed the landscape, encroaching on Wašiw homelands and disrupting every major ecosystem the tribe had so carefully tended. The arrival of newcomers led not only to the alteration of Wašiw lands but also to the destruction of their language and culture.
In the winter of 1890, federal officials began rounding up Wašiw children and hauling them to the newly opened Carson Indian School (later called the Stewart Indian School) south of Carson City. Their hair was shorn, their traditional clothing burned and they were forbidden from speaking their Native language. Stories of children being separated from their families are seared into the collective tribal memory. Wašiw elder and teacher Melba Rakow recalls an aunt telling stories of standing up to school authorities. “She would gather girls together for games on the playground and speak in Wašiw; she didn’t care about the punishment that would follow.” The generation of children who were taken away in the early to mid-1900s is often called the “stolen generation,” and many of the survivors still refuse to speak their mother tongue.
Saving a Unique Language
For decades, linguists grouped the Wašiw language into a larger language family known as the Hokan. Others have considered it a distinct branch of this family, but the Wašiw people have maintained that their language is a language isolate, unrelated to any of the surrounding tribes nor others who make up the Hokan language family.
Until the 1950s, Wašiw was solely a spoken language. Then Roma James, secretary-treasurer of the first Washoe Tribal Council, who was working with other speakers, many of whom were elders, began to transcribe tribal stories and create a Wašiw orthography. Soon after, Marvin Dressler, a Wašiw tribal member who later became one of the tribe’s first language teachers, began translating Wašiw words into phonetic English and recording them in detailed journals. As part of his doctoral research, William Jacobsen (who later became a University of Nevada, Reno [UNR] linguistic professor) recorded oral histories and songs, devised writing systems and created language teaching materials for the tribe. In 1964, Jacobsen completed his dissertation, “Washo Grammar,” and in 1979 he was hired to teach language classes two nights a week near Dresslerville. In the early 1980s, a group of language activists continued the tribe’s efforts through language circles that brought together elders to share stories in Wašiw with younger tribal members, often over a potluck dinner.
Language revitalization efforts took on a new life in the early 1990s. Laura Fillmore, a non-Native woman who at that time was living on the reservation with her future husband, Benny Fillmore, was studying Indigenous language immersion and language renewal at UNR. Along with elders, other tribal members and language advocates, Fillmore spearheaded efforts to launch one of the first immersion language schools in the United States. In September 1997 Wašiw Wagayay Maŋal (the house where Wašiw is spoken) opened its doors. This school, which was modeled after a successful Maori language immersion program in New Zealand, taught preschoolers through eighth-graders all subjects except math in Wašiw (no known vocabulary for mathematics exists in this language). Wašiw cultural values also were fundamental to the curriculum. Although competing demands for tribal resources forced the immersion school to close its doors in 2003, numerous dedicated community members, teachers and tribal leaders continued to work independently to keep the language alive.
Passing Language On and Up
Laura Fillmore’s son, Herman, is a graduate of the immersion school. He earned a bachelor's degree in Native American Studies from the University of New Mexico in 2012 and returned home, determined to help his tribe preserve their Native language. Now as part of a language team that works out of the tribe’s headquarters in Gardnerville, Nevada, Herman works alongside teachers Rakow, Dressler and Lisa Enos. They teach the language to adults and youth in classes held Mondays through Thursdays in one of the tribe’s four communities. As the program’s Culture/Language Resources Director, Herman says, “Our elders tell us that the language, culture and the people cannot be separated. As we teach language, we are systematically reintegrating our values into the tribe and allowing those to lead the conversations.”
Students are learning to use their Native language through classes and activities. Dressler and Enos, sisters who were raised in the Carson Valley, like to teach everything from songs to knock-knock jokes in Wašiw to make the language a constant presence in children’s lives. Enos developed the Eagle’s Nest immersion classes for 3- to 5-year-olds in the tribe’s Head Start program and now runs after-school programs to provide language maintenance for the children who have graduated from the Eagle's Nest. She has also authored a series of illustrated children’s books that draw on the tribe’s legends and are written in both Wašiw and English. Although geared toward children, the storybooks have reawakened within the community an appreciation for important lessons shared for centuries from one generation to the next. Dressler teaches elementary school classes in Carson and Stewart. While the students do have some pencil-and-paper work, she enlivens their lessons by reading them traditional stories and helping the youngsters put on Wašiw plays, complete with costumes and props. The children’s success has inspired parents and other family members to become more involved in language learning. Lisa says, “These students have become teachers in training and are passing the language up.”
As a fluent Wašiw speaker and tribal historian, Rakow has been an enduring presence in the Wašiw language renaissance, serving as a mentor to both students and other instructors. “I work mostly with the ‘oldies,’” she says with a smile. While most of her students are Wašiw, her classes also attract non-Native speakers. She once taught a man from Hungary who she says was “actually pretty good.” Non-Native teachers who work with preschoolers in the Head Start program also frequently attend Rakow’s classes to learn how to inspire language learning in the tribe’s youngest speakers. In the past, tribal elder Steven James would tell stories to Rakow’s classes in Wašiw while she would translate. As James has gotten older, he has not been able to participate as much. Melba says, “Steven is one of the few remaining Wašiw speakers, and both students and teachers miss his wisdom and his stories.”
