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Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California

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An indigenous Native American people, the Washoe originally lived around Lake Tahoe and adjacent areas of the Great Basin. Their tribe name derives from the Washoe word, waashiw (wa·šiw), meaning "people from here."


Semi-sedentary hunters and gatherers, their territory extended from the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to areas as far east as Pyramid Lake in Nevada, including Lake Tahoe and the upper valleys of the Truckee, Carson, and West Walker Rivers. Traditionally, they would spend their summers in the Sierra Nevadas, the autumn in the ranges to the east, and winter and spring in the valleys in between. Their food base consisted primarily of pinyon pine nuts, roots seeds, berries and game.


They were first driven into the area from the east by their long-time enemies, the Northern Paiute, by whom they were later dominated. After soundly defeating the Washoe, the Paiute, who had obtained and learned to ride horses, would not allow the Washoe to own or ride their own mounts.


Washoe Indians at Lake Tahoe

Washoe Indians at Lake Tahoe, 1866,  Lawrence & Houseworth.

This image available for photographic prints and downloads HERE!




Though the Washoe tried their best to avoid the white settlers, their lands were some of the first in the western Great Basin to be extensively settled. As their hunting grounds succumbed to farms, and the Pinyon groves were cut down for lumber in Virginia City, the Washoe found themselves dependent upon the settlers for jobs. Their new settlements were referred to at the time as "Indian colonies,” but were not formal Indian reservations.


That did not change until the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, when the colonies in the Carson Valley area of Nevada and California gained federal recognition as the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.  Another colony near Reno, Nevada, which was also comprised of Paiute and Shoshoni people, was granted separate recognition as the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.


The federally recognized Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California now counts among its membership, some 2,000 people. With their deep roots for the Lake Tahoe area, they combine traditional and modern conservation practices in the protection and restoration of endangered habitats. 


They are governed by a Tribal Council and a Chairman, consisting of 12 representatives from the Washoe Tribal Community Councils. The council is responsible for the cultural preservation of the Washoe history and culture and the Chairman is responsible for the daily operations of the tribe.


Contact Information:


Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California





© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated July, 2015.






Family is the core of the Washoe because these are
the people that lived and worked together and relied on each other. In the past, families are recorded as rarely
fewer than five individuals and only occasionally exceeding
twelve in size. A family was often a married couple and their
children, but there were no distinct rules about how marriages
and families should be formed and households were
regularly made up of the parents of a couple, the couple’s
siblings and their children, more than one husband or wife,
or non-blood related friends.
Generally, a family was distinguished by whoever lived together
in the galais dungal (winter house) during the winter
Winter camps were usually composed of four to ten
family groups living a short distance from each other in their
separate galais dungal. These family groups often moved
together throughout the year. The Washoe practiced sporadic
leadership, so at times each group had an informal
leader that was usually known for his or her wisdom, generosity,
and truthfulness. He or she may possess special
powers to dream of when and where there was a large
presence of rabbit, antelope and other game, including the spawning of the fish, and would assume the role of “Rabbit
Boss” or “Antelope Boss to coordinate and advise communal

Regional Groups
The Washoe were traditionally divided into three
groups, the northerners or Wel mel ti, the Pau wa lu who
lived in the Carson Valley in the east, and the Hung a lel ti
who lived in the south. These three groups each spoke a
slightly different yet distinct variant of the Washoe language.
These groups came together throughout the year for
special events and gatherings. Individual families, groups,
or regional groups, came together at certain times to participate
in hunting drives, war, and special ceremonies. During
their yearly gathering at Lake Tahoe, each of the three regional
groups camped at their family campsites at the lake;
the northerners on the north shore, the easterners on the
east shore, and so on. A person might switch from the
group that they were born into to a group from another side
of the lake. There were often cross-group marriages, sometimes
even between the Paiute and the California tribes.
This said, it was very advantageous that a person continued
living in the area where she or he grew up because it
took an intimate knowledge of the land to be able to find
and harvest all the plant food and medicines, and to be a
successful hunter year after year. After moving to a new
place, even the best gatherer or hunter would know only as
much about the place as a younger more inexperienced
person. Gathering and hunting successfully were as much
about being familiar with the cycles and patterns in the land
as they were about having practiced skills.

Relations with other tribes bordering Washoe territory
were mostly about tolerance and mutual understanding.
Sometimes events lead to tensions and warfare. It was
beneficial to both sides to keep their distance, but they also
needed to maintain a relationship to exchange trade goods.

