Winnemucca was born about 1844 among the Paiute people (then spelled Piute) at Humboldt Sink in what is now Nevada. Her father, Winnemucca II, was chief of the tribe and was the son of Captain Truckee, a wise and knowing Paiute chief. Although she lived for a portion of her childhood in the San Joaquin Valley area of California, she returned to Nevada, where she moved into the home of a white family and was named Sarah Winnemucca. She had attended a convent school in California, and that seems to have been her only formal education.
Starting in 1868, Winnemucca served as an interpreter between her people on the Paiute reservation and the whites who surrounded it. In 1876, she taught at the Indian school on the Malheur Reservation in Oregon. She also served as the guide and interpreter to General Oliver O. Howard during the Bannock War in Oregon in 1878.
When the Paiute were forcibly removed to the Yakima Indian Reservation in what is now Washington State in 1879, Winnemucca and her father traveled to Washington, D.C., to try to reverse the decision, but to no avail. She then began lecturing in San Francisco about the wrongs perpetrated against her people, and she became a leading spokesperson for those who saw the government's policy toward Native Americans as cruel and unjust. Although she met in 1880 with President Rutherford B. Hayes and Interior Secretary Carl Schurz, who promised to help return her people to their reservation, nothing was done for the Paiute.
In 1881, Winnemucca married Lieutenant L. H. Hopkins, a white army officer who sympathized with her plight. She then conducted an extensive lecture tour of the East Coast, and she was sponsored by woman suffrage advocates Elizabeth Peabody and Mary Tyler Peabody Mann. In 1883, as a result of the lectures on behalf of her people, she published Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, which Mann edited for her. A personal and tribal history, the work documented her people's moral character and achievements and examined Indian—white relations, a theme previously unexplored in earlier Native American writings.
Winnemucca lived only eight years after the publication of her famed work, and, in that time, she fought continuously to return the Paiute lands to her people. She died of tuberculosis on her sister's ranch near Monida, Montana, on October 16, 1891. The Paiute people remembered her as "Mother."
Hopkins, Sarah Winnemucca. 1994. Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. Reno: University of Nevada Press.; Zanjani, Sally Springmeyer. 2001. Sarah Winnemucca. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.