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Celebration ‘plants seeds’ for future Washo generations

Jeff Munson
Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune / A Washoe dancer performs at last year's festival.
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Lake Tahoe remains as sacred to the Washo people today as it did 150, 400, and even 1,000 years ago, when Da ow a ga, which means “edge by the lake” was a place where native people gathered to celebrate the seeds of life.

Today, those seeds remain firmly planted in Lake Tahoe’s culture, well beyond the neon lights, the highway traffic and sun worshippers on the beach. The Washo culture is Tahoe’s only authentic culture, where the lake and the mountains around it remain spiritually aligned with planet Earth.

This weekend marks the 15th annual Wa She Shu It Deh Native American Arts Festival for which the tribe showcases its rich heritage in the forms of basketmaking and dance.

What has budded out of the festival is a cultural celebration that offers a deeper meaning and more natural way of living together, said Washo Tribal Chairman Brian Wallace.

Behind his calm, soft voice and dark brown eyes lies wisdom as he show signs of both sadness and optimism when he speaks of his people in both metaphor and conversation.

Conflict has been a large part of the Washo people’s history for the last 150 years, not only with Lake Tahoe’s rapid development and exploitation of the land and water but between the generations of natives themselves and the utmost importance of maintaining Washo history and culture.

“History is more about place than time,” Wallace says. “And if any lesson was learned in this long journey home is to understand that you can’t be afraid to live.”

The fundamentals of this celebration are two-fold, Wallace explained. To enlighten the younger members of the tribe about a history at Lake Tahoe that includes trees, land and water. Secondly, to build a bridge to the non-native culture so it may understand what happened to the Washo after Europeans came to Lake Tahoe and Northern Nevada, essentially driving the tribe into virtual extinction.

“We are here to fight for our most important teachers: the elders and the land, and we are using generations of children to match these mountains,” he said. “It is those very tools that allow us to cross the dark, choppy waters of history to be with everybody here today.”

Issues such as water clarity and healthy forests are on the forefront of the Tribe’s vision, Wallace explained, adding that the visit by President Clinton in 1997 and the continued commitment by the federal government to restore the basin’s famed clarity as benchmarks to progress.

Before white men settled in the basin, the ecology of the basin rested in the well-being and balance of living system laws, Wallace explained. The most valuable commodity then was seeds, which sprouted, grew, renewed with clean water and served as the foundation for the process to happen.

“Seeds are the gift of life,” he said. “We still have the ability and opportunity to initiate a cultural transfer into the basin. It is about more life and a more meaningful way to live together and a more responsible way to live on the land.”

In fact, the restoration of Lake Tahoe’s clarity in the eyes of the Washo is a metaphor for helping heal a nation divided by economic injustice, the wars in the Middle East and the degradation of values and heritage, he said.

To the Washo, water is sacred, Wallace explained. The entire culture and language is structured around it.

“In celebrating Lake Tahoe and its waters, the festival is a symbol for us to do our part in building a nation from the ground up. It is not an enterprise for the half-committed and the weak. It translates to helping this great nation lift to a better, higher place. It is about honing the wide symmetries and backgrounds that we share with others and the beauty it gives to us,” he said.

Finally, the festival is meant for children, native and non-native. The more children who are raised knowing of theirs and the native cultural roots, the more seeds they will be able to plant as adults, he said.

“In every day and in every way we are striving to raise our children in a world of responsibility rather than a world of rights,” Wallace said. “The festival is to honor our elders and what they went through and to fulfill their unfinished dreams for the future.”

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