Sarah Winnemucca 1844?–1891
(Born Thocmetony; also known as Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins) American political activist and autobiographer.
An outspoken advocate of Native American rights, Winnemucca is principally remembered for her Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1883), considered the first autobiography by a Native American woman. A member of the Paiute tribe, Winnemucca rose to a level of public notoriety while conducting a series of American lecture tours in which she criticized unfair federal acquisition of native lands and the harsh treatment of Indians forced to live on reservations. Since her death, Winnemucca has also been acknowledged for her support of Native American education and espousal of the peaceful coexistence of whites and Native Americans.
Winnemucca—whose name in her native Northern Pauite language was Thocmetony, meaning "shell flower"—was born in approximately 1844 on Paiute land near Humboldt Lake in what is now Nevada. Her grandfather, Truckee, was a Paiute chieftain, although not chief of the entire Paiute tribe as Winnemucca would later claim. As a child, Winnemucca learned Spanish and English through her close contact with several white families in California and Nevada. She was schooled briefly at the Convent of Notre Dame in San Jose during her teens, but was otherwise largely self taught. Acting on behalf of the Paiute, she traveled to Fort McDermit in 1866 to persuade the United States military to put an end to white aggression against her tribe. Shortly thereafter, a segment of the Paiute were resettled to a reservation at Malheur, Oregon. In the ensuing years, Winnemucca was frequently engaged as a military interpreter and liaison to the Paiute, a capacity she served when hostilities between U. S. armed forces and the Paiute, Bannock, and Shoshoni people erupted in the Bannock War of 1878. The conflict ended with the indefinite relocation of Paiute prisoners to the Yakima reservation in Washington State. Winnemucca, meanwhile, spoke out publicly in a number of lectures designed to raise awareness of inhumane practices demonstrated by government agents and missionaries on the reservation. She traveled to Washington, D. C. to obtain the Paiute release from Yakima, a plea that was authorized, but never initiated. In 1882, she married a dissolute military
officer, Lieutenant Lewis H. Hopkins, in what was the last of her four relatively brief and ill-fated marriages to white men. In 1883, Winnemucca began a lengthy lecture tour of New England, and again denounced U. S. government policy toward Native Americans. While speaking in Boston she formed a friendship with Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, an educator, and her sister Mary Mann. Both women encouraged Winnemucca in her political activities, prompting her to write Life Among the Piutes and providing her with financial and editorial assistance. Winnemucca used some of the profits from her lectures and the sale of her book to establish a school for Paiute children in 1884. After the school was closed in 1887, Winnemucca relocated to Henry's Lake, Idaho where she died of tuberculosis on 17 October, 1891.
Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims recounts the years 1844 to 1883, beginning with Winnemucca's early involvement in the volatile relations between Native Americans and whites during this period. The narrative opens with the violent invasion of Paiute lands (occupying what is now western Nevada) by whites in the 1840s. As the volume proceeds, Winnemucca recalls her younger years as a domestic, the death of her grandfather, chief Truckee, in 1860 during the Pyramid Lake War, and her appointment as Pauite language interpreter at Fort McDermit. She describes the 1865 massacre of her family, including her father Old Winnemucca—an experience that left her as tribal leader—in the increasingly harsh tone that characterizes the remainder of the autobiography. Further sections of the work criticize the brutality of the missionary W. V. Rinehart of the Malheur Agency in Oregon, and describe Winnemucca's intercession on behalf of her tribe during the Bannock War. The final portion of Life Among the Piutes details the forced march of surrendered Paiutes from Malheur to the Yakima Reservation some 350 miles away in January of 1879.
Critics have acknowledged that during her lifetime Winnemucca endeavored to overturn negative stereotypes of Native Americans through her lectures, stage appearances, and autobiography. A thoroughgoing advocate of peace, she portrayed the brutality of white aggression toward Indians and sought in her Life Among the Piutes to adapt the romantic rhetoric of the "noble savage" by characterizing herself as an enlightened woman warrior. In the years since her death, Winnemucca has come to represent the struggles of Native American women in the nineteenth century, while her autobiography has continued to be read and studied as an important cultural document. In the latter half of the twentieth century, critics have principally focused on the work's evocative style and the nature and extent of its literary influences, considering it a blend of elements from romance, slave narrative, and Paiute oral tradition. Of Life Among the Piutes, Kathleen Mullen Sands has written: "It is Winnemucca's verve, her certainty of the epic nature of her life, her absolute dedication, despite enormous personal sacrifice, and her genteelly Victorian use of language that work in concert to move the reader and convince the audience of the justice of Indian rights even a century after its first publication."
