Sarah Winnemucca Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."