Political and cultural activism has gained traction in the early 21st Century; the majority of the American people understand the need to better balance economic and social opportunity in communities and across the country. Social media and the Internet have greatly enhanced this profound cultural revolution, providing individuals and insipient movements a broad platform to reach others and get their message out. And yet even with these modern, effective tools, it often seems that society is slow to change.
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The 19th Century Native American activist Sarah Winnemucca had none of those advantages, yet she still managed to capture the attention and support of many influential people, including politicians in Washington, D.C., and affluent urbanites sympathetic to the plight of the American Indian. In touching stories about growing up Paiute, Sarah shared how her tribal history and native culture were quickly being lost as government-sponsored eradication policies decimated the Indian way of life. Against all odds, Sarah grew determined to change those policies and protect her people.
Sarah was the granddaughter of the legendary Chief Truckee, a Paiute leader who welcomed Anglos to the West in the 1800s and who played a key role in opening the California Trail. Chief Truckee went to his grave believing that his “white-skinned brothers” would be beneficial to his tribe, even after his people were relegated to an impoverished existence on Indian reservations at Pyramid and Walker lakes in the 1860s.
Before his death, Chief Truckee took Sarah and her siblings to the Sacramento Valley and Santa Cruz Mountains where wild game was plentiful and there was space to wander freely as they had in the Great Basin. In Santa Cruz, young Sarah taught herself to speak Spanish while laboring for several American families. In 1857, Sarah and one of her sisters moved to Mormon Station, Utah Territory (present-day Genoa, Nev.) to live and work in the household of Maj. William Ormsby, a freebooter who was killed in the 1860 Pyramid Lake Indian War. While living with the Ormsby family, Sarah learned to read and write English. Despite little schooling, she was now fluent in three languages: Paiute, Spanish and English.
In her teens, Sarah became well-known for her translations of her grandfather’s public speeches urging peaceful co-existence with the whites. Around this time, she joined her father, Chief Winnemucca, and other Paiutes when they performed dramatic theatrical presentations in Nevada and California towns. The entertaining shows about Indian tribal life were very popular. Increasingly, Sarah found herself navigating the uneasy relationship between the Paiute and Anglo cultures. Newspapers began to refer to Sarah as the “Paiute Princess.”
In October 1860, Chief Truckee died of an apparent insect bite. Sarah later wrote, “I was only a simple child, yet I knew what a great man he was.” Sarah loved her grandfather but did not share his naïve belief that white people would do right by the tribe. Yet she understood that the Paiute Nation relied on the government to implement better programs to give them a chance at transitioning into a new way of life.
In 19th Century America, Sarah was a rock star. As a nationally recognized lecturer, writer and educator, she lobbied for Indian rights from the 1860s through the 1880s. She met two U.S. presidents but nothing tangible came of it. She also testified before Congress to obtain the release of Paiutes exiled to the Yakama reservation in Washington Territory. Sarah appealed to popular opinion through interviews and newspaper statements. In 1883, she authored an autobiography, “Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims,” the first book written in English by a Native American woman.
Both her father and grandfather were important chiefs in the Paiute tribe, but after the Pyramid Lake Indian War and the establishment of reservations, Sarah and her brother Natches survived by finding seasonal work on nearby ranches, gathering pine nuts and begging at the railroad depot in Lovelock. They struggled in poverty, but Sarah grew determined to establish a school in Nevada. She wanted to teach Paiute children in both their language and English at a nearby location, as opposed to sending pupils to distant boarding schools on reservations where non-native teachers offered English-only indoctrination and conversion to Christianity.
In 1870, when Sarah was 26 years old, she wrote a poignant letter to the U.S. Army’s regional administrator for Nevada, describing the plight of American Indians that was published in newspapers and Harper’s Magazine. Her statements about the precarious life on reservations attracted widespread attention: “If this is the kind of civilization awaiting us on the reserves, God grant that we may never be compelled to go on one, as it is much preferable to live in the mountains and drag out an existence in our native manner.” She went on to say that if her people were given a permanent home on their native land and educated and if white neighbors were kept from encroaching on their rights, “I warrant that the ‘savage’ will be a thrifty and law-abiding member of the community 15 or 20 years hence.”
While living near the Army’s Camp McDermit near the Oregon border, Sarah was hired as a translator to help placate a simmering rebellion by starving Indians in the outlying areas. In most instances, the military treated the Paiutes and other native tribes much better than did the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As Sarah’s public persona grew so did criticism of her occasional drinking and gambling sprees. She was also known for her hot temper and carrying a knife for personal protection. Over the years Sarah married three times, all white men — none good choices. In 1884 her third husband, Lewis Hopkins, absconded with money stolen from Sarah and her supporters to pay off a gambling debt. Despite the setback, the next year she finally succeeded in opening the school for Indians near Lovelock, Nev.
On Oct. 16, 1891, Sarah died suddenly after suffering severe stomach pains at age 47. The cause of her death is a mystery, although there was speculation at the time that her sister Elma poisoned her because of their rivalry over a male suitor. Her legacy lives on, however, in her book and writings, as well as through her commemorative statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. After her death, a New York Times editorial stated, “The name Thocmetony [Shell Flower, Sarah’s Paiute name] should have a place beside Pocahontas in the history of our country.”