No visit to the California Trail Interpretive Center would be complete without learning about the Washoe Indian tribe. This nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers was collectively part of the Great Basin people group. The Washoe were distinct from other native tribes because of their unique language and cultural practices.
“The People from Here”
According to legend, Gewe, the coyote, brought the Washoe people to the Lake Tahoe region and told them this would be their new home. Then the goddess Nentašu empowered the plants and animals to grow strong, providing food and medicine for the Washoe to thrive. Making their home along the majestic Sierra Nevadas, the Washoe tribe settled into the surrounding regions, which included:
- Honey Lake
- Lake Tahoe
- Pyramid Lake
- Truckee Valley
- Carson Valley
- West Walker River
Unique Culture and Language
There were several indigenous groups in the Great Basin region, and while the other tribes shared various dialects of the Numic language, the Washoe language – Wašiw – is a distinct branch of the Hokan language, setting the Washoe tribe apart. Culturally, the Washoe people were very family oriented, and life in Washoe settlements revolved around the structure of their family groups. These family groups were also different than modern conceptions of family, often comprising extended family members, more than one husband or wife, and even non-blood relatives. Many family groups were identified by which members were living together in winter housing settlements, called Galis dungal, which were larger, more well-constructed homes for the harsh winter weather.
Westward Expansion and Shifting Dynamics
Westward Expansion, particularly the gold rush, had a dramatic and traumatizing effect on the Washoe people. Initially, they avoided contact with white settlers, but it soon became impossible as hundreds of families began to cross the Sierra Nevadas. The Washoe had some connection with the infamous Donner party, bringing them food and supplies when they could, but eventually, they grew horrified at the cannibalism they witnessed, and this deepened their distrust of the white settlers. Eventually, the burden of so many settlers depleted the resources of the land, such as the pine nuts and wild game the tribe relied on, forcing the Washoe to leave many of their tribal lands and seek jobs among the settlers.
The Washoe People Today
It took many years for the Washoe people to win back some of their previously owned land from the US Government, including a petition to protect a sacred space, De ek Wadapushave (Cave Rock), at Lake Tahoe. There are only an estimated 2,000 people left in the Washoe tribe, officially known as the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. They continue to have strong roots in the Lake Tahoe region and host several events each year.
The Legend of Ong and More
We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the incredible history and ordeals of the Washoe people. When you visit the California Trail Interpretive Center, you can learn more about the Washoe people, and their customs and legends; including the story of Ong, a giant man-eating bird who nested at the center of Lake Tahoe and whose wings were so strong, they could bend trees when he flew near the shore. Plan your visit today to learn about the Washoe and the other tribes of the Great Basin region.