Beyond the Classroom
The Washoe Tribe has been reintroducing ceremonies, rituals and other cultural activities in order to pass on traditional knowledge as well as language to a new generation. Because tourism and development during the last century have disastrously impacted Wašiw ancestral lands, the tribe is also working with state and federal entities to blend a Wašiw perspective with best scientific practices to restore the region’s ecosystems and reconnect youth to the environment. Fillmore says, “There is a lot of energy among our young people to go out on the land and work with their hands to do something productive to create change.” Such experiences often offer opportunities to teach Wašiw youth their Native language.
For the past two years, the tribe’s Cultural Resources Department has led teams of Wašiw youth and other youth from Hawaii and California in clearing invasive plants and brush from Meeks Meadow on the west shore of Lake Tahoe. Adjoining Meeks Bay, a lakefront resort property that the tribe manages, the area was historically important to the tribe as medicinal and edible plants could be found in abundance, and trout and whitefish were plentiful. Herman shares Wašiw vocabulary with the volunteers and introduces them to a well-known rule that young hunters and fishermen were traditionally taught: “Take one, leave two” to leave “seed” for next year.
This past October, the tribe celebrated the eighth annual excursion to Taylor Creek, traditional fishing grounds for tribal members on Lake Tahoe’s south shore. Parents and grandparents joined with younger generations to capture kokanee salmon during the annual spawning runs. The kokanee is an introduced species and is outcompeting the native Lahontan cutthroat trout, which was once a staple of the Wašiw diet and an integral part of the mountain lake’s rich fishery. By reintroducing sustainable fishing practices such as avoiding overharvesting, the tribe hopes to restore the lake’s healthy trout population. Prior to the trip, experienced fishermen at the Dresslerville community center taught the youth how to make traditional traps, nets and spears—“Ɂitlalit,” “digeš” and “Ɂitbayati”— out of willow branches.
Another important event that has been revived in earnest is the “ťagɨm Gumsabayʔ,” or pine nut ceremony. The pine nut groves cover an arc of territory on the eastern edge of Wašiw homelands. The relationship between the people and the trees is so close that the Wašiw phrase for “my pine nut lands”—“dikMaʔaš” —is extremely similar to the phrase for my face, “dimaš.” For the fourth year, under the watchful eyes of elders from the Woodfords community, youth congregated this past August in the pine nut groves and used “bi·heɁ” (long poles) to knock down the trees’ cones. They gathered dead sagebrush to burn in pits so they could cook the cones underground and later shelled the pine nuts and pounded them into flour for soup. The group sang traditional Wašiw songs and danced through the night. One Wašiw mother observed that her youngest son has not known a year of life without the ťagɨm Gumsabayʔ.
Another widely attended cultural event for the tribe today is its Washeshu ‘Itdeh Arts Festival. With the support of many tribal members, Wašiw basket weavers Teresa Smokey Jackson and Joanne Smokey Martinez founded the festival in 1990 to showcase the tribe’s exceptional basketmaking skill. Originally, participants would bring in old family baskets along with new weavings to display. Eventually a committee was established to judge the baskets, and this became a popular annual competition. Weavers would work through the year to design a basket that they hoped would earn them the grand prize. The festival was also an opportunity to bring state politicians and dignitaries together with tribal leaders to help strengthen political ties between sovereign nations. Over time, the festival has grown to include other traditional activities, such as dancing, singing, games, sports and a display of the myriad Native crafts that celebrate the community’s unique history and culture at the lake. It is also a way of sharing the teachings of the tribe with the non-Native public. Now part of the Valhalla Art, Music and Theatre celebration, the festival is held during the last weekend in July on Lake Tahoe’s southwest shore.
A Difficult Course
Preserving the elders’ knowledge for the next generation is what will keep the Wašiw language and culture alive. With so few fluent speakers, infusing this knowledge into the lives of youth without an immersion school is difficult, and when the elders are gone, so is the wisdom they carry. The language team is now studying a successful Mohawk language program and other language initiatives in the United States and abroad as possible models for reviving the language immersion school.
The teachers also face the challenge of teaching an ancient language in a modern world. When teachers come across gaps in vocabulary or grammatical rules, they have to be particularly creative and resourceful. For instance, Herman Fillmore explains, because no word in Wašiw exists for say the number “9,” people will use the phrase “8+1” or “5+4” instead. These linguistic puzzles are challenging, and tribal members have an ongoing debate about how much they should adapt their unique worldview to fit the paradigms of the Western world.
Yet the Washoe Tribe is resolute, anchored in the belief that reclaiming its language and revitalizing its cultural heritage can empower its people, rekindle connections with a rich past and form crucial bonds between old and young. Herman says each iteration of the language program has been a building block for the next generation. “We have a great vision and hope for our communities,” he says. “While we may not be where we want to be yet . . . every day we work with our kids brings us closer to the reality that we want . . . for our homeland and all those within our homeland.”
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