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Hopeful Washoe want to end years of waiting

Jenifer Ragland

In the flurry of discussions and policy decisions on Lake Tahoe’s environment, an underlying theme of this weekend’s Presidential Summit is correcting the injustice that forced the Washoe people from their homeland more than 150 years ago.

“More than ever, recently, we have been engaged directly with the people who have the opportunity to make substantial changes in favor of the tribe,” said Brian Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada. “We have a lot of hope that something good and wonderful may happen this weekend. Some of us have worked our whole lives for this moment.”

Wallace said it is clear that the U.S. Forest Service and the White House are committed to rectifying the situation by dedicating some land back to the tribe, but the details are still under negotiation.

He said he has been working around the clock to reach an agreement with the Forest Service that all parties will sign off on.

“This 172 years is coming down to 72 hours,” Wallace said. “What we’ve been saying all along is until there’s a substantive commitment, it’s nothing more than what we’ve seen and want to avoid, which is repeating the cruel lessons of the past. That would be an abysmal failure to us.”

Expectations are that President Clinton – the seventh American president to hear appeals from the Washoe people – will announce any news to the nation on Saturday.

Restoring a tribal presence at Lake Tahoe will mean that the Washoe elders, many of whom were born on the shores of the lake, will finally be able to return home.

“I’m thinking about, if this happens, what those elders are going to be feeling – time is going to stop for just a moment,” Wallace said. “Hopefully nature will shout or breathe a sigh of relief.”

In addition to a piece of the lake to call their own, tribe members want the land in order to build a cultural center in which they would exhibit and share the history of the tribe and house living artisans to demonstrate the traditional customs.

Finally, the tribe hopes to gain a lasting reintroduction to Washoe stewardship of basin resources.

Because most Native American lifestyles and cultures are based on a relationship with the land, Wallace said the Washoe people have a special knowledge of the Lake Tahoe region that the local agencies should be using.

Returning homelands to native peoples is not something the federal government does every day, Wallace said, which is why any action taken this weekend will have enormous historical significance.

“We look to the future with hope and ambition, and some caution, because this isn’t the end. For us this is really, truly a new beginning,” Wallace said. “It’s something that everyone has in common, this dream, this thing that whispers in their soul – to return home at last.”


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