Her eyes fixed on the horizon, the Paiute woman is far from home but always striving.
In a city filled to bursting with tributes to America’s most powerful political leaders, almost all of them of men, Benjamin Victor’s bronze of Northern Paiute princess Sarah Winnemucca feels especially understated amid the titans of Washington and the household names of Emancipation Hall. Call it the rank sentimentalism of a native son around Nevada Day, but she is my favorite work of all.
Her people called her Thocmetony, after the shellflower that grew in what would become Northern Nevada. In a few years she would grow in the American consciousness from an English-speaking curiosity into an outspoken representative of oppressed Native Americans.
She is one of our state’s great historical figures, but it’s not for easy reasons. With so much written about her, it’s possible to forget that much of her life was spent fighting mismatched battles. She was often on the losing side in the fight for Native American rights and against tribal relocation.
As Nevada enters its sesquicentennial, you’ll read plenty about the state’s kings of business and politics. There will be no shortage of copy about casino moguls and mining barons, and that’s all fitting and fine. They deserve their space.
But consider small Thocmetony in the late 1840s, frightened and silent, as she peeked out from her sagebrush-covered hiding place and watched the “owl people” with their white skin and their strange beards keep coming day after day. The daughter of Chief Winnemucca, she was placed there by her parents and told that, if she was found by the strangers, she would be carried off and eaten.
Now imagine her just a few years later after learning English and attending school. Her knowledge of the new language would carry her into the white world, in time as a brave spokeswoman.
Blessed with a fearless tongue, she would give more than 300 speeches from San Francisco to Washington, raising awareness of the plight of the Paiute and the importance of education, at a time when her people were herded like cattle onto the Yakama Reservation. She raised awareness not only of the injustice of the reservation system, but of the humanity of Native Americans.
Shellflower was no shrinking violet: “For shame! For shame! You dare to cry out Liberty, when you hold us in places against our will, driving us from place to place as if we were beasts.”
And she appreciated the power of biting irony: “I would place all the Indians of Nevada on ships in our harbor, take them to New York and land them there as immigrants, that they might be received with open arms.”
Hurled into the breach of American history, she served as an interpreter and negotiator for the Paiute and the U.S. Army. She even managed to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes and Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz to push for improved conditions for her people.
Winnemucca’s 1883 autobiography, “Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims,” was the first book produced by a Native American woman and is still in print. At the Native American school she founded, students were taught their lessons in their first language and in English.
She understood that communicating with the endless migration of newcomers was not simply a way to get ahead: It was also a matter of survival.
The Paiute princess managed to move between the white and Indian worlds until the end of her life, Nevada scholar Sally Zanjani observes in her remarkable biography. Winnemucca continued to serve as an interpreter and mediator until her death after a sudden illness on Oct. 16, 1891, at Henry’s Lake, Mont. She was 47. Her grave is unmarked.
In death she has emerged from obscurity. Books are written about her, and the 2005 addition of the Victor sculpture to the National Statuary Hall Collection ensures her a place of respect and remembrance. The artist himself called his subject “an icon of human rights, an empowering figure in women’s history, and an advocate for education. Sarah was one of the most determined and compassionate people that ever lived.”
Not because she saved her people, became politically powerful or materially successful, but because she tried against impossible odds to do what she thought was right.
Sarah Winnemucca had the courage of her convictions.
Her statue stands in a place of honor in our nation’s capital. Her brave story deserves a place in the hearts of all Nevadans.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.