She was born in 1844 to the Northern Paiute people near the Humboldt River. Her parents named her Thocmetony after the beautiful shell flower that manages to bloom following even the harshest winter on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada.
Her given name would come to symbolize her tenacious struggle. The nation would eventually know her as Sarah Winnemucca, an outspoken advocate of the rights of her people at a time most Native Americans were voiceless and victimized by the great migration West.
“She is important and ends up being one of America’s most prominent Indian rights activists, and she does come from this side of the Sierra,” UNLV history professor Michael Green observes. “You don’t often think of ‘Nevada’ and ‘Native American rights.’ ”
She began life fearing the “cannibal owl people,” white settlers who wore large beards,” and at times was hid by her parents with her little sister in a hole covered with sagebrush. In a few years, she understood that those Owl People were not just an interpretation of Paiute legend but also a danger to her own people’s way of life.
She would recall in her autobiography, “Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims,” “I was a very small child when the first white people came into our country. They came like a lion, yes, like a roaring lion, and have continued so ever since, and I have never forgotten their first coming.”
Thanks to grandfather Chief Truckee’s relationships with a variety of white officials, Sarah was given privileges unknown to most others in her tribe. She lived for a time with Major William Ormsby and his family, befriending his daughter Elizabeth, and developed her foreign language skills — English, that is — at a mission school near San Jose, Calif.
But she would never forget the first time she was allowed inside a white settler’s home.
“Oh, what pretty things met my eyes,” Winnemucca recalled. “I was looking all around the room, and I saw beautiful white cups, and every beautiful thing on something high and long, and around it some things that were red.
“I said to my sister, ‘Do you know what those are?’ for she had been to the house before with my mother and brothers. She said, ‘That high thing is what they use when eating, and the white cups are what they drink hot water from, and the red things you see is what they sit upon when they are eating.’ There was one now near us, and I thought if I could sit upon it I should be so happy! I said to my mother, ‘Can I sit on that one?’ She said, ‘No, they would whip you.’ I did not say any more, but sat looking at the beautiful chair.”
The most valuable lesson she learned from dealing with the whites was the power of the English language. Without it, the Paiute would be all but defenseless.
Those communication skills would be invaluable in the years to come, whether she was appearing before capacity theater audiences as costumed “Princess of the Paiutes” or speaking on behalf of her people in Washington, D.C. Winnemucca’s pleas for understanding and rights for the Paiute were sometimes patronized and often ignored, but her tenacity earned her a place in Nevada history.
As the years passed, more whites arrived. They claimed more land and pushed the Paiute into ever smaller areas. In return for staying in one area, known as a reservation, the Paiute were promised food and clothing and tools for farming. Every promise was broken, and the Paiute became hungrier and more desperate as the seasons passed.
After Chief Truckee died, his son and Sarah’s father, Winnemucca, became chief. Sarah played a role as interpreter and, later, as a witness to events in the Paiute War of 1860.
In 1864, Chief Winnemucca took his family to Virginia City to tell of the Paiutes’ hardship. By then, Virginia City had become Nevada’s greatest boomtown, with more than 15,000 people, following the nearby discovery of silver and gold in 1859.
Chief Winnemucca chose young Sarah to tell the Paiutes’ story to the whites. The audiences were very impressed with Sarah’s ability to communicate. Although Chief Winnemucca wore a feathered headdress, it was Sarah who interpreted his words to the whites. She spoke clearly, and the audiences at Sutcliff’s Music Hall were impressed and entertained.
From Virginia City, Sarah and her family traveled to San Francisco and performed at the Metropolitan Theater. People applauded, but they were more entertained than educated about the plight of the troubled Paiute.
Sarah often struggled in her personal life, but she never stopped speaking out on behalf of the Northern Paiute.
Future generations would sometimes judge her as being too friendly with the whites, but others have taken a more balanced view. Without her voice in the wilderness, it’s worth wondering whether the Paiute would have been heard at all.
As hard as it is to imagine, given her remarkable and brave existence, there was a time not many years ago when Northern Nevada education officials debated whether to name an elementary school after Winnemucca, whose life included several marriages. Justice eventually prevailed.
Late in her life, Sarah started the Peabody School near Lovelock. It was named for her friend Elizabeth Peabody. When the school closed, Sarah left Nevada and lived with her sister, Elma, in Montana.
In her autobiography, she would summarize her tribe’s world view:
“My people are ignorant of worldly knowledge, but they know what love means and what truth means. They have seen their dear ones perish around them because their white brothers have given them neither love nor truth. Are not love and truth better than learning? My people have no learning. They do not know anything about the history of the world, but they see the Spirit-Father in everything. The beautiful world talks to them of their Spirit-Father. They are innocent and simple, but they are brave and will not be imposed upon. They are patient, but they know black is not white.”
Author and academic Sally Zanjani, whose many works include a biography of Winnemucca, notes that Sarah always tried to keep the promise she made to her people.
“Once Winnemucca promised the Paiutes that she would work for them ‘while there was life in my body’—and so she did,” Zanjani writes. “She personally brought the Paiute cause to secretaries of the Interior, army officers, legislators, and senators. She testified before Congress. She appealed to public opinion through interviews, newspaper statements and her many impassioned lectures in theaters, churches, and parlors on both coasts severely criticizing the reservation system.”
Sarah Winnemucca died on Oct. 17, 1891, perhaps without fully understanding the important role she had played in the lives of her people. Many of her best efforts had failed, but her courageous fight would be long remembered.
“She became a nationally and, I would say, internationally known figure,” Green says. “We also tend to forget that she was a woman in a time when women weren’t expected to make the kind of noise she made. And she did it. She’s also a women’s rights pioneer.”
In 2005, a bronze sculpture of Sarah Winnemucca was placed in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the nation’s Capitol in Washington, D.C., to honor her role in fighting for the rights of the Northern Paiute.
In one hand, the statue holds a copy of her important life story. In the other hand, she holds a shell flower forever in bloom.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (702) 383-0295.