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...
(The entire section is 4880 words.)