The Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada

The people known as the Washoe have long lived on the eastern face of the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California and Nevada and at the far edge of the western Great Basin. From the high mountain lakes and meadows to the valleys below, the Washoe people created a way of life that sustained their needs for many generations. Their language, Washoe, is unique to the area, showing no relationship to surrounding languages; this suggests a long tenure for the Washoe people. Archaeological investigations trace evidence of the Washoe people from approximately two to five thousand years ago (Kings Beach and Martis culture complexes), but native history states that the Washoe people have been here since the beginning, when Old Woman harvested cattail seeds to make people. Like other hunter-gatherers, the Washoe left a delicate footprint on their environment. No grand monuments or large cities attest to their presence. To know the history of the Washoe, one must turn to the archaeological record and to the oral knowledge handed down by generations of elders to their descendants and to historians, anthropologists, linguists, missionaries, and travelers.

Before disruption by Euro-American settlement in the mid-nineteenth century, Washoe lands comprised a territory marked roughly by Honey Lake, California, to the north; Topaz Lake, California, to the south; Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada to the west; and by the upper ranges of the Carson, Truckee, and West Walker rivers to the east. Living between their Great Basin neighbors to the east and their mountain neighbors to the west, the Washoe were able to maintain a population density greater than that of their eastern neighbors, but less than those who lived on the western slope of the Sierra with its greater rainfall. The drier climate of the eastern Sierra and the Great Basin was home to sparser populations of plants, animals, and, subsequently, humans; this land required deep knowledge and technological skills to exploit it successfully.

Washoe subsistence depended on a pattern of seasonal rounds in which people moved purposefully to microenvironments within their territory to harvest and/or hunt species that were at their peak. Large game, such as deer, antelope, and mountain sheep, was taken in some measure, but smaller game was more plentiful. Rabbits, marmots, other small mammals, game birds, and waterfowl were ready sources of protein, as were fish taken from the mountain and valley streams and lakes. Men traditionally hunted game, while women gathered greens, tubers, stalks, seeds, berries, mushrooms, ingredients for medicines, pollens, and small animals and insects. Men usually made the tools and nets for hunting and fishing, while women made tools and containers for gathering and processing plants and insects.

Fish spawning runs, the pine nut harvest, and game drives were activities in which men and women joined together to take advantage of the unusual abundance of resources. The pine nut was an important staple of the Great Basin diet, while the acorn filled this role for many California tribes. The Washoe gathered pine nuts and acorns where available, but trade was an important and necessary activity to procure enough acorn. Pine nut soup and acorn biscuits were, and are, prized native foods. This combination of dishes reflects the uniquely paired Washoe resource zone: mountain and desert; Sierran and Great Basin.

The material needs of life were met with the resources available: wooden, bone, and stone tools; some animals skins, notably the rabbit pelts for the all-purpose winter rabbit-skin blanket; woven fiber ropes, thread, clothes, beds, and sandals; and woven baskets, for everything from carrying food and babies to cooking soup and holding water. The basketry skills of the Washoe continue to be well known and admired. Their very fine basketry reached new artistic heights during the early twentieth century and is associated with highly regarded weavers and artists, most notably Louisa Keyser (Datsolalee).

In a pattern typical of hunter-gatherers, Washoe social life was characterized by fluid interactions between people. Political and religious leadership was informal and favored skilled individuals who demonstrated mastery of negotiation, resource procurement, or spiritual strength. The antelope shaman, a man who directed and called the hunt for antelope, filled his role only during the fall and only during years when the antelope were plentiful enough to hunt. His role required not only political abilities to manage the hunt, but also religious skill to call and successfully hunt the antelope without causing offense to the spirits. Rabbit bosses directed the fall hunt of the fattened rabbits with their thick winter coats. Individuals with spiritual gifts, either male or female, could and did become shamans, a role of priest/doctor, who intervened on behalf of others with the spirit world; shamans healed the body and the soul. For the most part, however, Washoe people were generalists, in that people depended on themselves and their families for the great majority of their needs.

The potentially precarious nature of hunter-gatherer life went hand in hand with a religious belief that recognized a spiritual essence to all creatures, and even elements that modern Americans would consider to be inanimate, such as forces of weather and water. No large granaries or deep freezers held excess food for times of bad hunts or harvest. Resources were plentiful enough for harvest but not for storage, with the exception of dried fish and/or cached pine nuts. More typically, the Washoe depended on the relationships with family and friends, with whom sharing was expected, and on the relationships forged with the spirits of nature.

People tended to live in clusters of related family groups, with membership fluctuating depending on availability of resources. Summer camps were located adjacent to resources ready to harvest, and a small bush shelter was often sufficient. Family groups might divide into smaller units and move to various locations to take advantage of fish spawning runs and ready-to-harvest greens, tubers, and berries. During the late fall, the pine nut harvest was characterized by a larger density of resources, allowing people to congregate in larger numbers and then settle into winter camps. Winter camps were more permanent, as people stayed longer, lived in significant habitation structures (bark and pole conical shelters), and traditionally identified themselves by their winter home camps.

This pattern changed once Euro-Americans colonized the home territory of the Washoe. The origin myth of the Washoe states that though they were created few in number, they were great in strength and courage. History has witnessed this strength as the Washoe people survived the onslaught of genocide and ethnocide suffered by many tribes during the colonization of the North American continent. The Washoe people adapted to the presence of the Euro-American ranchers and miners, managing to stay in Washoe home territory rather than being sent to reservations far from home. This was both a blessing and a curse—a blessing because people were able to maintain ancestral ties to the land, but a curse in that the Washoe were inadequately compensated for their loss of lands.

The ability to continue to make a living in their home territory was put to a severe test, especially during the mining booms of the nineteenth century that centered around the California gold rush and the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada. The mining boom brought in large numbers of miners and settlers, displacing Washoe from access to traditional resources. Washoe people took jobs working as ranch hands and domestic servants, finding a new economic niche. This adaptation was not without cost: the Washoe suffered severe population loss from poverty and disease and lived under prejudicial treatment by Euro-Americans, evidenced by threats to Washoe language, religion, and culture.

The Washoe people survived these assaults, only to face the forced assimilation policies of the American government during the early twentieth century. Children were forcibly taken from their homes and sent to Stewart Boarding School, where they were punished for speaking their own language, practicing their religion, or for running back to their home. Children were trained to participate in the wage economy, and government policy took some native lands (pine nut groves) and divided them into allotments, attempting to create a concept of private property and independent family existence. The communal nature of aboriginal existence was considered to be a threat to modern American living, and the Washoe and other Native Americans were expected to release their ties to the past and turn their faces to the future.

Despite these threats, the Washoe have withstood the test of time and continue to live near or on their aboriginal lands. By 2007, tribal membership was approximately 1,500. Although never awarded large-acreage reservations, many Washoe inhabit small tribal acreage sites known as “colonies” (Dresslerville and Woodfords) and others find home on the small-acreage urban Stewart Reservation, Carson Colony, and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Strong tribal and family efforts endeavor to keep Washoe culture flourishing through language programs, economic development, documentation of traditional knowledge, celebration of identity through art, and efforts to reclaim access to traditional lands.

Further Reading

James F. Downs. The two worlds of the Washo, an Indian tribe of California and Nevada. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.
Handbook of North American Indians: Great Basin Indians. Ed. Warren L. D'Azevedo. Series Volume 11. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1986.

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