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Sarah Winnemucca - Northern Paiute Author, Advocate, Activist
Sarah Winnemucca, 1844 - 1891
Author, Advocate and Activist
Sarah Winnemucca was born in western Nevada, in the Humboldt Sink, sometime around 1844. Sarah herself was not sure of the year she was born. She was an advocate and activist for her people and the first Native American woman to publish in the English language and secure a copyright. Her book, Life Among the Paiutes - Their Wrongs and Claims, was an autobiographical account of her people, the Paiutes during their first forty years of European contact.
"When I think of my past life, and the bitter trials I have endured, I can scarcely believe I live, and yet I do; and, with the help of Him who notes the sparrow’s fall, I mean to fight for my down-trodden race while life lasts."
- Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, 1883 from Life Among The Paiutes
Sarah lived in two worlds. She was born into the old ways, the traditions and freedom of her people. Much of her adult life, however, was spent among the white society. Living in two worlds was not an easy burden to carry, yet she did well to stand up for the rights of her people.
Sarah was Born in the Humboldt Sink and Lake Area
Do you know what a sink is?
Source of Paiute History
Some of her people saw her as a collaborator with the U.S. Army who killed many of their people. Historians see her writing as an important primary source of the Paiutes and their history. She was an activist and has received positive attention for her works and efforts to help her people. The Nevada Writers Hall of Fame inducted her into the society in 1993. A bronze statue by sculptor Benjamin Victor stands in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol. Replicas of this statue can be seen around Nevada.
Sarah's father was Chief Winnemucca, an influential leader of a small Paiute band. Her grandfather was Truckee (Tru-ki-zo). Truckee was friendly with the white people and guided John C. Fremont in 1843-45 with a survey and map expedition across the Great Basin into California. Truckee also fought in the Mexican-American War.
Truckee wanted Sarah to be educated in the ways of the white people. To accomplish this goal, he took her to the home of William Ormsby in Carson City, Nevada, in 1858. Sarah quickly became one of the very few Paiutes at that time in Nevada who could read and write in English.
Major William Ormsby, 1814 - 1860
Numaga, 1830 - 1871
Pyramid Lake War
William Ormsby was killed in 1860, during the first battle of the Pyramid Lake War. William Ormsby commanded the militia groups from Virginia City, Nevada and Numaga was the leader of the Paiutes. Ormsby was killed along with 76 of his troops. The rest of the militia hid out in the darkness after the battle then were able to return to Virginia City.
When silver was discovered in the Comstock Lode, miners came to the area in droves, settlers and ranchers then followed, depleting or destroying food sources for the Paiute. This led to the first battle of the Pyramid Lake War.
In 1872, Sarah's family moved to the Malheur Reservation in the state of Oregon, which was for the Bannock and the Northern Paiute. Sarah taught in a local school there and became interpreter for Samuel Parrish, the Indian Agent for the reservation. Parrish established an agricultural program and worked well with the Paiutes.
When William Rinehart replaced Parrish as agent, things began to change for the Paiute for the worse. Rinehart refused to pay the Paiute workers for their agricultural labor and alienated many tribal leaders. Conditions at the reservation became intolerable and supplies meant for the Paiutes were sold by Rinehart to white settlers. In 1878 people started leaving the reservation to fend for themselves.
This is when the Bannock War began and Sarah worked as translator, scout and message carrier for the U.S. Army. The Army held her in high regard. Because Sarah also held the army in high regard, she advocated military administration of the reservations in hopes of a better life for her people.
In the summer of 1878, from June to August, the Shoshone-Bannock of southern Idaho and the Paiute of northern Nevada gathered forces and were ready to fight for their rights.
The Shoshone-Bannock (Paiute) tribes had been placed on the Fort Hall Reservation in southeastern Idaho after the Bear River Massacre of 1863 in Idaho. Although they were given over one million acres of land, the tribes struggled to survive because they had lived a subsistence way of life (hunting and gathering). Land on the reservation was not conducive to a subsistence-based way of survival. The game quickly declined and government supplies was not adequate enough to feed the people. The need to survive created divisions between the different tribes. European settlers were encroaching upon the reservation lands, making survival even more difficult for the tribes.
These factors and many others, plus skirmishes between tribe and tribe, U.S. military and tribes, resulted in the war. After the war, some scattered groups of Bannock managed to find places to return to their way of life. Most of the Bannocks were subdued and returned to the reservation.
When the Paiute were forced to the Yakima Indian Reservation in the state of Washington, after the Bannock War, Sarah began a series of lectures on the plight of her people. She lectured across California and Nevada. Because she had a job with the army, she was not required to live on the reservation in Yakima and was free to travel. She went to Washington with her father to speak with Carl Schurz, then the Secretary of the Interior. Sarah received permission from Schurz to let the Paiutes return to Malheur Reservation, but it had to be at their own expense. The promise from Schurz went unfulfilled for years.
Sarah met Lewis H. Hopkins in San Francisco, California, while on a lecture tour. They were married and Hopkins supported her dedication and efforts. In Boston, she received help for promoting her speaking career from two sisters, Elizabeth Peabody and Mary Peabody Mann. Mary helped Sarah to compile her lectures into a book, Life Among the Paiutes, which was published in 1883.
I have not contended for Democrat, Republican, Protestant or Baptist for an agent. I have worked for freedom, I have laboured to give my race a voice in the affairs of the nation.— Sarah Winnemucca
Return to Nevada
Back in Nevada, Sarah built a school for Native American children. The school promoted the lifestyle and language of her people. The school was in operation until 1887 when the Dawes Severalty Act required Native American children to be enrolled in English boarding schools.
In 1887, Sarah's husband died. Sarah spent the last few remaining years of her life in seclusion. She died in 1891 from tuberculosis.
Sarah Winnemucca, In Her Footprints ~
Prehistoric Lake Lahontan
Note From Author
The Humboldt Sink, an intermittent dry lake bed, and the Carson Sink are part of the large prehistoric Lake Lahontan, which existed about 13,000 years ago during the last glacial age (ice age). Archaeological evidence shows that humans lived in the area since at least 2000 years ago. The hunting and fishing from Lake Lahontan, when it was always full, kept the Northern Paiute tribes supplied with an abundance of foods. Today, the marshlands around the area are a habitat reserve for many types of migratory birds.
Living in the same area where Sarah Winnemucca came from has been very interesting for me. I have been to many places where Sarah and her people lived, walked through the Truckee River Gorge where the first battle of the Pyramid Lake War was fought, and picnicked with family by Pyramid Lake. The lake is so beautiful. The Paiute tribe of today carry on their traditional culture and heritage. I love to go to their craft fairs and the historical society here in Reno to see many artifacts and history of the Paiute.
© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns