INCLINE VILLAGE -- An American Indian elder told three U.S. senators Tuesday that they should return Lake Tahoe to its rightful owner: the Washoe Tribe.
Before delivering a prayer in his native language to open the annual Lake Tahoe Summit, Charles Walker Sr. asked Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., John Ensign, R-Nev., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to prepare "papers" needed to return the lake to his tribe.
"This day is coming," said Walker about such a return.
He said his grandparents told him when he was a boy that he would someday "stand here" and issue his plea.
The clan believes that the lake has "healing abilities," Walker said.
Walker is the father of Washoe Tribe Chairman Waldo Walker.
The chairman did not return a call inquiring whether his father was speaking for himself or the tribe.
In a tribal history posted on their website, the Washoe maintain the tribe has a 9,000-year history at Lake Tahoe and refer to the current control of the lake by the federal government, residential land owners and commercial enterprises as the "occupation" of their land.
"The total occupation of the Washoe peoples' former lands took only a few short years," according to the tribal history. "Before occupation, the Washoe people lived a seasonal and nomadic life of hunting and plant gathering. Summer was spent at Lake Tahoe hunting, fishing, and collecting medicinal plants, roots, and berries for the winter season."
The Washoe is not the only tribe to claim rights to Nevada. The Shoshone had contended for decades in court cases that about one-third of the state is the tribes under the Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863.
None of the senators made any comments on Walker's request.
As Walker was speaking, state Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, whispered in his ear that he should cut short his speech on the lake's ownership and deliver the prayer.
Lee, a friend of Reid's, served as master of ceremonies for the summit, an annual forum in which senators discuss efforts to improve the clarity of the lake and clean up the surrounding forests.
"He was supposed to give a prayer, but he made a political statement," Lee said later. "The gentleman spoke from his heart. He would like to go back (to) when they had full access to the lake. We are trying to continue to keep the lake as wonderful as when they were there."
About 1,500 people are Washoe members. The tribe has colonies in Gardnerville, Carson City and Woodfords, Calif.
In recent years, the federal concession at Meeks Bay in California was placed under Washoe control.
Not until explorer John C. Fremont visited the area in 1844 did a person of European descent know the 22-mile long by 12-mile wide lake at the 6,225-foot elevation in the Sierra Nevada even existed. The word "Tahoe" comes from the Washoe word for "edge of the lake."
With the coming of settlers in the 1850s, the lake quickly came under California government control .
Nevada and California agreed to divide the lake when Nevada became a state in 1864. Roughly one-third lies in Nevada, while the rest is in California.
The Washoe Tribe in 1951 petitioned the Indian Claims Commission for return of its lands. In 1970, the tribe was awarded $5 million.
Daniel Burns, a spokesman for Gov. Jim Gibbons, said any decision on returning the lake to the Washoe is up to the federal government.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.