Washoe Tribe Head Start Pine Nuts
Washoe Language Program
Children In the Washoe Tribe’s Head Start program pick pine nuts to make pine nut soup for the Pine Nut Celebration.

10 Ways to Boost Tribal Language Programs

Christina Rose

The traditional arts of building canoes and fishing traps, making rabbit fur blankets, and pine nut picking are celebrated in the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California’s Language Program.

Through these activities, the tribe’s youngest children are not only learning their language, they are becoming cultural leaders in their communities.

Community participation is the biggest challenge in revitalizing tribal languages, and a recent podcast highlighted the successful efforts of two tribal language programs, The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California and the Puyallup of Washington State.

Three speakers, Lisa Enos, Washoe, coordinator of the Washoe Language Program, and the Twulshooteed (Puyallup) instructor Amber Sterud-Hayward, Puyallup of Washington State, and Brittany Corpuz, Instructional Coach and a Grant Coordinator, brought insights from their programs, and offered nine ways to encourage language learning and cultural revival, with minimum funding.

Like so many other tribes, the Washoe are facing losing their original languages. Of 1,500 registered Washoe tribal members, there are only eight fluent speakers of the Wasiw language, all of them over 70. For the Puyallup, there are only five certified Level One speakers among the 4,800 tribal members. Level One speakers are not fluent, but in the process of learning the language.


First thing’s first—funding language programs can come from a variety of sources. A $487,279 grant from the Administration for Children and Families funded the language and culture program, while the Puyallup program is tribally funded.

Funding for language programs can come from a variety of sources.


Partnering with elders is a common solution for immersion schools and language nests, but getting the elders to the children can present challenges. The Washoe Language Program brings the children to the senior center once a month, and they all participate in cultural crafts and other activities. As an added benefit, “At the senior center, the children are exposed to other Native languages and dialects as well,” Enos said.

Elders and children from Head Start participate in cultural activities as part of the Language Nest in the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. (Washoe Language Program)

Cultural activities

Although many tribal programs provide food as an incentive to engage the community, Enos said the Washoe Tribe gets even more community involvement with hands-on cultural activities. All of the activities serve to connect the children to their culture while learning their language.

When the children and the elders made a rabbit fur blanket, “a buzz went through the community because it hadn’t been done in 50 years,” Enos said. “What our children are learning, they bring back and teach to the community.”

The children have made snowshoes and canoes, and one of the fathers helped the children make baskets. The grandparents are helping with the moccasins the children make. “One night, the kids were teaching their parents hand games, and the officer patrolling the area saw a lot of cars at Head Start. The next thing you know, our tribal officer sat down and played hand games with the kids, and that was exciting because they get to see the officials in a different light,” Enos said.

Community Involvement

According to Enos, the cultural activities in Head Start’s Language Nest restored excitement and enthusiasm within the community for history and traditions, but it took almost a year before the language project really took off. Written into their grant was the promise of hours of elder involvement and an involved tribal leadership, but it wasn’t immediately achieved.

Enos said the activities are igniting a passion in the community that they weren’t able to inspire with nightly classes for the adults. “We had sporadic involvement, but now it is really catching like wildfire,” Enos said. “What the children are learning in school and afterward has really flooded over into the families and the community.”

The high school youth now speak the Washoe language at basketball games, and the younger ones are using it in gym, which has inspired the adults. “It’s all natural. All the kids are asking how to say their names in Washoe. The more it is heard, the more involvement we get,” Enos said.

A first grader at Chief Leschi School enjoys the language program in Mrs. Cayson’s first grade class. (Chief Leschi School)


Washoe tribal legends were incorporated in language based books and materials, and then coordinated with activities. Illustrations were done by tribal members, and elders helped translate the books. “We had a party and handed them out. There was a lot of excitement about it. The community got involved, tribal leadership came, and we had a book signing with four generations,” Enos said.

Handouts for parents

“We try not to limit what the kids are learning based on school activities,” Enos said. At meal times, students learn how to ask for different foods, and then handouts are taken home to parents. Vocabulary is separated into phonetic language and the handout challenges students and parents to use the words in a sentence. “They can see how words change in the first person, second person, like that. Parents and children are learning more at home because they are on the same page with what they are learning,” Enos said.

Curriculum development

The Puyallup Tribe found their way through trial and error. In the original 2007 program, simple phrases such as “I see a cat,” or “I see a bird” were utilized, but did not require conversation.

The program was updated in 2014, when new staff members Chris Duenas, media developer; Zalmai Zahir, Twulshootseed language consultant; and Hayward put forth new efforts that resulted in a program that modeled language use in daily life.

Hayward said the original use of simple phrases wouldn’t produce any speakers “because you are telling people what they should say.” They began asking tribal members what they wanted to say.

Hayward said language and lifestyle should be related. A school setting requires one sort of vocabulary, a work setting another, and at home, yet another. “Our curriculum has literally turned into exactly what people want to say. Some are good at hearing audio, some people want video to see how your mouth forms, some want it written down, and some want it phonetically. We just decided we had to give people whatever they needed to speak the language, and we saw a big change.”

Students attend the Puyallup Language Program at the Chief Leschi School in Puyallup, Washington. (Chief Leschi School)

Using Media

The Puyallup program saw a big increase in interest after the new media developer added additional language features to the Puyallup website and social media. “If you don’t have media developer, I strongly suggest you get one. It has allowed people outside the community to reach our language, which they are very hungry for,” she said.

Social media has played a huge part for the Puyallup language program. Videos made for tribal members range from simple to more advanced. “That has been a huge push within our community,” Hayward said.

Hayward said people were intimidated by subtitled videos produced in the beginning. “So we switched to making little Facebook videos that were partially in Twulshootseed (the Puyallup language) and partially in English. Now people from all over are looking at those, and people practice at home.”


Hayward described what works in her tribe’s program for students with no prior language skills. “We have found playing Go Fish in the language worked. We made a sheet with numbers and face cards and translated ‘Do You Have’ and ‘No, I Don’t,’ into a phonetic sheet that anybody from kindergarten to 7-year-olds can play. We do it once a week at our tribal administration building, teachers do it at the tribal school, and for homework, the kids play at home with family members,” Hayward said. “Playing games is an incredible way to forget you are speaking another language, and we do not allow English in that game.”

Free Resources

Among Hayward’s top suggestions: make your language popular, visible, and accessible. Speak your language in your community with all community members. Utilize YouTube and Facebook and use the tribe’s website as much as possible. Include a phrase of the day or week with a short recording.

The program was provided by the Eastern Region Training and Technical Assistance Center and will soon be available at the Administration for Native Americans website along with previous programs about language revitalization.

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