Sarah Winnemucca: voice of the Paiutes |

Sarah Winnemucca: voice of the Paiutes

The legacy of Sarah Winnemucca (1844-1891) and the Paiute Indians is a poignant tale of a people caught in the turbulence of a rapidly changing world. Sarah has been called the greatest Indian woman of the 19th century. As the first female Native American activist, she was a popular speaker on both the east and west coasts who pleaded for justice for her people and criticized the reservation system that destroyed their traditional way of life. In 1883 she authored an autobiography Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, the first book written by an Indian woman.As a lecturer, writer, and educator, Sarah lobbied for the rights of her people from the 1860s through the 1880s. Sarahs efforts to protect her people led her to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes, and she later testified before Congress to obtain the release of Paiutes exiled to the Yakama reservation in Washington Territory. Sarah believed the United States governments policy to civilize the Indian through English literacy was one step in the right direction, but she argued against giving up the Paiute culture and being forced from their ancestral lands.

Indians of the American West were as diverse as the landscapes they inhabited. For indigenous peoples, the Great Basin was the poorest area of all. East of the Sierra Nevada and west of the Rockies, much of the region is generally bone-dry, and flora and fauna are sparse.Before the invasions of the white man in the mid-19th century, the Paiute Indians of present day Nevada freely roamed the high deserts of the Great Basin, inhabiting a large region east of the Sierra divide, which included Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River. Their homeland ranged from Pyramid Lake to northeastern California, southeastern Oregon, and southwestern Idaho. Despite the harshness of the rugged landscape and arid climate, the Paiutes adapted to the environment surprisingly well and survived on a varied diet of pion pine, grass seeds, berries, and small game. The pinenut was the traditional staple of the Great Basin Indian, and it was put to a variety of uses. Freshly harvested pinenuts were cooked by tossing the nuts with hot coals in winnowing baskets. Separated from the shell, the inner meat was ground into a flour and used to make a sweet, rich, and smoky-tasting soup.Indian women also used the pion pitch to seal the water jugs they made from willows, or chewed it as a bitter-tasting gum. Medicine men made a tea of the crushed pinenut shells to cure headaches and to clear the mind, and of course, dead wood from the tree was used for fuel.

In the middle of the 19th century, the Northern Paiutes were a generally peaceful, loose-knit tribe led by Chief Truckee. They had no notion of themselves as a formal political unit, but simply called themselves the Numa, or People. (Truckee is an Indian word which means all right or very well.) According to the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, the Paiute chiefs name was Tru-ki-zo.When explorers like John Fremont entered the Paiutes tribal lands in the 1840s, Truckee assured the uneasy warriors that white men were their long-lost brothers. Chief Truckee considered all people the children of a common ancestor, and there is no evidence that he ever led a war party or raid against any Anglo intruders. One of Truckees sons was Winnemucca, a minor chief in his own right who did not share his fathers blind faith in the benevolence of the white man. (The Paiutes had no single great chief, but instead organized around small-band leaders.) Winnemucca was also called Poito or Mubetawaka (man with hole in his nose) for the bone he wore through his pierced septum.Some time in 1844, in the vicinity of Humboldt Sink near present day Lovelock, Winnemuccas wife gave birth to their fourth child, a girl named Thocmetony (Shell Flower), later anglicized to Sarah. When Sarah was a baby, her maternal grandfather, Truckee, was away in California with General John Fremonts army fighting the Mexicans in the Bear Flag Revolt. (Truckees bravery and leadership in the Mexican-American War earned him the rank of captain.) Chief Winnemucca, however, stayed with his people and acted as an antelope shaman who oversaw the communal antelope hunts. (Winnemucca means the giver, or one who looks after the Numa.) It was her father, and her supportive brother, Natches, who inspired Sarah to dedicate herself to working for her people. Much of Sarahs life was spent in the valley of the Humboldt Sink, a place the Paiutes referred to as a sacred circle. It was a time of great disruption for her people. White settlers were taking over the choice hunting lands and establishing ranches. The antelope the Indians used to hunt in the higher mountains nearly disappeared. To irrigate alfalfa fields, farmers drained water from the shallow tule marsh that represented the terminus of the Humboldt River. The Paiutes had once pushed along their light reed boats hunting waterfowl in the expansive marsh, but to provide more fertile land for fields of alfalfa and grain, the tules were burned and the bird population drastically reduced. For timber the newcomers cut down the all-important pion pines, trees the Indians regarded as vital ancestral orchards. (It takes 75 to 100 years of growth before these trees produce edible nuts.) Sarah and her brother Natches survived by finding seasonal work on nearby ranches, gathering pine nuts, and begging at the railroad depot in Lovelock. She had learned English as a young girl while working in the Genoa household of Major William Ormsby, who was killed in the Pyramid Lake Indian War. Although they struggled in poverty, Sarah wanted to establish a school for her tribe. She wanted to teach Paiute children with kindness, in both their own language and English, and at a nearby location, as opposed to the then common method of sending pupils to distant boarding schools on reservations where non-Native teachers attempted to remove their Indian culture with English-only indoctrination and conversion to Christianity. Sarah Winnemucca was the daughter and granddaughter of two well-respected chiefs and she grew up with an intimate understanding of how her peoples history and culture was quickly being lost. She knew that changing Indian education and cultural eradication policies established by the U.S. government would be a challenging and difficult effort, but this Paiute princess decided to dedicate her life to achieving just that. Stay tuned for more about Sarah Winnemuccas proud legacy.Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at

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