In 1846, Gayabuc, the son of the powerful Rabbit Chief or Rabbit Boss of the Washo Indians, sets out on a hunting expedition in the middle of winter to obtain meat for his firstborn son’s birth celebration. He encounters the Donner party, a group of whites who had been forced by starvation into cannibalism. Gayabuc returns to his family empty-handed and warns them about the white people who eat themselves. Gayabuc’s father refuses to believe Gayabuc’s account and asserts that Gayabuc had dreamed it. Painted Stick, Gayabuc’s wife, believes that he came back without meat because he was forced to hunt in winter when game is scarce. Their son is born in winter because their first sexual union had occurred in spring, just before Painted Stick’s first menstruation. Gayabuc and Painted Stick had violated Washo tradition by engaging in sexual relations before Painted Stick underwent the puberty ritual of the Dance of the Woman. The repercussions of their transgression culminated in Gayabuc’s unlucky encounter at Donner Lake.
The cannibalism of the whites at Donner Lake continues to influence Gayabuc during the ensuing spring. Spring is the time that the Washos hunt the rabbits that provide their food and clothing. Gayabuc’s father, the Rabbit Chief, is the leader of the hunt. Gayabuc believes that investigating the white invasion should take precedence over engaging in the hunt, but his father strongly disagrees. The men of the tribe vote and side with Gayabuc. The women and children conduct the hunt while the men explore the deserted white encampment. There they find animal traps they had never seen before. One of them contains a rabbit that was mangled by the trap, foreshadowing the eventual oppression of the Washos by the whites.
Gayabuc succeeds his father as Rabbit Chief. Gayabuc realizes that his shamanic role as chief hunter is vital to the survival of his people and to their way of life. During the spring hunt, Gayabuc dreams about the location of the prey. He knows that in his role as Rabbit Chief, his spiritual and moral powers are essential to the preservation of the tribe. Gayabuc notes, “All this I have dreamed. If I were dead, all this would not have been dreamed. . . . If I were dead, there would be no other to tell you this.”
The disrupting influence of the whites becomes evident in the life of Captain Rex, the son of Gayabuc and Painted Stick. Captain Rex follows the old ways at first and inherits the position of Rabbit Chief. As the railroad encroaches on Washo land, however, the quality of life declines for the Washo. There are few rabbits to hunt, and the office of Rabbit Chief becomes obsolete. Captain Rex learns English from a white woman. As a result of his being bilingual, the white railroad workers employ him as a translator. Although the whites depend upon his bilingual abilities, the Washo people mistrust him. As a result of his cultural confusion, he...
(The entire section is 1194 words.)