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."
Catherine S. Fowler (essay date 1976)
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 make her a person to admire in the history of our far West." Omer Stewart (1939:129) on the other hand, described her as "ambitious, educated …, trying to attain self-aggrandizement by exalting her father." Sarah's ethnographic and ethnohistoric contributions are rarely cited by Great Basin ethnographers beyond some cursory statement to the effect that she wrote a book that was probably little read in her native state of Nevada.
In this paper, I will briefly examine the life of Sarah Winnemucca, some of the controversy that surrounds her and some of her ethnohistoric and ethnographic contributions. The events of her life suggest clearly some of the motives that led her to speak for Indian rights at a time when a Native American woman would hardly be respected for doing so. I would like to suggest in the light of 20th century ethnohistoric and ethnographic hindsight that Sarah's position on assimilation, perhaps more than any other single factor, has led scholars, and to a certain degree her own people, to diminish her contributions to Native American scholarship.
Sarah Winnemucca was born about 1844 near the Sink of the Humboldt River, in what is now western Nevada. She came from a family that from the time of first contact with Whites had advocated peaceful coexistence—a position that did not gain the members favor among all segments of the Northern Paiute population. Sarah's maternal grandfather, Truckee, had been favorably disposed toward early explorers, and settlers, interpreting their advent as the reuniting of the Northern Paiutes with their lost White brothers and sisters, as foretold in the Northern Paiute creation cycle (Hopkins 1883:6). Truckee served as a guide to various emigrant parties traversing the Sierra, fought in California with John C. Fremont in his Mexican campaigns and continually befriended White families and individuals throughout northern Nevada and California. There is good evidence that Truckee and several other Northern Paiutes spent as many as half of the years between 1842 and 1860, the year of his death, in the settlements of California. He spoke both Spanish and English in addition to his native Northern Paiute, making him an effective go-between when present in Nevada. He also continually related the wonders of developing California to his people. Sarah (Hopkins 1883:18) describes how she and some of her people learned to sing what she later identified as soldiers' roll calls and the Star Spangled Banner long before they could understand the words.
Sarah's father, Old Winnemucca, was also generally on the side of peace and coexistence, although several specific events from the mid 1860's through the 1870's made him cautious and wary. During this time, partly as a result of the massacre of members of his band on the shores of Mud Lake in 1865 (Hopkins 1883:77; Angel 1881:170), Winnemucca became sullen and withdrawn, choosing a path of avoidance rather than accommodation. Sarah continually stressed that her father was "chief of all the Paiutes, a point of controversy for latter-day ethnographers and ethnohistorians.
Sarah's brother, Naches, also acted as a go-between in relations between Indians and Whites in western nevada. Naches was convinced of the utility of agriculture and for several years operated a cooperative farm on 160 acres of land near Lovelock, Nevada. He obtained the land partly through cash purchase and partly by convincing railroad magnate Leland Stanford that he intended to put the land to good use. (The land was a railroad section.)
Thus, the Winnemuccas were what would be labeled today "White-men's Indians" at least from outward appearances. However, there is also a strong current of self-determination that runs through their attitudes and activities that is less often stressed. Again, hindsight may clarify this position as we proceed.
When Sarah was approximately 10 years of age, she and her mother and siblings spent part of a year with Truckee near San Jose, California. She describes in detail in her book (Hopkins 1883:27 ff.) her impressions of this strange land, its strange goods, and even stranger people. She had an almost pathological fear of Whites as a child, in spite of her grandfather's continual reassurances concerning their kindly nature and good intentions. She was greatly impressed by the material possessions and wealth of the foreigners, attributing their success to industry in agriculture and ranching.
In 1858, Sarah and her sister went to live in the home of Major William Ormsby in Carson Valley. She learned English rapidly under these circumstances (Hopkins 1883:58). In 1860, upon the death-bed request of Truckee, Sarah and her sister were returned to friends in California and there entered a school run by the Sisters of Charity in San Jose. They were there only a short while when pressure from the local White citizenry forced their removal. Upon her return to Nevada, Sarah continued her education on her own while working as a domestic in and around Virginia City. One newspaper (Helena Daily Herald 11/4/1891) account notes that she spent a goodly portion of her meager earnings on books, a reasonably scarce commodity on the frontier at the time. She states candidly, however, that she always had trouble with reading (Hopkins 1883:58).
