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The Washoe – Lake Tahoe’s first locals

Depending on whom you ask you’re not a “real” Lake Tahoe local until you’ve lived here for ten years. Or 15. Possibly 20. This is such a common subject, I have heard people include their years of residency in their list of professional accomplishments, as in “I have been a Tahoe local for 15 years, and have an extensive background in sales and marketing. I also have figured out how to successfully compost in our alpine environment, so there.”

As I have only lived here for five years, and for the life of me cannot get the hang of composting, I feel a bit slighted when I am dismissed as a transient occupant. Personally, I have never felt more “at home” than I do in South Lake Tahoe, and I have a strong sense of community and responsibility to my adopted hometown. But I probably shouldn’t take this dismissal so personally; we’re pretty much ALL transient occupants of Lake Tahoe compared to the Washoe Tribe.

Washoe tradition indicates their homeland has always included Lake Tahoe. Archaeologists trace the Washoe presence at Lake Tahoe back about two thousand years, with the lake and approximately 10,000 square miles of land surrounding the lake once home to and the responsibility of Lake Tahoe’s original “real locals.” Da ow ga, the Washoe word for “lake” is thought to be the source for “Tahoe.”1

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The Annual Wa She Shu It’ Deh Native American Arts Festival held at the Tallac Historic Site is a celebration of Washoe culture and heritage. Photo credit: Valhalla Summer Festival, Photographer Traci Kennedy.

Discovery of gold and silver attracted immigrants from around the world to the American West, and evidence shows that from 1848 to 1863 the Lake Tahoe area was overrun by miners, settlers and others. By December 1862, the Washoe Tribe had lost all of its lands. After contact with non-Indian cultures (or the “encroachment” as the Washoe and Federal Government describe it), the Washoe endured as a people, with many continuing ties to the lake after being forced from family camps and upland resource areas. They maintained remnants of their cultural traditions even as their leaders struggled for political and social reforms and requested land and protection for their resources.2

Today, approximately 1,500 enrolled members of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California live on “Colonies,” tribal lands scattered in the Reno, Carson Valley, and Gardnerville areas of Nevada and Woodfords, California.  An active tribal government continues to lobby for a land base in the Lake Tahoe basin and works with federal and state agencies and private land owners to protect locations important to Washoe Heritage.3

To learn more about Washoe heritage and culture, visit the following locations:

  • Lam Watah Washoe Heritage Site:  This small archeological site includes many boulders with depressions where native Washoe women ground nuts and grains and prepared food for their families during the summer months.
  • Baldwin Museum:  The Tallac Historic Site holds many treasures and memories of Tahoe’s past, and the Baldwin Museum is the place to start:  exhibits include an introductory video which acquaints the visitor with early life at Tahoe,  a 1930s kitchen, children’s games and toys of yesteryear, the Baldwin Room, and the Washoe Exhibit.
  • Gatekeepers Museum:  Located in Tahoe City, this is a reconstruction of the original Gatekeeper's Cabin - home of the water master who controlled the flow of water out of Lake Tahoe. It now showcases Tahoe history, from its Native inhabitants through the logging era and the establishment of the tourism industry at Lake Tahoe.
  • Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center: Located in neighboring Gardnerville, the Washoe Room of the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center illustrates the rich Washoe culture through murals, basketry, bead work and photographs.
  • The Annual Wa She Shu It’ Deh Native American Arts Festival: Featuring native arts and crafts, food vendors, basket-making, raffles, native American dance and drum performances, the Washoe re-unite at the Tallac Historic Site in South Lake Tahoe to honor their culture and heritage during their annual Wa She Shu It’ Deh Native American Arts Festival. Sponsored by the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, the festival takes place at the Valhalla Grand Hall and Lawn and is free to attend. Look for the festival to return the last weekend of July 2014.

Source: The Washoe - First People of the Lake -- USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit

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Georgette Hartley

Georgette loves adventuring outdoors and can usually be found exploring the trails, lakes, and peaks of the Sierra Nevada with her family.

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