Spend a few minutes talking to Herman Fillmore and you quickly learn how deeply he cares about the Washoe people, language and culture.
As a young adult living at the Dresslerville Colony of the Washoe Indians in Gardnerville, Fillmore has taken enormous steps to establish the revival of his native Wašiw language.
Fillmore will teach a Washoe language and culture class at Western Nevada College starting on Tuesday, Sept. 15, at the Douglas Campus. The non-credit community education class meets twice a week, and those with little or no understanding of the language are encouraged to enroll.
“This class is open, and everyone is welcome to learn as much as they can,” Fillmore said. “I see WNC and the partnership with the school as a way to bring knowledge back to the community and spread it outward.”
Eventually, Fillmore hopes to see young members of his tribe continue their study of the language at WNC, so they can help their language and culture flourish well into the future.
To begin the process of learning the language, which is spoken mainly in areas around Lake Tahoe, Fillmore doesn’t intend to focus on writing and reading.
“It’s more communication and conversation, playing with the language and having fun,” he said.
In introducing the language at WNC, Fillmore plans to create a variety of situations and utilize members of the class to assist in the learning process.
At home, Fillmore devotes much of his time to teaching Wašiw to younger members of the Washoe Tribe, providing a foundation for future speakers of the language. He also visits middle schools and high schools in the area to assist students with the language during their lunch hours.
“Our main focus is with our youth because they are the ones who are going to take it the furthest,” Fillmore said.
The rush of mid-19th century settlers moving West in search of gold and silver preceded the decline of Wašiw speakers. Children were once taken away from tribal members to learn English and a different culture.
Fillmore doesn’t see himself as being special for this huge undertaking. Rather, he’s continuing what the tribe’s elders have done before him to ensure the Washoe’s culture, identity and ideals aren’t lost or forgotten.
“I work with the children at different levels to take some of the pressure off the elders so they can be happy in their older years and someone else takes on some responsibility so we can continue on forever,” Fillmore said. “If they hadn’t done this before, a lot of what we do wouldn’t be here. And this doesn’t account for what we lost. We are constantly jogging the elders’ memories to get some words.
“If we lose our language and culture, we’ve lost our entire world view and perspective.”
The class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6 to 8 p.m., from Sept. 15 through Dec. 3.
Washoe Tribe members Steven James and Adele James will serve as co-instructors for the class, ensuring Fillmore will be on his game.
“The funny thing is that if elders are present and I’m in front of them, I’m nervous,” Fillmore said. “I want to make sure that all of my ‘I’s’ are dotted and all my ‘T’s’ are crossed. It helps me out a lot, too.”
Steven James estimates only a half-dozen fluent speakers of the language remain in the area.
“Herman is still learning from the elders,” James said. “He’s been with the language for quite a few years, and I try to help them as much as I can.”
To learn more about the class, go to http://www.campusce.net/wnc/course/course.aspx?catId=107. The class fee is $90.