HISTORY: Who were the Native Americans of the Truckee/Tahoe Region?
Special to the Sierra Sun
For thousands of years, Native Americans have occupied Summit Valley at Donner Summit in the summer. They came to escape the Nevada heat and to trade with California Native Americans. The ancient Native American Tribal connection to this area began around 2000 B.C. with the Martis Culture. They lived in Northern California on both the eastern and western sides of the Sierra Nevada.
The Martis left behind evidence of their residence in many places. There are dozens of mortars (grinding holes) and metates (grinding slicks) used to ground their foods on the hard Sierra granite. They also left behind many petroglyphs as well as projectile points for spears. They followed game to the high mountain meadows and made use of the great variety of available foods.
Gathering edible plant-based materials were the women’s responsibility. On the Sierra Crest there were a wide variety of seeds, nuts and berries. Oak acorns were a staple to their diet and tasty – at least once the tannins (bitterness) was removed by soaking or washing them in water. The acorns were brought up from lower elevations since none existed at the Summit. At the mortar sites women shared important lessons to the young girls. Generation after generation little bits of culture passed on with each meal ground on the mortars.
The men would be found nearby fashioning basalt rock pieces into projectile points for spears. They too passed on cultural knowledge to the boys, leaving thousands upon thousands of basalt discards littering the ground.
Donner Summit was a summer meeting place for other tribes in this area including the Maidu (Nisenan), Miwok and Washo (Washoe) tribes. At the summit the California Native Americans traded shells, obsidian and acorns for dried fish caught at Pyramid Lake by the Martis.
Disappearance of the Martis Culture
The Martis stayed in Summit Valley until about 500 A.D. Climate change may have been one of the reasons they ‘disappeared’ as the area became much drier.
However, at the same time the bow and arrow were developed by the area’s Native Americans. The new weapon had more power, greater accuracy and a greater range. The Martis historically used spears as well as atlatls (spear throwers) for their hunting. They worked almost exclusively with basalt to craft tools and projectile points. Basalt was readily available in the area but cannot be crafted into the finer and lighter points needed for arrows. Chert and obsidian were suddenly highly valued and were not available on the Sierra Crest. The nearest source of obsidian is the Tuolomne area near Yosemite, which necessitated them to either trade with California tribes or relocate.
The Maidu People
The Maidu were a peaceful, semi-nomadic tribe that inhabited the Sierra Nevada’s and adjacent valleys in Northern California (Plumas County and southern Lassen County). The Maidus were a California Tribe who were hunter-gatherers and fisherman. They hunted in the summer, building wigwams (wikiups) as temporary shelters and in the winter lived in semi-subterranean pit houses or earth lodges. Their food staples included acorns, fish and small game.
Prior to the Gold Rush (1848) it is estimated that there were 4,000 Northern Maidus (Nisenan). Regretfully, the Maidu’s lands were right in the middle of where gold was found and they were overrun and their native food supplies vanished by the surge of white settlers and prospectors.
The Washo (Washoe)
The Washo tribe inhabited the Lake Tahoe region over 1300 years ago. They would generally spend the summer in the Sierra Nevada then in the fall move to the mountain ranges to the east, utilizing the valleys found in between for the winter and spring. The western part of the Washo territory was in the mountains and subject to heavy snows so few people wintered there.
Washo people were semi-sedentary hunters and gatherers and very knowledgeable about their land and its resources. This included an understanding of the seasonal cycles of both plants and animals. Fishing was a huge part of the Washo way of life and each family had their own fishing grounds.
The Washo did not have sustained contact with white Euro-Americans until the 1848 California Gold Rush. Their resistance to incursions on their lands proved unsuccessful. The last armed conflict with the Washo and non-Indians was the Potato War of 1857 where starving Washos were killed for gathering potatoes from a settler’s farm.
Their hunting grounds were lost to farms and the pinon pine groves fell to feed Virginia City’s demand for lumber and charcoal. Commercial fishing at Lake Tahoe destroyed another important resource to the people. These events forced the Washos to depend on jobs found on ranches, farms and in cities.
The Lake Tahoe area is a very spiritual place for members of the Washo Tribe. It also explains their concern for the protection of locations important to the Washo Heritage.
Chief Truckee’s Influence
No story on Truckee’s Native American influence would be complete without a nod to Chief Truckee. There are many stories on who first called him “Truckee” but all of them agree on his friendship with the early explorers and settlers.
One such story talks about a Paiute chief who in 1844 told members of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party that 50 or 60 miles to the west there was a river that flowed easterly from the mountains and along the river they would find large trees and good grass. A scouting party (which included Stephens, Caleb Greenwood and the chief) rode out to investigate. While exploring, their guide used the Paiute word for “all right”. The word sounded like “tro-kay” and everyone thought the chief was telling them his name. The scouting party found the route to be “all right” and began to refer to their guide as “Chief Truckee” (a liberal translation of “tro-kay”). The chief liked the name so much that he retained it for the rest of his life.
Judy DePuy is a retired civil engineer, marketer, and volunteer for Truckee Donner Historical and Railroad Societies and Donner Summit Historical Society. Judy enjoys traveling, hiking, skiing, sewing, giving back to the community and being with her Belgian Sheepdog, Morticia.
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