SOURCE: "Sarah Winnemucca: Northern Paiute, ca. 1844-1891," in American Indian Intellectuals, edited by Margot Liberty, West Publishing Co., 1976, pp. 32-42.
[In the following essay. Fowler offers an ethnological study of Winnemucca as a figure who attempted to assimilate with white culture.]
Sarah Winnemucca is a historical figure whose life and works have had more direct impact on the course of 19th century United States Indian policy than on the discipline of anthropology. In the latter half of the 19th century, she wrote a book (Hopkins 1883: Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims) and at least one article (Winnemucca 1882) detailing the harried course of Northern Paiute-White relations to that time. She also lectured extensively in the far West and in the East on reservation conditions, inequities in federal Indian policy and government agent corruption. Her book and speeches lent direct support to the passage of the controversial "lands in severalty" legislation, then before the Congress. Sarah Winnemucca also established and operated for two years her own school for Northern Paiute children near Lovelock, Nevada—an early attempt at self-determination in Indian education.
Sarah Winnemucca is a controversial figure, and herein lies some of her historical interest. Robert Heizer (1960:3) suggests that her "selfless motives and tremendous energies and high purpose...
(The entire section is 4880 words.)
SOURCE: "Western American Indian Writers, 1854-1960," in A Literary History of the American West, Texas Christian University Press, 1987, pp. 1038-57.
[In the following excerpt, Ruoff discusses the influence of Winnemucca's autobiography Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims.]
Hostile government policies and public attitudes created a climate generally unfavorable to the development of Indian literature [in the mid-1800s]…. White audiences were far more interested in reading the accounts of explorers, settlers, and gold miners who conquered the West than they were in reading of Indian suffering brought about by this conquest. In 1883, however, the voice of the vanquished tribes of the far West was heard when the fiery Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins (Thocmetony; ca. 1844-91) strode across the lecture platforms of America to castigate whites for their unchristian treatment of her people, the Paiutes. With the publication of Life Among the Piutes; Their Wrongs and Claims (1883),1 Winnemucca became the first Indian woman writer of personal and tribal history. Born near the Sink of the Humboldt River in Nevada, Winnemucca was the granddaughter of Truckee, whom she claimed was chief of all the Paiutes, and daughter of Old Winnemucca, who succeeded his father as chief. Because Winnemucca and her family followed Truckee's policy of peaceful co-existence with whites, she spent much of her...
(The entire section is 1274 words.)
SOURCE: "The Preliterate Traditions at Work: White Bull, Two Leggings, and Sarah Winnemucca," in American Indian Autobiography, University of California Press, 1988, pp. 48-71.
[In the following excerpt, Brumble contends that Winnemucca was not aware of contemporary literary models in her writing of Life among the Piutes, but rather adapted Paiute oral conventions to the persuasion of white audiences.]
Sarah Winnemucca was born probably in 1844.11 …
By the time she reached adulthood … Winnemucca had experienced a wide range of what late-nineteenth-century America had to offer. As a young child she had lived with a stone-age, hunter-gatherer people; by the time she was twenty she had made her stage debut, acting in Indian tableaux vivants and interpreting for her father in his attempts to explain the Paiutes to the good burghers of Virginia City. By twenty-four she was a figure of some influence in the Great Basin, serving as the Army's emissary to recalcitrant bands of Paiutes and Bannocks, to win them to the reservations. In 1870, when a letter she had written on the plight of the Paiutes was published by Harper's Weekly, she became one of the darlings of the eastern Indian enthusiasts. In 1881 she headed East on a speaking tour, spending most of her time in Boston, where she became the especial friend of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (the woman who published...
(The entire section is 4669 words.)
SOURCE: "Three Nineteenth-Century American Indian Autobiographers," in Redefining American Literary History, edited by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., The Modern Language Association of America, 1990, pp. 251-69.
[In the following excerpt, Ruoff evaluates Life among the Piutes by comparing it to other American Indian autobiographies and slave narratives of the same period.]
One of the few Indian autobiographies published during the last half of the nineteenth century was Sarah Winnemucca's Life among the Piutes. The fiery Winnemucca (Thocmetony; Paiute; 1844-91) was the first Indian woman writer of personal and tribal history. Like the slave narrators of the second half of the century, Winnemucca abandons the strongly Christian flavor of earlier personal narratives; unlike [William] Apes and [George] Copway, she does not pattern her narrative after spiritual confessions and missionary reminiscences. Her emphasis on personal experience as part of the ethnohistory of her tribe owes more to tribal narrative traditions than to religious ones. Further, her life history is considerably more militant than theirs.
Winnemucca's Life among the Piutes also differs from typical women's autobiographies. In A Poetics of Women's Autobiography, Sidonie Smith comments that women autobiographers deal with two stories. On the one hand, the woman autobiographer...
