American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Washoe

Title: Washoe woman with baskets
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Washoe is a word derived from Washiu, or "Person," their self-designation. Though lacking any formal institutional structures, the Washoes considered themselves a tribe, or a distinct people. Washoes lived and continue to live around Lake Tahoe, from Honey Lake in the north to about forty miles north of Mono Lake in the south, on both sides of the California–Nevada border. This mountainous and environmentally rich region was relatively compact (most groups lived within an area of 4,000 square miles, although their range exceeded 10,000 square miles). The Washoes shared many cultural traits of both California and Great Basin Indians. Washoe is a Hokan language. Ancestors of the Washoes arrived in the region roughly 6,000 years ago. Unbroken cultural continuity lasted from around 500 up to about 1800.

Spirits could be related to myths and legends as well as to death; those related to death were seen as sources of illness and bad luck. The Pine Nut Dance was the most important ceremony. It was a harvest ceremony that featured prayers, feasting, dances, and games. Other ceremonies were also related to communal subsistence activities.

Male and female shamans acquired supernatural powers through dreams and refined them through apprenticeships. The power imposed strict behavioral and dietary regulations. Shamans used their powers to cure, often by sucking after singing and praying for four days. They also used certain paraphernalia, such as rattles, feathers, and whistles. Shamans collected a fee for curing and participated in hunting and warfare by using their powers. However, they were also regarded with suspicion as potential sorcerers and were regularly killed.

In general, the Washoes maintained a strong impulse toward egalitarianism. Small, autonomous, occasionally permanent settlements were composed of family groups. These settlements were fluid in composition, since families regularly moved from one group to another. Each family group was led by temporary headmen (occasionally headwomen) who exercised wider (settlement-wide) influence only occasionally and by dint of accomplishment. Their role as diplomats was assisted by having several wives who might remain with their relatives and establish various family alliances.

Hunt leaders also played leadership roles, and shamans might acquire unofficial influence. Although some concept of a regional community did exist (in the form of local groups that occasionally cooperated), there was probably no formal division into bands, even into the twentieth century when white-imposed leadership created such a perception.

Most people moved seasonally with the food supply, but the supply was generally abundant and in predictable locations. Washoes faced little regular hunger until non-Natives destroyed their way of life. Each unit made its own decisions about when and where to procure food. The only exceptions to this rule were foods taken collectively, such as acorns, pine nuts, fish, and some animals.

Fish, including trout, suckers, whitefish, and chub, was a staple. Ice fishing was practiced in winter. Fish were caught both individually and communally and were prepared either by pit roasting, stone boiling (in baskets), or drying. Other staples usually included acorns, which were shelled, leached, and ground into flour before being used to make dumplings. Pine nuts, gathered in late fall, were made into flour for soup.

Washoe women gathered a great variety of wild plants, including roots, grasses, seeds, nuts, berries, and bulbs, for food as well as medicine. Tule and cattails were especially important. Women gathered plants with digging sticks. Family groups had traditional harvesting areas. Some rituals were associated with gathering activities.

Deer, antelope, and rabbit were hunted communally in drives. Rabbits, the most important dietary animal, were driven into corrals or over cliffs. The people also hunted mountain sheep and other large and small game, birds, and waterfowl. They collected insects, especially locusts, grasshoppers, and grubs. Men and sometimes women smoked wild tobacco or used it for poultices. Golden eagles were never killed, bears only rarely.

Although Washoes may have met Spaniards in the late eighteenth century, they were fairly removed from contact with non-Indians until the 1848 California gold rush brought people through their lands. Anglos established trading posts and settlements, complete with fenced lands and water resources, in the 1850s. Indian demands for compensation were met with refusal and/or violence.

When Anglos blamed the Washoes for Northern Paiute resistance, the Indians were forced to turn for protection to the whites who were appropriating their lands. The 1858 discovery of the Comstock silver lode brought a flood of people to nearby Virginia City. Settlers cut the pine forests, and their cattle ate all the wild grasses and scared off the game. Barely ten years after their first substantive contact with white people around 1850, the Washoes' subsistence areas, and thus the basis for their traditional lives, had been virtually destroyed.

Commercial fishing began in Lake Tahoe by the 1860s. Washoes danced the Ghost Dance in the 1870s. The government repeatedly refused to grant them a reservation on the grounds that there was no good land to give them and that, in any case, their disappearance was imminent. The Washoes were pushed farther and farther into the margins, trying to stay alive as best they could. By the late nineteenth century, whites thought of the "Washoe Tribe" as those groups around Carson City and the Carson Valley; other Washoe groups were unknown or ignored.

The Washoes eventually bought or were allotted some small plots of marginal land. Land for "colonies" was donated or purchased with government funds around 1917 and again in the 1930s. The land was always of poor quality, with little or no water. Some Washoe men worked as ranch hands, women as domestic laborers. Well into the twentieth century, desperate poverty was made even worse by white efforts to repress their culture. The Indians suffered severe discrimination and had no legal civil rights.

Some Washoes embraced the Peyote religion through the Native American Church in 1932. The strenuous opposition of whites and of some traditional shamans brought factionalism to the community. In 1935, the tribe accepted the Indian Reorganization Act and ratified a constitution and bylaws. However, tribal leadership remained ineffective through the 1960s. Throughout the period, most Washoes lived marginally in Carson Valley and around Carson City, although some small groups continued to live in their traditional territory. Public facilities, including schools, were desegregated in the 1950s. The Washoes were awarded a land claims settlement of $5 million in 1970.

 

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