Funding threatens closure of Washoe language school
October 8, 2002
The nation’s only Washoe language school could be closed at the end of the year.
Without immediate outside funding, the Washoe tribe’s language immersion school will close its doors in December.
The Washiw Wagayay Mangal (translated: A house where Washoe is spoken) School in Dresslerville is a tax-exempt private school for kindergartners through eighth-graders whose parents want them to be immersed in their Native American language.
The school’s two-year grant supporting Maxine Wyatt’s job as project organizer expires Sept. 29, but she said there is enough money left to run the school until the end of 2002. A donation by Reno Computer Base provided seven classroom computers.
Wyatt said the latest proposal to seek federal funds through the Administrative Native Americans grant was denied, and now they are researching other avenues to get money to keep the school operating.
“It is very important for the Washoe children to learn their identity,” Wyatt said. “A lot of our kids are lost. They don’t have the language or the culture.
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And research proves, with knowledge of culture, self-esteem is brought back.”
Patterned after decades-old immersion schools in Hawaii, Washiw Wagayay Mangal School teaches the Washoe language, content and culture in combination without the use of the child’s first language. Simply put, the teachers and students speak, learn and listen in Washoe. It serves the Stewart, Carson and Dresslerville Native American colonies.
The vision of the language school happened quite literally in 1994 when the Washoe tribe’s elder circle gathered and discussed ways to revitalize the language, Wyatt said.
Twelve students from 3- to 8-years-old started at the only existing Washoe language immersion school Sept. 3.
“They are so eager to learn” Wyatt said. “Their eyes are bright and they are just soaking up the language.”
The school is slated to follow a September-May calendar. First- and second-grade students have a home-school waiver to attend. Parents are invited to participate as long as they don’t speak English during school hours.
Wyatt said two high-school students could soon join the class.
They will learn from tribal elders Eleanore Smokey and Dinah Pete, teacher’s aide Bernadine James and various other tribal elders who will conduct lessons exclusively in the Washoe language.
The Native Language Task Force, a group of officials from various Nevada tribes, set a goal in 1994 to save Nevada’s four Native American languages: northern and southern Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe.
In March 1994, work began on an accreditation program that lets Washoe and other Native American language speakers teach those languages. The plan is allowed under the Native American Languages Act, approved in 1990.
Traditionally, native languages take about a year to learn, and they don’t lend themselves to book studies. All evolved as spoken, not written or read languages, which is why native speakers are ideal teachers.
Smokey has attended master and apprentice classes to relearn the language.
“Most of us understood, but didn’t speak the language,” Smokey said. “It gives me great pleasure to pass it on, and ensure it will continue for generations to come.”
To donate funds or supplies, call Wyatt at (775) 265-4191.