Lake Tahoe Washoe gathering honors original environmentalists |

Lake Tahoe Washoe gathering honors original environmentalists

Amy Edgett
The morning sun broke gently on Lake Tahoe’s shore while Washoe tribe members performed a water blessing. The Washoe are the original inhabitants of Da ow aga (Lake Tahoe) and believe the land, language and people are intertwined.
Photos by Amy Edgett / Sierra Sun |

TAHOE, Calif. — We are one.

You, me, him, her, the fishes the birds the rocks the earth the air.

We are all in this universe one.

The Washoe lakalelup, or gathering, at Sand Harbor State Park Aug. 30 was part of Tahoe’s Geotourism Expo, which celebrated and showcased the old ways in support of the Washoe Cultural Center and sustainable earth practices.

“I do the prayer as my grandmother did,” said Melva Rakow, a Washoe Tribe member, who opened the event with a water blessing on the achingly beautiful azure Lake Tahoe cove. “A lot of people assume that everyone is Christianized, but my grandmother prayed in the old way, speaking in Washoe.”

Rakow was raised a Baptist, and didn’t realize how much her grandmother, Enie James Washoe, influenced her.

She prays as one with the universe, quietly intoning the words as the water laps the white sand, slapping gently the enormous white granite rocks, like eggs of an ancient giant.

“Anything unseen that stands with us … help us to not make mistakes …” she prays.

Rakow encouraged the group to bathe their faces or dip hands in Tahoe’s water for oneness and healing.

She was happy to see everyone gathered to honor Lake Tahoe, the paradise her people inhabited for 10,000 years.


Rakow teaches the disappearing language at the Head Start program in Carson City and Dresslerville, immersing young ones in their native tongue.

“When the words are written, the language loses itself, the cadence, spirituality, it’s really strange,” said Rakow.

She feels the renewed awareness of Tahoe’s original inhabitants is really neat.

Revisit the historical trauma, of Washoe children being ripped from their homes at age 4, hair cut off, shoved in to white man’s clothes, put in school with severe punishment for speaking their language.

And then feel the healing, the moving winds of change and belated appreciation for the Washoe way.

“We tried to up the menu a bit,” said Jacquie Chandler, Sustainable Tahoe executive director, of the gathering, a GeoTrack on the GeoTourism plate. She looks forward to environmental transformation from holding the water sacred in action and prayer.


The Washoe tribe historically summered at camps around Lake Tahoe before trekking back to the Great Basin to winter.

The People lived in simpatico with the earth, the lake, the rivers and natural resources. The tribe worked in close family units, trapping and netting fish, rabbits, gathering roots and berries and pine nuts, weaving baskets and rope and living the sustainable Tahoe life.

Flint knapper Benny Filmore, while speaking to eager observers and tap-tapping obsidian from “glass mountain” said there were few personal disturbances between tribes and tribe members. “Oh maybe there was a stolen wife, or deer, but that’s over thousands of years,” he chuckled. The art of flint knapping was needed to create arrow tips, used to kill game and feed the family. This also was done with prayer and reverence— for the spirit of the rock — roughing it with deer antler and listening for that “tick tick tick,” that tells it’s being done right.

Miss Teen Washoe 2015 Maggie Rupert attends Carson High School and is part of the Native Youth Club. She appreciates communicating with her elders, and being a part of bringing her culture back together.

“We’re not giving up, we’re going to be here,” said Rakow. “Money still runs the world — the people who have the most chips. You might be a good intentioned person, but without the chips, you can talk ‘til you’re blue in the face. It’s sad to say.”

Rakow is concerned about young people being in their own little bubbles — that we’ve lost the art of socialization such as big picnics, Sunday dinner, gatherings — and this crosses all socio-economic status.

She concluded, “Love your environment, treat your earth well, and it will sustain you for many years.”

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