Sarah began to take an active interest in Indian affairs in 1866, when with her brother, Naches, she was requested to go to Fort McDermitt to discuss scattered depredations in the region. They were also requested by the army to try to convince Old Winnemucca and his band to come to Fort McDermitt to be settled on a reservation. At this time, Sarah began a series of run-ins with agents in the vicinity over a number of inequities, including the meager provisions being given the people. She spoke openly against the policy of the agent at Pyramid Lake, which required that the people turn over 2/3 of their produce and then feed themselves and take their next year's seed from the remainder. Sarah's hostilities extended to the missionaries who by this time were taking over agent positions in the Indian Service. She notes that these "so-called Christians" were mainly concerned with money and had few truly benevolent feelings toward the people. She vividly describes the issue of clothing to the Shoshones near Battle Mountain by Colonel Dodge, on which occasion she acted as interpreter:
Oh such an issue! It was enough to make a doll laugh. A family numbering eight persons got two blankets, three shirts, no dress goods. Some got a fishhook and a line; some got one and a half yards of flannel, red and blue.
… In the morning some of the men went around with only one leg dressed in red flannel…. And this man called himself a Christian, too. (Hopkins 1883:86-7)
In the ensuing years to 1875, Sarah worked periodically as an interpreter for the military at Ft. McDermitt and Camp Harney. She remained convinced throughout her life that her people fared better under the military than the Indian Bureau. In fact, a subtle, but interesting picture of the value of being "prisoners" of the military can be drawn from her accounts. At one point, for example, Old Winnemucca even pleaded with the commander at Ft. McDermitt that he and his band be taken prisoners instead of being sent to Malheur Reservation (Hopkins 1883:121). Regular rations, clothing of better quality, and protection from White depredations far outweighed the inconvenience of confinement.
There was to be one notable exception to Sarah's rule about agents, and the association with him was of major-importance in her life. His name was Samuel Parrish, recently appointed agent at Malheur, Oregon. Parrish offered Sarah a position as interpreter in 1875, and later a post as teacher's aid. He immediately put the people to work at agriculture, with the following admonition:
I have not come here to do nothing; I have no time to throw away. I have come to show you how to work, and work we must. I am not like the man who has just left you. I can't kneel down and pray for sugar and flour and potatoes to rain down as he did. I am a bad man; but I will teach you all how to work, so you can do for your selves by-and-by … I will build a school house and my brother's wife will teach your children how to read like the White children. I want 3 young men to learn to be blacksmiths and 3 to learn to be carpenters. I want to teach you all to do like White people. (Hopkins 1883:1060)
Parrish kept his promises and the first year the agricultural venture was a success. The people kept all of the produce for themselves with the exception of items sold to Parrish and his employees. Unlike previous agents, Parrish paid for his needs at a labor rate of one dollar per day per man. His staff did likewise.
But all came to naught in the following year when Parrish was dismissed—he was not a good Christian—and replaced by William Rinehart. Rinehart's policies precipitated trouble almost from the beginning. Most importantly, he changed Parrish's policy on land and labor. He also discharged Sarah when she reported his misdeeds to the military, an action for which she did not blame him.
In his opening speech to the people at Malheur, Rinehart stated clearly that "the land you are living on is government land. If you do well and are willing to work for the government, the government will give you work" (Hopkins 1883). Egan, spokesman for one group of Paiutes on the reservation answered:
Our father, we cannot read; we do not understand anything; we don't want the Big Father in Washington to fool with us. We are men, not children. He sends one man to say one thing and another to say something else. The man who just left us told us the land was ours, and what we do on it was ours. And you say it is government land and not ours. You may be right. We love money as well as you. It is a great deal of money to pay. There are a great many of us and when we work, we all work. (Hopkins 1883:124)
Not understanding Rinehart's labor policy, and expecting that work done would bring one dollar per day per man, everyone reported for work and then for pay. Rinehart's answer came not in cash, but in issues, labeled conveniently, "blankets - $6, coats - $5, pants...
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A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff (essay date 1987)
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...
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H. David Brumble III (essay date 1988)
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,...
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A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff (essay date 1990)
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...
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William C. Strange (essay date 1991)
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...
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Kathleen Mullen Sands (essay date 1992)
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...
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Brigitte Georgi-Findlay (essay date 1993)
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...
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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....
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