NATIVE AMERICAN RHYMES

Sarah Winnemucca
(1844-1891)


             Thocmetony, Tocmetone, “Shell Flower,” known as Sarah or Sallie, was a Paviotso Paiute woman who struggled throughout most of her life to secure fair treatment for her people.  She was born in 1844 near Humboldt Lake in northern Nevada at a more peaceful time before the arrival of many White outsiders.  Her grandfather, the elder Chief Winnemucca, “The Giver,” was known as Captain Truckee to the Whites; he had guided Captain John C. Frémont across the mountains into California in 1845-1856.  In 1860, he took Thocmetony and some others to the San Joaquín Valley for a brief visit.  By the time they returned home, the young girl had learned a fair amount of English which she improved by staying for a year with the family of Major William Ormsby, a stagecoach agent; later she enrolled at St. Mary’s Convent, but was forced to leave within a month when White parents objected to the presence of an Indian child at the school.
            The origin of the name Winnemucca is uncertain; most accounts refer to one-e-mucca (or winnamuck) to an incident during the visit of Frémont, when the chief was observed wearing only one moccasin (muck, “moccasin”), having taken the mate off to relieve his foot.  The term “one muck,” combining English and Paiute, seems to have stuck, resulting in the peculiar name.
            Meanwhile, her father, younger Chief Winnemucca (Wobitsawahkah), had become a tribal leader and was having difficulty controlling his people in the face of the increasing number of White settlers flowing into Nevada, and finally tension between the two brought on the so-called Paiute War of 1860, which resulted in the establishment of the Paiute Reservation at Pyramid Lake.  But in 1865, aggression against Indian people increased; they were killed at random and their homes were destroyed by raiding soldiers.
            In an effort to avoid further bloodshed, and to help her people, Sarah became an interpreter between Indians and Whites, but in the relentless harassment, her mother, sister, and brother were killed, and she developed a lifelong hatred for the people she felt were primarily responsible for the lack of understanding between the two peoples—the Indian Agents.  She went to live with her brother, Natchez, in 1866, at Pyramid Lake; along with many other Paiute people, she applied to the Army Post at Camp McDermitt for food.  Her knowledge of English impressed the Army officers and she stayed on to serve as official interpreter.
            Although she was a government employee, she protested vigorously against the treatment accorded the Paiute, and in 1870 went to San Francisco to present her case to General John Schofield.  Although sympathetic, he could not help her, pointing out that he had no jurisdiction over the area.  She then went to Gold Hill, Nevada to Senator John P. Jones, a wealthy railroad man and state politician, whom she felt would have the necessary authority.  He gave her moral advice and a $20 gold piece.
            In 1872 the Paiute were moved to Oregon, where they found a brief respite on the Malheur Reservation with Agent Samuel Parrish.  Sarah became his interpreter and then taught at the local school.  But after only four years, Parrish was replaced by William Rinehart, whose policies were such that the Paiute began to leave the Reservation in large numbers.  Many of them, including Chief Winnemucca, joined the Bannock in their 1878 war against the Whites.  Sarah rejected the violence and offered her services to the Army as an interpreter and peacemaker; she undertook a dangerous mission into the heart of the Bannock country and successfully persuaded her father and his band to return to a neutral position. 
            After this experience, and what she considered to be the unjustified removal of all the Paiute to Washington, Sarah stepped up her campaign against the Indian Agents.  Some of them retaliated, attempting to discredit her with charges that she was a liar and a “drunken prostitute”; but her message aroused a wave of popular sympathy.  At this time she married Lieutenant Edward Bartlett, but the two were divorced after a year together, and she married a Paiute man.
            In 1879-1880 the Government paid for Chief Winnemucca and his daughter to go to Washington to argue the Paiute claims.  But although President Hayes and Interior Secretary Carl Schurz both agreed that the tribe should be returned to their own Malheur Reservation, the Indian Agent at Yakima, Washington, did nothing to follow through on the decision.  Many Indians drifted south—but even those who made the trip safely were not given the land allotments which the Winnemuccas had been promised.  Even an 1884 Act of Congress had no effect whatsoever upon the independent conduct of Indian Agents isolated in the Far West. 
            Sarah went on several lecture tours throughout the East, soliciting support for the Paiute struggle for justice.  In 1881 she married Lieutenant Lambert H. Hopkins, and with his support, wrote the book, Life Among the Paiutes, published in 1884, which is a vivid account of Indian life in the period, despite its sometimes uneven presentation.  In the middle 1880s she taught at a reservation school in Nevada.
            But time, and her continuing struggle and its emotional impact were taking their toll; she began to deteriorate mentally and psychologically, and she retired to her sister’s home in Monida, Montana, where she died of tuberculosis on October 16, 1891.  The woman who was called “The Princess” by Whites, and “Mother” by her tribe, was also surely “the most famous Indian woman on the Pacific Coast.”  The city of Winnemucca, in Humboldt County, Nevada, was named for Chief Winnemucca.


Source:  Great North American Indians by Frederick J. Duckstander

 

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