The legacy of Princess Sarah Winnemucca (1844-1891) and the Paiute Indians is a poignant tale of a people caught in the turbulence of a rapidly changing world. Overshadowed by Indian maidens like Pocahontas and Sacajawea, Sarah has been called the greatest Indian woman of the 19th Century.
Granddaughter of Chief Truckee, she is considered the first American Indian 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 Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims,” the first book written in English by an Indian woman.
As a lecturer, writer and educator, Sarah lobbied for the rights of her people from the 1860s through the 1880s. Sarah’s 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 that the United States government’s 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 bone-dry, and flora and fauna are sparse. Before the invasion 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 piñon pine, grass seeds, berries and small game. The pine nut was the traditional staple of the Great Basin Indian, and it was put to a variety of uses. Freshly harvested pine nuts were cooked by tossing the nuts with hot coals in winnowing baskets. Separated from the shell, the inner meat was ground into flour and used to make a sweet, rich and smoky-tasting soup. Indian women also utilized the piñon 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 pine nut 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 broken into family groups, with some members led by Chief Truckee. Sarah Winnemucca wrote that “Truckee” is an Indian word that means “all right” or “very well” and it was used frequently by her grandfather when assuring frightened emigrants as he steered them toward the Truckee River and California. His real name may have been Winnemucca or Tru-ki-zo.
Sometime in 1844, in the vicinity of Humboldt Sink near present-day Lovelock, the wife of Truckee’s son- in-law, Winnemucca II, gave birth to their fourth child, a girl named Thocmetony (Shell Flower), later anglicized to Sarah. While Sarah was still a baby, her maternal grandfather, Truckee, joined General John Frémont’s army fighting the Mexicans in the Bear Flag Revolt and later in the Mexican-American War. Truckee’s bravery and leadership earned him the rank of Captain. Chief Winnemucca II, however, stayed with his people and oversaw the communal antelope hunts. Winnemucca means “the giver” or “one who looks after the Numa (people).” It was Sarah’s father, and her supportive brother, Natches, who inspired her to dedicate herself to working for her people.
Much of Sarah’s 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. Sarah later wrote, “I was a very small child when the first white people came into our country. They came like a lion, yes, like a roaring lion, and continued so ever since, and I have never forgotten their first coming.”
White settlers took 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 their light reed boats hunting waterfowl in the expansive marsh, but to provide more fertile land for fields of alfalfa and grain, pioneers burned the tules and the bird population plummeted. The newcomers cut down the all-important piñon pines for wood, 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 Maj. 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 an 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 tribal 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 protecting her people. Stay tuned for Part II.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. Check out Mark’s blog at tahoenuggets.com.