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Tribal elders teach and learn Washoe language

by Leslie Pearson
lpearson@recordcourier.com
Herman Fillmore teaches a Washiw language class at the Dresslerville Elder Center on June 5.
Leslie Pearson |

Learning the Washoe language helps elders reconnect, remember the past and exercise their memory, tribal language teachers said.

Washoe is the Anglicized word of Washiw—pronounced wa-shoe, as in “shoe” not “show.”

Elder Steven James, 81, said that he learned his tribe’s language as a child.

“I learned it at home,” he said. “My parents were fluent.”

Now he and language teachers host a free class at the Dresslerville Elder Center at 6 p.m. on Thursdays.

“We try to speak one-on-one,” he said. “Sometimes we use videos or tapes. It’s kind of hard. You just have to work on it all the time, say a couple words, maybe every day.”

The number of fluent speakers is dwindling, he said.

“We don’t have too many speakers right now,” James said. “Maybe a dozen fluent speakers.”

The Thursday night classes have brought speakers and learners together, said Michelle Dressler, language teacher.

“It helps them (seniors and elders) remember things,” she said. “Normally they don’t speak Washiw outside the community. They either speak it here or inside their homes with another person who understands.”

The language class, along with other elder center activities, has made the center a “hub of activity,” said Herman Fillmore, language teacher.

“Our elders are the most knowledgeable and the most respected,” he said. “During the school year the Head Start kids come and learn from the elders. It teaches them respect from an early age so we can nip that in the bud.”

Fillmore guides the classes on Thursdays and relies on Stevens and other fluent speakers to provide translations, pronunciations and meanings.

“I don’t consider myself fluent,” Dressler said. “I hope some day I’ll be able to rattle off a few sentences.”

At the June 5 class, Fillmore brought in a sheet of words of local plants and referred to James for clarification or history.

Dressler said having the class at the elder center with James and other elders helps save the language.

“A lot of words have been lost,” she said. “They help us to preserve them.”

The elders are the last link to the language, the culture and a way of life that has been here for 10,000 years, Fillmore said.

Dressler agreed: “I’ve tried to look up Washiw words online. You can’t Google it.”