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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 29, 2002 - Issue 64


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Winnemucca's Good Fight for Right

by John Terry Oregon Live
Her Native American name is Thocmetony -- "Shell Flower."

She was the daughter and granddaughter of Paiute tribal leaders, and had the march of "civilization" not interfered, that might well have been the end of it.

But at the time of her birth around 1844, white settlers were nibbling at the edges of her family's homeland, and by her early teens, Sarah Winnemucca and her people were in a full-blown fight for survival.

That struggle would bring Winnemucca fame not only as a leader of her people but as a humanitarian, author and the "Indian Joan of Arc."

He grandfather, Captain, or Chief, Truckee, opened the door to exploitation by guiding explorer John C. Fremont across the wilds of northern Nevada and later serving as a guide for immigrants crossing the Sierra Nevada.

Truckee fought for Fremont during the 1840s campaign against Mexico in California and was generally regarded as a friend to white settlers in Northern California and Nevada.

Winnemucca's father, known as Old Winnemucca, was likewise a Paiute headman in the area north of Pyramid Lake in western Nevada.

Her introduction to white culture came in the 1850s, when Truckee took her, her mother and her sister to a California ranch where he was working. She later recounted her fright at such strangeness but soon became enamored of the ranch's material wealth.

She learned the rudiments of English and expanded her knowledge via the white community when she returned to western Nevada. An opportunity for more formal education at a Spanish mission school ended in less than month when white parents objected to the presence of her and her sister.

She nonetheless became fluent in English and Spanish as well as at least three Native American dialects.

The influx of white settlers brought conflict with the Paiutes in the Pyramid Lake area. Because of her English, the Army hired Winnemucca, barely in her teens, as an interpreter.

Both she and her father worked toward mutual understanding, but in vain. The Paiutes were shortly assigned to a reservation at Fort McDermitt, Nev., and some later transferred to the Malheur Reservation in Oregon.

"During the decades of 1858 to 1878, Sarah served as a go-between for the Indians and the soldiers on the McDermitt and Malheur reservations," Mike Hanley says in "Owyhee Trails, The West's Forgotten Corner." "Her education and inborn intelligence allowed her to talk with clarity to high government officials. She gained the respect of both the whites and her own people."

But there was trouble brewing. Officials refused to consider native welfare. Corrupt Indian agents, private citizens under contract to the government, took supplies assigned to reservations and sold them for their own profit.

On the Malheur Reservation, the agent in charge "was trying to force the Indians to work at digging irrigation ditches by refusing them food," Hanley says. " ... Relations deteriorated, and a rebellion appeared in the making."

Winnemucca was fired for reporting the agent's practices to the military. She undertook to raise money to go to Washington, D.C., to plead the Native Americans' case. That failed, but she did go to San Francisco in hopes of meeting with the military commander there. That effort fell on deaf ears.

The Army employed its full strength in the Bannock War of 1878, which saw the tribes further fractured, their members shipped to reservations remote from their homelands. Sarah accompanied some Paiutes to the Yakama Reservation in Washington.

There she found the same repressive attitudes as at McDermitt and Malheur. She registered a vehement protest with the agent in charge:

"Mr. (the Rev. James) Wilbur ... you have not got the first part of a Christian principle about you, or you would leave everything and see that my poor, broken-hearted people get home ... . You are starving my people here, and you are selling the clothes which were sent to them, and it is my money in your pocket; that is why you want to keep us here, not because you love us.

" ... I say, Mr. Wilbur, everybody in Yakima City knows what you are doing, and hell is full of just such Christians as you are."

Wilbur's response, Sarah said, was to tell her to shut up or be locked up.

Her local avenues exhausted, Sarah made a lecture tour around the West to drum up sympathy for her people. In 1880, she, her father and brother Natches went to Washington, D.C. A meeting with Interior Secretary Carl Schurz yielded nothing.

Sarah hit the lecture circuit again.

"Between April 1883 and August 1884, Sarah gave nearly three hundred lectures from Boston and New York to Baltimore and Washington, DC," says her biography in the "Encyclopedia of North American Indians."

"She spoke in the homes of many prominent Indian advocates of the day, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Massachusetts senator Henry Dawes, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and her sister Mary Mann, the wife of Horace Mann."

In 1883, with the help of Mary Mann, she published an autobiographical history of her people, "Life Among the Paiutes, Their Wrongs and Claims." The book was a best seller. Together with her Eastern friends, it was instrumental in passage of the General Allotment (or Dawes) Act that recognized tribal claims.

She returned to Nevada and, with support from pioneer educator Elizabeth Peabody, started a school for native children. It closed after two years, in 1887, when the government failed to provide financial support.

Perhaps depressed by the failure of her second marriage, to ex-Army officer Lewis H. Hopkins, and beset by ill health, Winnemucca moved to Henry's Lake, Idaho, to live with a sister, Elma. She died there on Oct. 14, 1891, at age 47.

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