Washoe (Native Americans of the Great Basin)

Washoe, a word derived from Washiu, or "Person," their self-designation. Though lacking any formal institutional structures, the Washoe considered themselves a tribe, or a distinct people.

Location Washoes lived and continue to live around Lake Tahoe, from Honey Lake in the north to about 40 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 Washoe shared many cultural traits of both California and Great Basin Indians.

Population The Washoe population was at least 1,500 in the early nineteenth century. In 1991, over 1,000 lived on reservations and at least 500 lived off-reservation.

Language Washoe is a Hokan language.

Historical Information

History Ancestors of the Washoe arrived in the region roughly 6,000 years ago. Unbroken cultural continuity lasted from around 500 up to about 1800. 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 Washoe 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. They 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 Washoe 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 in 1932. Its strenuously opposition by whites and by 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.

Religion Spirits could be related to myths and legends as well as 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.

Government In general, the Washoe 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.

Customs A weak dual division structure may have existed in camps and for games. Marriage partners were generally arranged. Marriage or sexual relations between relatives was strictly taboo. An exchange of gifts between two families constituted a marriage. Couples generally lived with the woman’s family until after the first child was born. Separation and divorce were easily obtained.

The dead were cremated, their unburned bones placed in a creek. They were also buried under logs or left in the open. Mourners cut their hair, and houses of the dead were either burned or abandoned. The Washoe had no concept of exclusive territoriality. Some intermarriage with Northern Paiute groups as well as with Miwoks, Maidus, and Nisenans led to irregular cooperation between various subgroups for purposes of trade, visiting, and defense.

Women gathered, processed, and cooked most foods (although both sexes cooperated in gathering acorns and pine nuts and in some fishing and hunting). There were many life-cycle rites and rituals, all connected with ensuring both individual and community health and well-being. Husbands were not present at birth, although they shared some of their wives’ postpartum restrictions. Women nursed babies for up to five years. Babies received their names, which were usually derived from some personal behavior, at around age one. Games, which usually included gambling, included the hand game, races, and athletic contests.

The four-day girls’ puberty ceremony was a major event. The young women observed several food restrictions, performed many chores on little sleep, and were prohibited from combing their own hair or scratching themselves. Women friends and relatives chanted songs by a fire while dancing a "jumping dance." Afterward, men and women danced a round dance. The dancing continued throughout the night and was followed by a formal conclusion ceremony. The whole was repeated at a woman’s second period, after which she was considered marriageable.

Dwellings Mountain winter villages were occupied by at least some members of the family year-round. A conical pole framework between 10 and 15 feet in diameter and set in a shallow pit supported slabs of bark tied on with cordage or sinew. Thatching may also have been used. Doorways faced east. Houses could hold up to about seven people. Temporary, dome-shaped brush shelters, as well as windbreaks and lean-tos, served as seasonal housing while people were away fishing, gathering, or hunting.

Diet Most people moved seasonally with the food supply, but that 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, ground into flour, and leached 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.

Key Technology Fishing equipment included harpoons, nets, dams, weirs, basket traps, and hook and line. Men used the bow and (sometimes poisoned) arrows for hunting. Other technological items included twined and coiled baskets; stone mortars and pestles, metates and manos, and knives; sandstone pipes and arrow smoothers; wooden utensils and cooking items; fire drills; and looms for making beadwork and weaving rabbit-skin blankets.

Trade The Washoe traded mostly among themselves. When they did trade "outside the family," mainly with groups such as the Miwok, Nisenan, and Northern Paiute, they generally exchanged items such as salt, obsidian, pine nuts, and rabbit skins for sea shells, redbud bark (for baskets), hides, and food items.

Notable Arts Basketry was utilitarian in form and style but, fueled by white demand, reached artistic heights in the late nineteenth century. Rock art was at least several thousand years old. Art objects were made from a variety of materials, including stone, wood, and clay.

Transportation People built cedar-bark and tule rafts for lake fishing and river crossings, circular manzanita or pinon snowshoes for winter hunting, and wooden skis for marsh or snow walking.

Dress The basic clothing materials were skins, usually deerskin, and sagebrush bark. Men generally wore breechclouts, plus capes and leggings in winter. They also plucked their facial hair. Women wore aprons, adding capes in winter. Both sexes wore moccasins of deer hide lined with sage in winter, although people usually went barefoot. Rabbit-skin blankets or robes were also important for clothing and bedding. Both sexes wore tattoos as well as ornaments of many materials and pierced their ears.

War and Weapons Intergroup relations were generally peaceful and cooperative. Most wars (with Maidus, Northern Paiutes, or Miwoks) concerned conflict over the use of subsistence areas. They were small and relatively insignificant. The Achumawi and Atsugewi sometimes raided northern Washoe camps. War leaders were selected for periods of conflict.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California has 4,300 acres, plus over 60,000 acres of assorted parcels. These include the Wade Property, California (388 acres); Silverado Parcel, Nevada (160 acres); Upper Clear Creek, Nevada (157 acres); and Lower Clear Creek, Nevada (209 acres). They also have public domain allotments. The tribe serves the residential communities of Dresslerville, Carson, and Stewart, Nevada, and Woodfords, California. It is governed by a 14-member tribal council according to a constitution adopted in 1966.

Woodfords Community, Alpine County, California (1970), 80 acres, 338 resident Indians (1991), is governed by a community council.

For the Washoe who lived in the high and often cold deserts of California and Nevada, rabbit-skin blankets and robes were important for clothing and bedding. The Washoe man pictured here is weaving a blanket.

For the Washoe who lived in the high and often cold deserts of California and Nevada, rabbit-skin blankets and robes were important for clothing and bedding. The Washoe man pictured here is weaving a blanket.

Carson Colony, Carson City County, Nevada (1917), 160 acres, 275 resident Indians (1991), is governed by a community council.

Dresslerville Colony, Douglas County, Nevada (1917), 90 acres, 348 resident Indians (1991), is governed by a community council.

Stewart Community, Nevada (1990), 2,960 acres, 90 resident Indians (1991), is governed by a community council.

Washoe Reservation (Ranches), Douglas County, Nevada (1982), 794 acres, 65 Indians (1990), is governed by a tribal council.

Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Washoe County, Nevada (1917; Washoe and Paiute), 1,984 acres, 262 resident Indians (1990), 724 enrolled members (1992), is governed by a seven-member tribal council.

Susanville Rancheria, Lassen County, California (1923; Maidu, Pit River, and Washoe), 150 acres, 154 Indians (1990), is governed by a seven-member tribal council.

Economy There is still some subsistence acorn and pine nut gathering as well as deer and rabbit hunting. Women make baskets and rabbit-skin blankets. Tribal businesses include a smoke shop, crafts shop, park with camping facilities, construction company, and an aquaculture facility.

Legal Status The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California (Carson Colony; Dresslerville, Woodfords, and Stewart community councils), the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, and the Susanville Indian Rancheria are federally recognized tribal entities. The Washoe-Paiute of Antelope Valley, California, have petitioned for government recognition.

Daily Life The Washoe have succeeded in keeping many aspects of their cultural heritage alive. The language is still spoken, although mostly by older people. The girls’ puberty rite is still an important ceremony. The tribe hosts an annual tribal picnic, publishes a newsletter, and operates a health center, senior center, housing authority office, and police force. It has jurisdiction of the deer herd as well as other natural resources within their territory. The Stewart Colony maintains a library and archives, and a cultural center is in progress at Lake Tahoe along land long disputed. Children take classes in a wide range of tribal traditions, customs, and arts. The tribe is still creating a land base and seeks to identify sacred sites.

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