Sarah Winnemucca

Image courtesy of the Nevada Historical Society

As I sit here on land which was traditionally the homeland of the Southern Paiute or Nuwuvi people, I want to offer my gratitude for the land itself and honor those for whom these lands offer their gratitude.

In mainstream culture, it is March. March is Women’s History Month.

Those who reside in Northern Nevada (traditionally the homeland of the Northern Paiute, Shoshone, and Washo people) likely have some awareness of Sarah Winnemucca. After all, there is an elementary school in Reno named after her. There is a town named after her family (Winnemucca, Nevada). A popular Lake Tahoe town is named after her grandfather (Truckee).

Sarah Winnemucca (Thocmetony “shell flower” in Northern Paiute) was born around 1844. She was born as the Gold Rush was drawing white prospectors and settlers to what is now Northern California, Northern Nevada, and Southern Idaho. Her grandfather, Truckee, initially was very welcoming of his “white brothers” as he called them and was instrumental in helping US troops win the Bear War against Mexican troops in Northern California. Sarah Winnemucca’s father, Chief Winnemucca, was not as trusting of the white troops and settlers and urged his people to keep a distance from them.

If you’re mainstream culture, please keep in mind that women in most Indigenous cultures in North America enjoyed and enjoy a gender equity and equality that many mainstream culture women still are not afforded today.

Sarah Winnemucca became a liaison between the Northern Paiute and the white settlers. It was her grandfather’s wish that she become exposed to and educated in the ways of the white settlers. When she was 6 years old, she traveled with her grandfather to the early cities of Northern California. She developed a taste for beds, chairs, the food, and the dishes on which the food was served. When Sarah Winnemucca was 13, her grandfather arranged for her sister and her to become part of the household of Major Ormsby in what is now Genoa, Nevada. By the time Sarah Winnemucca was 14 years old, she was fluent in five languages – three Indian languages, Spanish, and English.

At age 6 and at age 13, Sarah Winnemucca returned back to her tribe’s homeland because of the discrimination against her people she witnessed at the hands of the white settlers.

Her grandfather’s wish was that his granddaughters be educated in a convent school. While never officially students, Sarah Winnemucca and her sister attended classes at a convent school in San Jose, California.

As Sarah Winnemucca reached adulthood, her people were moved off their ancestral homelands and onto reservations located first at Pyramid Lake, Nevada (just east of Reno, NV), then the Malheur Reservation in southern Oregon, and finally to a reservation outside of Yakima, Washington.

In 1871, Sarah Winnemucca began working as an interpreter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She married a white officer (E. C. Bartlett), but left him within a year due to his drinking. She then married an Indian husband (whose name is not known), but left him as well due to his treatment of her.

For those of you wondering how a woman in the 1870s could ‘survive’ without a husband, keep in mind that Sarah Winnemucca was Northern Paiute and women in many North American Indigenous cultures were never considered the “property” of or subservient to their husbands. She later married another white officer, L. H. Hopkins.

Sarah Winnemucca first traveled to Washington D. C. to advocate for Native Americans in 1880. In all, she gave more than 400 speeches advocating on behalf of the Paiutes. She brokered negotiations to improve the living conditions of her people which were later broken by the federal government. The government’s breaking of the promises they made Sarah later led to a mistrust of her word among the Paiute.

Sarah Winnemucca also started a school for Paiute children called Peabody’s Institute near present-day Lovelock, Nevada. The school was closed following the death of her 3rd husband from tuberculosis.

Sarah Winnemucca died in Montana in 1891. She is the author of the book, Life Among the Paiutes, the first known autobiography authored by a Native American woman.

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