Wašiw gawagayay | Talk Wašiw

From left, Lisa Enos, Marlaine Marshall and Thalia Nolan learn their native Washoe language at the Woodfords Indian Education Center.

The Washoe language was traditionally spoken around Lake Tahoe, but today it is one of the most vulnerable aspects of continuing Washoe culture or Washeshu Itdeh, “the people from here.”

Wa She Shu It’ Deh Native American Arts Festival
July 27 & 28 | Valhalla Tahoe

Without an understanding of vocabulary, precious stories, rituals and history will be lost in a modern world. “The language, culture and the people cannot be separated. The language is the identity of the Washoe People,” says tribal elder Stephen James.

Indigenous people were robbed of their languages in the late 1800s when the Bureau of Indian Affairs forced tens of thousands of Native Americans into English-only government boarding schools. In order to force the Washoe people toward so-called civilization, government policy was to “kill the Indian, save the man.” Children were taken hundreds of miles from their homes on the reservations and often beaten for speaking their native language. As these children became adults, they cautioned their own children to speak only English and many tribal languages were lost. During the European settlement, 300 languages were spoken in North America; 150 remain.

In the early 1980s, the Maori of New Zealand and native Hawaiian Islanders developed immersion centers better known as language nests. Students hear and speak only their ancestral language all day. In the mid-1990s, the Washoe opened their own language immersion school in Dresslerville, Nev., called Washiw Wagayay Mangal or “the house where Wašiw is spoken.” It closed in 2002 due to lack of funding. Today, there are about 1,400 Washoe tribal members of which 15 elders are fluent in the language. There are levels of language proficiency within the community, including conversational, beginners and members who understand but do not speak it. Currently, about 25 students are learning and using the language daily.

Steeped in an affinity for her native ancestry, Lisa Enos inherited her love of teaching from a long line of elders. She is conscious of the flame she must tend as she teaches the next generation the Washoe language. Enos, a petite former Head Start Program educator, instructs with regal poise and a whole lot of fun. She incorporates games, outings and storytelling in order to maintain enthusiasm in her classes.

The language game.

As the snow melts outside, children play a board game inside the Woodfords Indian Education Center. Enos designed and constructed the game similar to Candyland. I watch with an envious grin as they communicate in a rhythmic and poetic tongue sprinkled with outbursts of laughter. The young players are girls between the ages of 10 to 14. They squabble as they claim their pieces — miniature animals native to the area. They navigate their mɨdeɁ (black bear), dimeɁhola (raccoon) or ba·sat (gray squirrel) through a map resembling their own neighborhood. On the game board, Enos incorporates the past with the present by adding customs such as gathering pine nuts and willows during the correct season and a phone booth to signify the area where cell phones work.

“The kids are having so much fun they forget they are learning,” says Enos.

Conquering distractions such as social media, texting, video games and TV is no different for Enos than for any other teacher these days — another reason she prefers to connect with children around the age of 3 or 4 when they’re developing language skills and are still inspired by curiosity. Enos beams as she says goodbye to her students. It is obvious the adoration is mutual.

There are approximately 7 billion people on earth. They communicate in one or several of about 7,000 languages — multilingualism is becoming the norm. Linguists believe that by the end of this century perhaps as many as 50 percent of the world’s languages will only exist in archives and on recordings. Calculations by the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, a joint effort of linguists at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and at Eastern Michigan University, close to 30 languages have disappeared since 1960. If the historical rate of loss is averaged, a language dies about every four months.

The Washoe and other tribes from across the nation, Mexico, Canada and South America will celebrate native culture on the sacred shores of Da.aw on July 27 and 28 at Valhalla Tahoe at the Wa She Shu It’ Deh Native American Arts Festival open to the public. | valhallatahoe.com

Adult language classes are held on Wednesday evenings in Carson City, Nev. | (775) 552-3501, washoetribe.us