The Washoe had heard about the new intruders before
they ever saw one. As the Spanish invaded the California
coast to establish missions and convert Indians to Catholicism,
the Washoe began to make fewer and fewer trips
to the west coast until eventually those trips stopped altogether.
Neighboring tribes that escaped into hiding in the
high mountains probably warned the Washoe about the invaders.
Although White historians have concluded that the
Spanish never entered Washoe territory, the Washoe have
told stories about them for generations, and some Washoe
words, including names for relatively new additions to the
Washoe world, like horse, cow, and money, are similar to
the Spanish terms.
In any case, when the first white fur traders and surveyors
began to enter Washoe territory the Indians approached
the newcomers with caution. They preferred to
observe the intruders from a distance. The first written record
of non-Indians in Washoe Land were fur trappers in
1826; they may have met the Washoe, but left no description
of the encounter. The first written description of the
Washoe was by John Charles Fremont in 1844, who was
leading a government surveying expedition. Fremont described
the Washoe as being cautious of being close to
them, but in time when he showed no aggression, the Washoe came forward and gave him handfuls of pine nuts,
the highest form of hospitality the Washoe could offer a visitor.
Fremont described struggling through deep snow and
being impressed by the Washoe’s skill with snowshoes.
The Washoe willingly shared their knowledge of the land
and eventually guided Fremont to a safe passage to California.

As more and more colonizers began infiltrating
Washoe land, it was not long before relations grew hostile.
The summer of 1844, just a few months after Fremont had
passed through, a group of trappers left record of having
shot and killed five Indians (either Washoe or Paiute) for
having taken traps and perhaps horses. The Indians probably
took those things in order to discourage the trappers
from entering their land. After the deaths, the trappers
searched the area, but not surprisingly found no more Indians.
Most westward-migrating settlers had been conditioned
by their experiences passing through the country of aggressively defensive tribes of the Great Plains and saw
no distinction between different tribes. They expected the
Washoe to be violent and dangerous and projected these
characteristics upon them.
Donner Party
In 1846, the Washoe noticed the famed Donner party
wagon train because they had never seen wagons before.
The Washoe describe seeing the wagons and wondering if
they were a “monster snake”. In route to California, the
Donner party reached the Sierras late in the year and got
trapped in snow for a particularly harsh winter. The Washoe
checked in with the stranded travelers a few times and
brought them food when they could. Even so, in the face of
suffering and starvation, the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism.
When the Washoe witnessed them eating each
other they were shocked and frightened. Although the
Washoe faced hard times every winter and death by starvation
sometimes occurred, they were never cannibalistic.
Stories about the situation, some gruesome and some sympathetic,
were told for many generations and are said to
add to the general mistrust of the white people.
In 1848, gold was “discovered” in California, and although
until then most of the Washoe had never seen white
people, or had previously avoided them, this soon became
impossible. The wagon trains came by the hundreds, and
because most of the wagon trails had previously been Indian
trails, encounters were numerous. Most of the new
people were just passing through, but by 1849 several began
to establish seasonal trading posts in Washoe territory.
By 1851, year-round trading posts were established, and
colonizers became permanent residents on Washoe land.
The settlers often chose to live on some of the most fertile
gathering areas that the Washoe depended on. A few years
after gold was found in California, silver was “discovered” in
the Great Basin and the “Comstock Bonanza” lured many
miners that had passed through back into Washoe territory.
The Euro-American perspective viewed land and its
resources as objects of frontier opportunity and exploitation.
In a short time the colonizers had overused the pine nuts,
seeds, game and fish that the Washoe had lived harmoniously
with for thousands of years. By 1851, Indian Agent
Jacob Holeman recommended that the government sign a
treaty with the Washoe and wrote, “…the Indians having
been driven from their lands, and their hunting ground destroyed
without compensation therefore – they are in many
instances reduced to a state of suffering bordering on starvation.”
(Nevers, 1976, p. 49) All this happened in less than
ten years after Fremont had passed through Washoe territory.

Settlers and miners cut down trees, including the sacred
Piñon Pine to build buildings, support mine shafts, and
even burn as fuel. The Piñon Pine woodlands that had once
provided the Washoe, other tribes, and all the animals with
more than enough nuts became barren hillsides.

