Through 'Cool' Elective, High Schoolers Save Endangered Language

Apr 15, 2016

Instructor Emma Williams goes over an assignment in Paiute at Spanish Springs High School. The decade-old program allows high schoolers to take the Paiute language course as an elective.
Credit Julia Ritchey

Students from three Reno high schools will compete in a Paiute language competition next week. As Reno Public Radio's Julia Ritchey reports, the students are part of a critical effort to preserve the endangered language.

"I'm going to assign you an animal, and what you're going to do is write clues as to what animal you are..."

Instructor Emma Williams is leading a class of about a dozen students at Spanish Springs High School in a Paiute language lesson based on the Pyramid Lake dialect.

The Washoe County School District began offering Paiute language classes about 10 years ago at Spanish Springs at the request of Native students. The program has since grown to two other schools, including Reed High and North Valleys.

Williams was actually a former student in one of the classes and is now teaching it to the next generation.

Rhonda Knight is the Indian Education Specialist for the Washoe County School District. She works to make sure schools are meeting the cultural needs of its 1,000 Native students and their families from elementary through high school. 

"It's important to have Paiute language classes in the schools that serve a higher population of Native American students to preserve the language."

But the classes are popular among non-Natives, too, she says.

"It's more of them being curious about the language. But once they get in it and start learning about the culture, the history of our local Native tribes and the language, they really seem to like it."

High schoolers Lauren Martinez and Kayla Scott are two non-Natives taking the class this semester. They huddle together to think up sentences in Paiute to describe the animal assigned to them, a snake.

Martinez explains why she chose the elective.

"I didn't want to do Spanish because I can learn Spanish from my family and I didn't want to do French, and Paiute seems interesting to me."

Martinez and Scott will both participate in the annual language bowl next Thursday at the University of Nevada, Reno, where they'll be quizzed on vocab, translation and sentence formation. Scott says she's often fielding questions from her peers about it.

"People are always surprised that we're taking Paiute, they're like, 'What's Paiute?' And we're like, 'It's a language.'"

Credit Julia Ritchey

The school district's Rhonda Knight is a member of the Lovelock Paiute tribe and regrets that no one ever taught her to speak it. 

"I grew up around the language. My grandma and great aunts, spoke the language, but unfortunately, it's a dying language, and I came to Reno went to school, went to college and nobody was there was to see the importance of me still learning it."

Even at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, who helped establish the school's curriculum, there are only about four fully fluent Native speakers left.

Knight says seeing public school students picking it up so quickly, though, has encouraged her to consider enrolling in a beginner course.

"Now that I see the kids learning it, I have daughter myself, she's 18 years old, so I'm thinking of taking the classes at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony."

Knight would like to expand Washoe County's program, but it's a matter of actually finding more fluent teachers.