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Young teachers meet peers

Greg Risling

No schoolbook could teach the history lesson learned at Bijou Elementary School on Tuesday.

An excited bunch of second and third graders had the chance to meet a group they thought didn’t exist – a younger generation of Washoe Indians. The hand-off of Native American cultural beliefs and traditions wowed the South Tahoe class and turned the Washoe youngsters into substitute teachers.

They played games, spoke in their native tongue and sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in different languages. The four-hour visit by the Washoe kids was fun and also opened the students’ eyes to another world.



Connie LaCroix teaches the Bijou class about the Washoe way of life for the first two months of the school year. They learn where the Washoe reside, what their rituals are and the significance of Lake Tahoe to tribal members. LaCroix said the class enables her to dispel the Native American stereotype and introduce a multicultural value system.

“The kids get an affinity for the Washoe from meeting the other students,” LaCroix said. “We have outdated curriculum that doesn’t speak to the living, on-going tribe that still exists. The class realizes that the Washoe children have lives that parallel their own.”



The class was surprised to find out that there was another group of indigenous people.

Eight-year-old Ismael Rojas co-mingled with the tribe’s descendants and received the customary offering of pine nuts.

“They came all this way to see us,” Rojas grinned. “I got to ask them if they were Indians.”

Visiting Lake Tahoe is extra special for the Washoe. Now that President Clinton has restored 395 acres of the tribe’s ancestral Tahoe land, the kids will learn more about their origins.

The 13 students are enrolled at the Washiw’itwagayay Mangal in Dresslerville, Nevada. The one-room schoolhouse is home to a first-year program that keeps the endangered language alive. The aging tribe wants to preserve its sacred past, since only four members speak fluently. For two years, students will be immersed in the Washoe lifestyle. Eventually, when they reach fourth and fifth grade, English will be taught gradually as a second language.

Eleanore Smokey, a tribal member, said the new class prevents the ultimate loss of an important part of the Washoe society.

“A lot of kids couldn’t speak the Washoe language but they wanted to,” she said. “This class won’t only help them in school but lead them to better lives.”

The tribe’s annual rite of passage occurs in the spring and program organizer Laura Smith Fillmore plans to have the students in Tahoe when the weather warms again. Beginning in April, a yet-to-be-named U.S. Forest Service building will be converted to a classroom. Smith Fillmore said future generations must know where they came from to fully understand their roots.

Nine-year-old Angie Wright summed it up best when asked what she knows about Lake Tahoe.

“It’s a place we [Washoe] cherish … and also own some of the land,” she said.


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