Preserving the Washoe Tribe language

Published: Nov. 14, 2023 at 12:50 PM PST
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - It’s Native American Heritage Month and the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California is working to preserve a piece of their heritage, their language. It is a sacred form of identity to the tribe and is also a language isolate, meaning it has no relation to another language. However, very few within the Washoe Tribe known how to speak it and that is something tribe leaders are working to change.

In the early 1900′s forced assimilation of the Native Americana people was the mandate of boarding schools across the country. The motto through the boarding schools was “kill the Indian save the man.” For the Washoe Tribe, that meant getting rid of their culture and their language.

Herman Fillmore, the Culture and Language Resource Director of the Washoe Tribe, says last year, the Washoe Tribal Council declared a state of emergency for their language. “With language being an important part of our identity, it’s really about taking back a part of ourselves, taking ownership over that story and being able to teach our communities.”

Now, with the help of the Stewart Community Council, the tribe holds classes where the Washoe language is taught in 12-week sessions. Members Darienne Tenorio and Everett Osorio participate in the class almost every week.

Osorio says “I wanted to learn it. It wasn’t taught in my household, because of the boarding school policy, and I wanted to bring it back, I’m just doing my part to carry it in the future.”

Tenorio says “Individuals that want to learn the language can come and pick up a few words, perhaps can have a conversation just to kind of give birth again to our language.”

Right now, the tribe only has 10 elders who can speak the native language fluently. One of the oldest elders, Steven James, says this class is one of the best ways of bringing it back. “This is where we originated from. I am trying to get the people to recognize that and recognize us, who we are and where we came from. The only way I know how to do it, is this.”

Members of the tribe hope the class will double in size over time. There are just a few classes left in this session, but you can join. They will hold another 12-week session next year after the holidays. If you would like more information, you can contact Herman Fillmore at or call (775) 782-0013 ext. 52202.