Young Washoe women play the game Sigayuk. They battle for control of a short rope with their aspen tree trunks, hoping to score a goal.
This story was originally published on Aug. 9, 2016.
-- This week, the mountains of Lake Tahoe are teeming with skiers and snowboarders. But long before Tahoe got its first chair lift, different sports were popular with locals. Games like Baloyap, Sugayuk, or Hinoyowgi.
These are the games of the Washoe people, a group native to the mountains and valleys straddling the California-Nevada border. And they’re critical for sustaining Washoe culture and language.
Lisa Enos looked out over an athletic field at the Dresslerville Reservation in Gardnerville, Nevada. On a lawn yellowed by the sun with a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a group of young men played a game. It looked like soccer, except the ball was made of buckskin, and the goals were marked with Aspen trees jutting from the ground. The game was “Baloyap,” a traditional game of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, and it hadn’t been played there in over 50 years.
That recent day marked the first ever “Traditional Washoe Pastimes,” a series of games and events organized by Washoe language teacher Enos and her colleagues.
The purpose of the August 4 event was not just to have fun. It was about preserving a culture, a language, and as some studies indicate, emotional wellbeing.
Turning to the Baloyap game, Enos explained the rules. "The boys can only kick the ball with their feet and they’re trying to get the ball through the post here." Later in the day, girls joined in.
"Girls are the only ones that can use their hands. They can pick up the ball and run with it through the goalposts," Enos said. "But a boy can pick up a girl and run her through a goalie if she’s holding a ball."
Then Enos got emotional. "Our grandfathers had played it and that generation previous. But this is the first time this generation of kids has played this game," Enos said.
Piecing together the rules
Since Enos had never seen the game played in real life, she and other game organizers pieced together the Baloyap rules by asking Washoe elders and people from other tribes in California who the Washoe used to compete with.
Then there was Sagayuk, a women’s only game. Two teams went head-to-head on a field. Each player carried a nearly eight foot long aspen stick. They whacked at what looks like a piece of rope, trying to get it into a goal. In Washoe the rope is called a rabbit or a snake.
There are about 1,500 Washoe these days. The Washoe have been based around Lake Tahoe and the Sierra for thousands of years. The land where they once lived was vast, stretching hundreds of miles around the pristine lake. The name Tahoe was derived from Washoe: “Da ow aga,” meaning “the edge of the lake.”
Like most indigenous people, the Washoe were gravely mistreated when settlers came West. Even within the last century, members were sent to boarding schools that did not allow them to practice their own customs, and forced them to only speak English.
Enos estimates that fewer than 20 people are fluent in Washoe now. So it’s events like this that are essential to continuing Washoe traditions.
Keeping tradition alive to save lives
Beyond this, studies show the mental health of indigenous people is impacted by their tribe’s ability to retain language and culture.
"These studies show that youth suicide is much lower in communities that are making strong attempts to keep their language going," said Leanne Hinton, professor emerita of linguistics at University of California, Berkeley.
For the Washoe, these efforts are headed by people like Enos and language teacher Herman Fillmore, who, back at the Traditional Washoe Pastimes, instructed kids how to play Hinoyowgi. It's a hand game that mixes in both rhythm and song. While the kids have played this before, Fillmore added in a twist for the big day.
"The reason why we have all these sticks and everything playing on the ground is that this is how we would play a long time ago," he said.
Fillmore incorporated Washoe words into the game whenever possible. Before even starting, he reminded the young people what to call the sticks, bones and other tools they play with.
This technique was an intentional one that follows the theory that it's easier to learn language when it's associated with an action. It's called total physical response.
As the Hinoyowgi game continued, the group began to sing songs specific to the game as they tapped smaller sticks onto a log, creating a beautiful rhythm.
Speaking the language of Washoe
Benny Fillmore watched his son Herman teach. The elder Fillmore moved his lips slightly as he sang along.
He didn't grow up speaking Washoe regularly. "To know that you have this whole internal way of belief, way of thought, way of prayer that you’re not able to vocalize, you’re not able to use," Fillmore said, "It’s like missing a body part. You’re not complete."
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), half of the world’s 6000 languages will go extinct by the end of the century. This tribe doesn’t want their language, Washoe, to be one of them.
They’re implementing many strategies to combat language loss. In the 1990s they had an immersion school. More recently they put together a language-focused head start program. The Traditional Washoe Pastimes was their latest effort.
Over 100 people came for the Traditional Washoe Pastimes. At the closing awards ceremony, Lisa Enos got teary.
"These games you guys have been playing today have been played for thousands and thousands of years on this very ground," she said.
Kids glowed as their names were called and they were handed flags and ribbons as prizes. But Enos reminded them that really the event wasn’t about the awards. It was about the Washoe coming together.