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  • The Small Shall Be Strong: A History of Lake Tahoe’s Washoe Indians by Matthew S. Makley
  • Nicholas Barron (bio)
The Small Shall Be Strong: A History of Lake Tahoe’s Washoe Indians
by Matthew S. Makley
University of Massachusetts Press, 2018

due in part to their size and late engagement with colonial developments, the Washoe Indians of the Great Basin have often been overlooked by historians and ethnohistorians. With The Small Shall Be Strong: A History of Lake Tahoe’s Washoe Indians, Matthew Makley works to fill in this gap with an accessible account of Washoe history that illustrates the ways in which “small” tribes have significantly shaped Indigenous sovereignty “while fighting out of a corner” (17).

In the first half of the book, Makley narrates the arrival of Anglo- Americans and the subsequent transformation of Washoe life. These opening chapters depict the Washoe’s movement from relatively “isolated” and loosely connected family units built around a seasonal cycle of pine nut gathering, hunting, and fishing to a more aggregated community surrounded by a growing and (sometimes) violent extractive settler economy beginning in the late nineteenth century. The second half of the book explores the strategies deployed by the Washoe to maintain their traditional practices in the midst of assimilatory U.S. policies. Makley homes in on the life and work of Washoe individuals who dexterously and creatively engaged select aspects of settler society during the early to mid-twentieth century. These individuals secured access to their coveted pine nut forests, developed “Indian colonies” in California and Nevada, and constructed a supra-Washoe polity through the Indian Reorganization Act. The latter half of the century presented various opportunities for the Washoe to operationalize their novel political structures as they actively protected culturally and religiously significant sites, including De?ek Wadapuš (also known as Cave Rock). Victories like these led Makley to conclude that while the Washoe are no doubt the subjects of persistent colonization, their history teems with efforts “to fight for a future that maintains their identity” as the people of the Lake Tahoe region (186–87).

A particularly notable strength of Makley’s account is his ability to revive the tribal history, a paradigm of Indigenous studies that has been vivisected for its depiction of static tribal cultures and limited variety of sources (among other factors). Makley confronts these concerns by combining typical archival documents with Indigenous testimony and oral historical [End Page 150] interviews. Additionally, he couples his discussion of sociocultural persistence with attention to drastic shifts in Washoe political and economic subjectivity. As a result, Makley avoid tropes of romantic resistance that have come to characterize much of tribal history. Within this more dynamic narrative, the Washoe appear less as simplified victims or subaltern heroes and more as creative historical actors who selectively engaged settler society to manifest their own political visions. Additionally, recent literature on the Great Basin has been relatively limited compared to the neighboring Plateau and Southwest. Building upon the recent efforts of Ned Blackhawk to make Ute, Paiute, and Shoshone stories more central in our understanding of battles for Indigenous sovereignty within the entanglements of empire, Makley’s study of the Washoe wonderfully expands the historical scope of these struggles.

As with any attempt to examine significant temporal ground, there are areas where the narrative could be extended. In examining post–World War II Washoe governance, Makley argues that the Indian Claims Commission enabled the Washoe to “[win] federal recognition of their status as the original inhabitants of the eastern Sierra” (163). A deeper consideration of the ideological politics of the ICC might point to additional interpretations. Operating under Euro-American ideologies of political nationalism and property, the ICC compelled Indigenous claimants to narrate their historical connection to a discrete “homeland” in terms of “exclusive use and occupancy.” Makley notes how prior to colonization the Washoe viewed the land as part of a “body of tools—resources” (23). While these resources corresponded to specific families, and permission had to be granted to cross or use territory, this does not necessarily mean that Washoe families conceived of land in terms of collectively held “property.” This suggests that the ICC might...


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pp. 150-151
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