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9 Native land bases have steadily disappeared since the first European colonists set foot in the Americas. Armed with an ethos that held Native people to be “savage” or at best “uncivilized,” newcomers felt no compunction in appropriating their lands. By the time EuroAmericans arrived in Washoe country in the mid-1800s, a well-oiled colonial machine was systematically displacing Indian families. It did not help that Washoe territory contained some of the richest mineral bodies in North America. Ranchers, miners, and capitalists seeking their fortunes ignored Washoe claims to Sierra lands going back thousands of years. Before Euro-Americans arrived the Washoe controlled a wide swath of the eastern Sierra. Villages occupied valleys, river basins, and, during the summer months, Lake Tahoe’s shores. Communities engaged in cooperative ventures, celebrations, and mourning rites; they resolved territorial disputes through diplomacy and warfare. Specialists maintained and passed down vast knowledge of antelope and deer management, plant cultivation, fishing methods, food processing, and healing arts. The California gold rush and the subsequent discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada in the mid-nineteenth century brought thousands of foreigners into Washoe lands. Newcomers viewed the sweeping valleys , rugged mountains, and numerous waterways as an empty Eden whose minerals, timber, grasslands, plants, animals, and fish were free for the taking. By the time federal officials got involved, the best properties had been privatized, deforested, and depleted. The Washoes had become strangers in their own land. The dominating American presence rapidly eclipsed a tenuous peace long held by the Washoes with their neighbors, the Northern Paiute, Western Shoshone, Maidu, and Miwok peoples. Age-old diplomatic and defense strategies no longer availed the small Sierra community. o n e The Center 10 cave rock   Daowaga (Lake Tahoe) was the keystone for Washoe cultural identity . In 1961 Tribal Chair Earl James explained that twentieth-century Washoes had learned from their ancestors, who had learned “from their forefathers,” that Tahoe was the center—the heart—of their lands. For countless generations Cave Rock had loomed above this center, its use restricted to the most powerful shamans.1 Today most Washoes speak about Cave Rock with reserve. Darrel Bender, a tribal elder and nephew of the late shaman Dick Bagley, noted that “Indian doctors didn’t explain to us what they did up there but it was something to do with power” and involved extremely “secretive and sacred rites.”2 The last doctor seen using Cave Rock was Mike Dick (sometimes called “Blind Mike”). Accompanied by his wife, Dick stood on a rock in the water near the cave and attempted to use a secret, underwater entrance. He began reciting a song given to him through dreams, and the rock started to sink. His wife screamed at the sight, disrupting the incantation , and Dick was left standing knee-deep in the water.3 Archaeological evidence corroborates the oral tradition that claims ancestral Washoes did not use the cave as a shelter or homesite. Had it been one, archaeologists would have found evidence of human habitation in the form of tools and debris. The items recovered there, including the oldest artifacts—an inscribed mammoth bone and three basalt projectile points—imply a more esoteric use.4 For thousands of years Lake Tahoe drew Washoe families together during the spring and summer months. Members of distinct, far-flung communities traveled to the lake’s shores from their winter homes in the eastern Sierra foothills and valleys. The Welmelti, or northern Washoes, inhabited the valleys and foothills around what is today Reno, Nevada, and Susanville, California. The Pawaltis, or valley-dwellers, lived just east of Lake Tahoe in the present-day Carson and Eagle valleys. To the south lived the Hangalelti, or southerners, whose traditional territory ranged as far south as Sonora Pass, California. The western reaches of the Sierra provided a fluid boundary, its exact location dependent on encroachments or retreats by Washoes and neighboring California communities. The range of the piñon pine, bordering Nevada’s Great Basin, delineated an eastern border. The Washoes depended on the piñons’ nutritious fruits, or pine nuts, to get them the center   11 through the winter. Communities took advantage of the eastern Sierra’s ecological diversity and tailored their lives to an annual seasonal cycle. Spring announced the beginning of the “big time,” the gathering of the people at Lake Tahoe. The young and healthy were the first to set out from their valley homes. A trek that today takes perhaps thirty minutes...


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MARC Record
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