(The entire section is 3363 words.)
SOURCE: "Story, Take Me Home; Instances of Resonance in Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins' Life Among the Piutes," in Entering the 90s: The North American Experience, edited by Thomas E. Schirer, Lake Superior State University Press, 1991, pp. 184-94.
[In the following essay, Strange considers Winnemucca's Life among the Piutes as a work filled with personal resonances.]
Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims was published in Boston in 1883, "edited by Mrs. Horace Mann," as its title page announced, and "printed for the author," Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins (p. 1). Editor and author had met while Sarah was working hard in the east as a controversial and increasingly popular lecturer who staged herself as Princess Sarah in fringed buckskins and beads with a golden crown on her head and at her waist a velvet wampum bag with a cupid worked on it. She had to dress up in order to draw the crowds and dollars she needed to support her cause, herself and the drunken consumptive who was the last of her husbands, Lt. Lewis H. Hopkins of Virginia. It is not a promising pair this title page offers—a Bostonian editor sure of her ways and an author who has distanced herself from her people by her marriage, by her stagey practice and by aristocratic pretensions far beyond any that Paiute society would have recognized. However, this author had a powerful story to tell and the editor who took her up,...
(The entire section is 4707 words.)
SOURCE: "Indian Women's Personal Narrative: Voices Past and Present," in American Women 's Autobiography: Fea(s)ts of Memory, edited by Margo Culley, University of Wisconsin Press, 1992, pp. 268-94.
[In the following excerpt, Sands examines the intent and technique of Winnemucca 's Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims.]
One of the earliest written autobiographies by an American Indian is Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins' Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, published in 1883. As the title suggests, this autobiography is not only a personal narrative, but also a cultural history of the Northern Paiute tribe from early contact with whites to the 1880s, and a plea for an end to unjust treatment of her people.
Thocmentony (translated Shell Flower), as she was named when she was born, probably in 1844, in the vicinity of Humboldt Lake in present-day northern Nevada, was the granddaughter of Truckee "who had been a guide to early emigrants crossing the Great Basin" and leader of the Numa, as the Northern Paiutes called themselves (Canfield 4). She was the daughter of Winnemucca, an important antelope shaman who became the leader and spokesman for his tribe upon Truckee's death. Sarah Winnemucca was born into an important family at a time of rapid and bewildering change for her people.
Her first encounter with whites was filled with terror. Stories of...
(The entire section is 2660 words.)
SOURCE: "The Frontiers of Native American Women's Writing: Sarah Winnemucca's Life among the Piutes, " in New Voices in Native American Literary Criticism, edited by Arnold Krupat, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993, pp. 222-52.
[In the following excerpt, Georgi-Findlay explores Winnemucca 's Life among the Piutes as it presents the role of gender in Indian-white relations.]
The study of the history, literature, and popular mythology of American westward expansion and the frontier West has, during the past decades, undergone some crucial reconsideration, if not revision, through the inclusion of two new angles of vision: the focus on the tribal people dispossessed by the westward movement and, more recently, on the largely ignored and for a long time invisible participation of women in this move west. These two relatively new fields of study, it would appear, do not have much in common with each other—except, of course, for their combined efforts to rewrite previously excluded groups of people as presences and agents into American history and literature. Thus it should not come as a surprise that both areas have kept rather aloof from each other and have only recently approached each other in studies focusing on Native American women. Both areas of study, however, may be made profitable for each other also in the reconsideration of the frontier experience in American literature and...
(The entire section is 9547 words.)
Hardy, Gayle J. "Sarah Winnemucca (1844?-1891)." In American Women Civil Rights Activists: Bibliographies of 68 Leaders, 1825-1992, pp. 414-20. Jefferson, N. C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1993.
Bibliography of primary and secondary sources preceded by a brief biographical introduction.
Canfield, Gae Whitney. Sarah Winnemucca of the Northern Paiutes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983, 306 p.
Comprehensive biography of Winnemucca.
Howard, O. O. "Famous Indian Chiefs." St. Nicholas XXXV, No. 9 (July 1908): 815-22.
Includes a laudatory biographical sketch of Winnemucca.
Morrison, Dorothy Nafus. Chief Sarah: Sarah Winnemucca's Fight for Indian Rights. New York: Atheneum, 1980, 170 p.
Biography based in large part upon Winnemucca's Life among the Piutes.
Ohrn, Deborah Gore. "Sarah Winnemucca." In Herstory: Women Who Changed the World, edited by Ruth Ashby and Deborah Gore Ohrn, pp. 135-37. New York: Viking, 1995.
Considers Winnemucca "an eloquent defender of the rights of Native Americans."...
(The entire section is 253 words.)