In 1859, Indian agent Frederick Dodge suggested
removing the Washoe to two reservations, one at Pyramid
Lake, and another at Walker Lake. Because the reservations
were intended to be shared by the Washoe and the
Paiute, it soon became apparent that this was impossible.
Not only did the two tribes speak entirely different languages,
but historically they had not always been friendly
and trouble would no doubt arise if they were forced to live
in close quarters. Furthermore, the Washoe intended to live
on the land where the Maker had created them, and they
resisted all attempts to be relocated. Numerous formal requests
from Indian agents were made for a separate reservation
for the Washoe, but the government ignored them
all. By 1865, there were no stretches of unoccupied land
large enough within traditional Washoe territory to form one
reservation, so an agent made a recommendation that two
separate 360 acre parcels be set aside for the Washoe.
The following year in 1866, a new agent destroyed any
hope of this happening when he sent a letter to his authorities
that stated, “There is no suitable place for a reservation
in the bounds of their territory, and, in view of their rapidly
diminishing numbers and the diseases to which they are
subjected, none is required.” (Nevers, 1976, p. 54) This
man wrongly believed that in time the Washoe would disappear.
Between 1871 and 1877 several more requests for a
reservation for the Washoe were made by agents, but again
they were not heard. The government made no attempt to
secure rights for the Washoe or to stop the destruction of
the lands by the colonial culture.
Settler’s livestock grazed the land intensely and
grasses that had once provided the Washoe with seed were
trampled and eaten. Commercial fishing was practiced on
every stream and lake in the area and it was not long before
the fish were depleted. At the height of the fishing,
70,000 pounds of fish were being sent from Lake Tahoe to
Reno, Carson City, and Virginia City. There were several attempts by the colonizers to stop the Washoe from fishing,
but the Indians banded together and restrictions were relaxed.
Even so, there were no longer enough fish for the
Washoe to subsist on. Sage hens that used to “cover the
hills like snow” were killed off by sport hunting as well.

Tribal Land
Despite some local opposition, land was finally purchased
for the Washoe in 1917. Two tracts of land were
purchased near Carson City that totaled 156.33 acres.

This became Carson Indian Community. Shortly after this
purchase the government received 40 acres of land south
of Gardnerville from the Dressler family, to indefinitely be
held in trust for the Washoe, now known as the Dresslerville
Community. An additional 20 acres were acquired for the
Washoe and Northern Paiute families who lived in Reno
called the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Most of the lands
purchased for the Washoe were rocky and had poor soil,
but the people moved onto these areas and built the best
homes that they could. Many were one room shacks without
electricity and running water. Eventually, the government
built larger four-room houses.
Under the Indian Reorganization Act, between 1938
and 1940, the Washoe acquired 95 acres in the Carson
Valley that became known as Washoe Ranch. Finally the
Washoe had agricultural land where they could raise animals
and food.
In 1951 the Washoe filed a claim to the Indian
Claims Commission for their lands and resources that had
been lost. The legal proceedings lasted nearly twenty
years, and the Washoe received their claim only in 1970.
The government had significantly reduced the area that the
Washoe had designated as their ancestral homeland, and
so the final settlement was five million dollars, which
“scarcely constitutes even a token compensation for the appropriation
of an ancient territory and its resources which
today comprise one of the richest and most attractive areas
in the American West.” (Nevers, 1976, p. 91)
Also in 1970, a special act of congress granted 80
acres in Alpine County, California to Washoe that had lived
there for many years. This is now known as the Woodfords
Community. In more recent years the tribe has been acquiring
lands within their ancestral territory including, Frank
Parcel, Lady’s Canyon, Babbit Peak, Uhalde Parcel, Wade
Parcels, Olympic Valley, Incline Parcel, Upper and Lower
Clear Creek Parcels. Some of the lands have been set
aside as conservation and cultural lands for the Washoe
Challenges of Reservation Life
After settling on their newly returned land, the
Washoe found it difficult to adapt to reservation life. They
were traditionally a free roaming people that were now restricted
and confined to boundaries and were under constant
monitoring by Indian Agents that pressured them to
renounce their ancient customs in favor of colonial ways of
living. The superintendent of the Reno Agency attacked
several traditional practices, including the girl’s passage to
womanhood. Ironically the practices that he targeted as
“heathen” and “immoral” like giving gifts were similarly practiced
at Euro-American birthdays and marriages. Another
superintendent announced that traditional games that involved
exchanging money were not permitted on government
lands or Indian reservations, but he made no proclamations
prohibiting similar games played by colonizers
such as poker. Government officials went as far as to prohibit
the use of traditional Washoe medicine.





Approximately 1500 enrolled members of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California live on "Colonies," tribal lands scattered in the Reno, Carson Valley, and Gardnerville areas of Nevada and in Woodfords, California. Tribal headquarters are in Gardnerville and Stewart Indian School. An active tribal government continues to lobby for a land base in the Lake Tahoe basin and works with federal and state agencies and private land owners to protect locations important to Washoe Heritage.







Native American Founding FathersNative American Founding Fathers - It is too often forgotten that the first to settle America were the Native Americans. They, along with their chiefs and heroes should be commemorated just like like the colonists that formed our Constitution. Utilizing our great vintage photos, we have created a montage to recognize these great founders.






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