The compelling story of Sarah Winnemucca and her devotion to protecting the Paiute Tribe is a poignant tale of an old culture caught in the turbulence of a rapidly changing world. The United States’ 1848 victory in the Mexican-American War and the virtually simultaneous discovery of gold in California initiated an invasion of miners, surveyors, prospectors, settlers, businessmen and land speculators into the American West. Indigenous tribal populations were quickly marginalized or eliminated. Winnemucca, granddaughter of Chief Truckee, became the leading activist and passionate spokeswoman who informed the public and politicians about the cruel injustices being imposed on native peoples in the West.
Although overshadowed by commercially popular Native American women such as Pocahontas and Sacajawea, whose names are well known among the general public, historians consider Winnemucca one of the most notable women in 19th Century America. Commemorative statues honor her achievements in both Washington D.C., and Carson City, the capital of Nevada. Blessed with insightful intelligence and graceful fluency in the English language, Winnemucca marshalled formidable communication skills along with eloquent public speaking to spearhead an advocacy movement for the Paiute Nation. The federal government reacted slowly, but Winnemucca’s impassioned lectures stirred wealthy audiences on both coasts to donate generously to her cause.
At hundreds of presentations around the country, Winnemucca spoke extemporaneously without notes and rarely repeated herself. In the process she charmed and educated her audience while she pled for fair treatment for the Paiutes. She asked that her people be allowed to preserve their own culture, not be forced into Christianity and be given land for a permanent home. Winnemucca’s reputation as an activist enabled her to meet American presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur, along with other top federal officials. When Winnemucca petitioned President Arthur’s administration for help, none was forthcoming, but it spurred the U.S. Congress to listen to her.
In April 1884, Winnemucca testified before the House Sub-Committee for Indian Affairs where she criticized flawed government policies and castigated corrupt agents working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs who withheld food, clothing and provisions from the tribes. She said, “You take the nations of the earth to your bosom but the poor Indian … who has lived for generations on the land which the good God has given them, you say he must be exterminated. Where can we poor Indians go if the government will not help us?”
Sympathetic legislators offered supportive words and promises, but as was often the case when it came to the treatment of Native Americans, the platitudes proffered by well-meaning lawmakers rarely came to fruition due to a lack of political will and opposing philosophies on how to deal with the issue. Even so, Winnemucca never gave up her crusade for justice.
Winnemucca was born in 1844 in the Humboldt Sink, about 50 miles from Reno near present-day Lovelock, Nev. She was the fourth child of Chief Winnemucca II (Jr.), head of a small Paiute band. Her parents named her Thocmetony, meaning “Shell Flower,” later anglicized to Sarah. Her maternal grandfather was Winnemucca I (Sr.), the leader of the tribe who later changed his name to Truckee. Due to her lineage as a descendant of two important chiefs, Sarah was considered a princess in tribal culture. At the time the Northern Paiute numbered just a few thousand people; they lived a semi-nomadic life and were a generally peaceful, loose-knit tribe broken into family groups.
The reason why Winnemucca I changed his name to Truckee is an interesting backstory. Phonetically the word sounds similar to “tro-kay,” which in Paiute means “all right” or “very well.” Chief Winnemucca used it frequently when steering exhausted explorers and emigrants toward the Truckee River and California. Topographical engineer John C. Frémont met Chief Winnemucca in early 1844 — followed later that year by wagon train captain Elisha Stephens and his seasoned guide Caleb Greenwood. When these men met Winnemucca I, the chief used the word “truckee” regularly to reassure them. After all, they were exposed in the wilderness and surrounded by potentially hostile Indians. It makes sense that when Winnemucca talked to them that he would say they were safe and “going to be alright” and make it to California.
Winnemucca I always counseled peace with the light-skinned newcomers. His friendly 1844 encounter with Anglos and their repetition of the word truckee made such an impression on the elderly medicine man that he changed his name to Chief Truckee. (Name revisions were common among warriors in certain tribes; they would take new names after great battles or transformative experiences.) The old chief continued using the name Truckee after Frémont commissioned him an officer while fighting with the Americans in the Mexican War. From then on, he was known as Captain Truckee until his death.
In the summer of 1846, while Sarah was still an infant, her grandfather Truckee left for California to fight with Frémont in the Bear Flag Revolt. 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 tribe. But it was her grandfather’s commitment to friendship with the Anglos that galvanized Sarah’s effort to work with them despite her frustrations with the lack of progress.
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 grounds and established large ranches. Herds of antelope that the Indians traditionally hunted 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, pioneers burned the tule growth 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.
Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition and at TheTahoeWeekly.com; click on History under the Explore Tahoe menu.